In 2000 Robert Mugabe shocked the world when he made dramatic changes to land ownership laws in Zimbabwe which resulted in thousands of white Zimbabwean farmers being forced to give up their farms and many to leave the country.
Those white farmers owned 70% of the most arable land in the country which they had inherited from a colonial past built on racial hierarchy.
But now the tide is shifting again. Mugabe’s people have hinted strongly, for the first time, that farmers can return–at least some of them. This will be some 15 years after the Zimbabwe government began seizing their land.
A few selected white farmers will be granted security of tenure on farms regarded to be ‘of strategic economic importance.’ Meanwhile black beneficiaries are expected to start paying a small rental fee per acre that will be used in part to compensate the more than 4,000 evicted white farmers according to the country’s minister of lands, Douglas Mombeshora.
Last year, BBC reported Mugabe told an audience, “We say no to whites owning our land and they should go.” It is the first time that the Zimbabwe government has publicly hinted on the failure of its unsustainable land policy.
The country that was once dubbed “the breadbasket of the region” has suffered an estimated $12 billion in lost agriculture production since the land occupations took place and has had to rely on donor handouts and food imports from neighboring countries. At least 1.8 million tonnes of the staple grain, maize, is required annually to feed the nation.
Zimbabwe’s transformation from exporter to importer of food is blamed by some analysts on the land reform program, which saw white commercial farmers lose farms to landless blacks who are said to lack the skills to farm or capital. Agriculture used to contribute some 40% of the country’s foreign currency earnings through exports.
What has been Zimbabwe’s loss, has been a gain for neighboring Zambia, where some of these farmers moved bringing with them decades of expertise for farming similar arable land.
And even though the Lancaster House agreement between the British government and the Zimbabweans had provisions for land redistribution and guaranteed compensation for white farmers, when the time came the British and other countries, including the United States, did not fulfill their part of the deal to fund the program.
It didn’t help that Zimbabwe’s government had no land distribution systems in place which made the aftermath a free-for-all. Politicians, senior members of the security forces, judges, civil servants and war-veterans picked their share. Most of them had no prior farming experience or capital.
Today, fewer than 300 white farmers remain on portions of their original land holdings in Zimbabwe and many of the seized farms lie fallow prompting the slow changes in attitude and policy.
Mugabe’s hard stance was more a reaction to growing political opposition and waning voter support. He blamed the white farmers for betraying his benevolence and threatening his power base. He declared, “If white settlers just took the land from us without paying for it we can, in a similar way, just take it from them without paying for it, or entertaining any ideas of legality or constitutionality.”
For Mugabe the land occupations had little to do with righting a wrong but much about exerting power and force. He has been in power since 1980 and one of the longest ruling presidents in Africa. It was therefore no surprise that the rule of law was suspended. Mobs of self styled war veterans and youth militia had carte blanche. There was violence and terror. Several white farmers and their black workers were killed, beaten or chased away and their properties taken over.
The chaos had adverse effects on the economy, food production, and civil rights. One of Africa’s strongest economies shrank to half the size it had been in 1980. Soon record hyperinflation would render supermarket shelves bare and the national currency worthless. 10% of the population fled to neighbouring countries in penury, hunger and fear.
After many years of operating as a pariah state, Zimbabwe is desperate to restore its pride and reintegrate into the international community. However, foreign businesses are still reluctant to invest in the country because of policy uncertainty and politicized property rights.