For as long as anyone remembered, the border was a dusty track of red sun-baked earth that separated the tidy communal lands in Mhondoro, where the Shona people grew maize, from the fenced farms and private hunting reserves where white farmers grew tobacco and foreign tourists shot antelope.
Young men and women crossed over to work on estates like John Dell, Solitude and Damvuri but hurried back before dusk lest they be arrested for trespass. In the communal lands, children watched that the cattle weren’t confiscated for grazing on white lands. One night in 1998, a young man called Julius was fatally shot on the Damvuri hunting reserve on suspicion that he was poaching wildlife meant for paying guests. Border relations, villagers say, deteriorated from that day on.
A little over a year later, over 200 villagers from Mhondoro walked into Damvuri, a 32,000-acre private game reserve, as part of a nationwide wave of farm invasions that reverberated across the world. At the time, about 4,500 predominantly white farmers owned 11 million hectares, or about 35 per cent of all agricultural land in Zimbabwe while the black population was squeezed onto communal lands.
“For twenty years after independence we waited, we knew, the land is ours,” said a shopkeeper from Mhondoro. Today, 181 families live, farm, and raise cattle on Damvuri. The fences have been torn down and a new community is coalescing around the local bar, pool tables and provisions store. Across Zimbabwe, 170,000 families have settled on 10 million hectares of land since 2000.
Contradicting the narrative
For its critics, Zimbabwe’s fast-track land reform was violent, state-sponsored property theft that destroyed the national economy and cemented the western characterisation of President Robert Mugabe as a ruthless despot. The government, many argued, seized land for President Mugabe’s cronies in the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), the party that has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980.
Today, the sheer scale of land redistribution suggests the process has been more broad-based, and productive, than previously assumed. A growing body of academic work contradicts the narrative that the land invasions were masterminded in Harare by a small coterie including Mr. Mugabe. Those involved in the struggle say their actions were autonomous, and intended as a protest against the government, which the invaders felt, had compromised on the rallying cry of the liberation.
“This re-radicalisation of the ZANU-PF, or radicalisation from below, on the issue of land has fundamentally affected the nature of the land distribution process by making it more democratic,” said Professor Sam Moyo, Executive Director of the African Institute for Agrarian Studies in Harare. Prof. Moyo spent the last decade studying the land invasions, concluding that the dispersed occupations ensured that the distribution of land was largely equitable. His most recent research, for instance, indicates that Zimbabwe’s peasants now hold 79 per cent of all agricultural land compared to 49 per cent in 1980.
“The common thread of our struggles, right from the time of colonialism in 1890, has been the land question,” said Patrick Chinamasa, Minister of Justice and a senior ZANU-PF member. Yet, gaining the land proved as hard as gaining independence.
In 1979, the British government negotiated a deal between Robert Mugabe’s liberation fighters and Ian Smith’s white-settler regime: property titles would be protected for 10 years under a “willing buyer, willing seller” clause; there would be no forced acquisition and the British and American governments would help the Zimbabwe government buy land and distribute it to peasants. The deal was widely applauded as an instance of an African leader choosing reconciliation over revenge.
Chinamasa said the model didn’t work as white farmers only sold isolated pockets of marginal land that could not be coalesced into meaningful resettlement policy. However, 75,000 families did receive land in the 1980s.
In 1990, Mr. Mugabe’s government stood at a crossroads — investments in health and education meant that 90 per cent of Zimbabweans were literate, yet a bloated bureaucracy, corruption, and a sluggish economy was forcing the government to run large deficits. In 1991, Zimbabwe agreed to a five-year economic structural adjustment programme (ESAP) administered by the World Bank, IMF and the African Development Bank (AfDB).
When ESAP ended in 1996, Zimbabwe’s currency had been devalued by over 50 per cent, external debt had risen from 44 per cent of GDP to 71 per cent of GDP, primary school enrolments had dropped as had spending on health and education, and industry grew at 0.1 per cent according to the AfDB.
Soon after, Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia jointly decided to send troops into the nine-nation war raging in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), an ill-advised endeavour that lasted four years and cost the heavily indebted country $1.3 million a month in 1998, rising to $3 million a month in 1999.
As the country haemorrhaged money in the DRC, liberation-era guerrillas, organised as War Veteran associations, revived long-standing grievances over land and pensions. Mr. Mugabe’s refusal to relinquish power in the face of an economic crisis mobilised a coalition of urban youth, trade unions, white farmers and NGOs against the ZANU-PF.
In 1999, these groups coalesced as the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) — an opposition party that ZANU insists is a front for western powers. Britain refused to continue funding any land acquisition and threw its support behind the MDC. In a letter to the Zimbabwe government, Britain’s Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short, said that Britain did not accept any special responsibility to support land reform in Zimbabwe, adding, “My own origins are Irish and as you know we were colonised, not colonisers.”
In the House of Commons, Ernie Ross, a Labour MP, praised Britain’s political parties for a rare moment of consensus, “All three parties working together provided crucial help for the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe,” he said, “… for the first time since independence, the country has a viable opposition party within parliament.”
The corruption in government was best illustrated by the war victims’ compensation scam where senior ZANU-PF leaders, and their relatives, received large sums of money on dubious compensation claims. In one instance, Mr. Mugabe’s brother-in-law, Reward Marufu, was awarded close to $70,000 for a scar on his left knee and ulcers. Chenjerai “Hitler” Hunzvi, the head of the war veterans association, embezzled almost $50,000 for impaired hearing and “sciatic pains of the thigh”, according to Martin Meredith’s book, Mugabe: Power, Plunder and the Struggle for Zimbabwe’s Future .
Bankrupt, isolated abroad, and unpopular at home, Mr. Mugabe was at his weakest when the war veterans began occupying farms. The government attempted to contain them, but realised the occupiers were essential to the long-term survival of the party. In this context, the land occupations seem to be a revolt against Mr. Mugabe rather than an illustration of his stranglehold on power.
The Damvuri hunting ranch was invaded by a secretive group of six war veterans. “The war veterans are everywhere in every district,” said a participant, “They would decide which farm would be invaded when.”
“If a farmer had three farms and the veterans asked for one, and he refused, they would take all three,” said another participant describing how individual farms were targeted. The people would then follow the veterans and the local village chiefs would help divide the land.
“When my daughter was born in 1998, I realised I had a family but no job, no land,” said Tom, a farmer with six hectares in Damvuri, “In the markets there was talk that village chiefs in Mashonaland West were taking back land.”
Tom joined the invaders and signed up to the informal land committee that was in charge of marking plots and negotiating with the local administration. “The administration sent the police to evict us. The police burnt all the houses,” he recalled, pointing to the early period when the government tried to confront the occupiers with force. The land was transferred to the occupiers when Tom used his leverage as a youth member of the ZANU-PF to secure an audience with the governor, but he himself was denied as he was from a different province.
When the nationwide invasions began two years later, he visited Damvuri to attend a funeral and saw the ranch had been recently occupied. This time the district administrator recognised Tom and put him on a waiting list. “A few months later I got six hectares,” Tom said.
“We took the decision that this was a legitimate cause. [The invaders] are the very people who liberated us, now they are reasserting that which we failed as a government,” said Mr. Chinamasa, explaining the ZANU-PF’s abrupt change in policy. “We followed with a law, we allowed the invasions to take place.”
This sudden change in policy is reflective of a larger debate within the government and administration on land policy," said Grasian Mukodzongi, who based his doctorate on land reform in Zimbabwe at a site in Mhondoro-Ngezi, "The land invasions are as much a product of negotiation with local power structures as they are a product of national policy.
Devastation and recovery
White commercial farmers liken the land reform to outright theft.
“People just came in and threw you off…with no recourse to courts, no compensation, with crops being raided, cattle being stolen,” said Charles Taffs, president of the Commercial Farmers Union.
Land reform devastated the economy, Mr. Taffs said, “Eighty five per cent of all money lent in the country was lent on the back of land. You had massive impact on the banking industry, the resulting collapse in the service sector [and] the manufacturing sector.”
Zimbabwe’s economy contracted 45 per cent from 1998 to 2008; inflation peaked at 231 million per cent. When the national currency was replaced by a multi-currency regime, the exchange rate stood at Z$35 quadrillion to U.S.$1. The economy has since rebounded; growing 20 per cent from 2009 to 2011, with agricultural exports growing by 101 per cent.
“Our data shows that new farmers took a few years to adjust to their lands,” said Prof. Moyo, “But now, we are seeing productivity increase.” Tobacco farmers have done particularly well as big buyers have offered small farmers credit in return for assured prices. This year, over 80,000 farmers registered to grow tobacco, almost half of who are beneficiaries of the recent land reform. Nearly $600 million worth tobacco was sold in the country this year, according to the tobacco marketing board.
Other crops have not fared as well. “The government needs to give us support like seeds and fertilizer, or this scheme will be a failure,” said Joseph, a cotton farmer at Damvuri, explaining that settlers did not have titles to their land — only leases, “The banks won’t lend against the lease so we cannot raise credit to buy seeds, or a tractor, or anything.” Joseph ploughs his fields with his cattle and is unable to cultivate all six hectares of land, “With credit we can farm more land.”
Mr. Chinamasa says the government is developing a lease system that will allow the farmers to access institutional credit. But, in a drought-prone region, one bad season could mean farmers like Joseph would lose their land to their creditors.
This summer, Mr. Mugabe ran successfully for his seventh consecutive Presidential term by recasting the messy and autonomous struggle for land as the logical outcome of ZANU-PF policy.
His opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC, characterised the election as a “huge farce,” noting blatant irregularities in all aspects of the electoral process. Yet Mr. Tsvangirai’s obfuscation on the land issue cost him dearly. “Land was the reason for the war,” said Ameena, a voter in Harare, “We wanted to be masters of our destiny, not just workers on a farm.”