Zimbabwe's Land Reform: Race and History

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Zimbabwe's Land Reform: Race and History

The Conflict

In 2000 in Zimbabwe, black Africans began occupying the farms of the white minority (who owned most of the land), terrorizing the families living there and threatening to take the land for black Africans. The occupying forces were encouraged by Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe.


  • The white minority owns much of the land in Zimbabwe, a remnant of the colonial times.
  • Some of the land was to have been redistributed—with reparations to the current owners—following independence. But little land was redistributed to the masses of people (most went to the army and supporters of the president).
  • Mugabe is encouraging the activities and threatening wider redistribution—with no reparations—in order to secure electoral support.
  • The United Kingdom, the United States, and South Africa have offered to contribute to reparations funds in the interests of a peaceful resolution.


• Many black Zimbabweans are impoverished and frustrated at the lack of land for farming.

Recently, many news headlines have focused on the unequal distribution of land in developing countries such as South Africa, Peru, Honduras, Brazil, and Zimbabwe. Although land reform is not new to the politics of these countries, the issue has been receiving increasing attention due to the negative impact the uneven distribution of land has on the lives and the livelihoods of so many of the poor in these countries. The result of years of inequity is often frustration, which then boils over into political action and even violence and war.

Land reform is generally defined as the redistribution of property or rights in the land for the benefit of those who do not own land: the tenants and farm laborers. The issue of land reform in Zimbabwe is an instructive case study in the politics of land, revolution, and development in southern Africa and elsewhere. Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia, achieved its independence from British colonial rule in 1965 and its independence from white minority rule in 1980. Land has been the central issue in Zimbabwean politics ever since the British colonists arrived in 1890. The British colonists appropriated the majority of land from the native tribes living in Zimbabwe prior to the 1890 invasion. By independence in 1980 about forty-two hundred white farmers (less than one percent of the population) controlled over seventy percent of the arable land, while twelve million black inhabitants of Zimbabwe had to eke out a living on the rest. Despite promises of land reform by President Robert Mugabe (the only president since independence in 1980), very little has changed. Some land has been bought by the state for redistribution, but this land has been given primarily to loyal supporters and government officials. In February 2000 a referendum calling for the seizure of white lands without compensation for the purposes of redistribution failed. This was an embarrassment to the government of President Mugabe, which supported the referendum. Shortly after the referendum failed, war veterans began occupying the white-owned commercial farms and intimidating or killing the white minority and other supporters of the opposition party. In the face of such unrest over land and racial issues, Zimbabwe held parliamentary elections in June 2000 in which the opposition made substantial gains, though the extent of future land reform is unclear.

Historical Background

Pre-Colonial Society

The current land claims fueling the call for land reform in Zimbabwe are rooted in the pre-colonial experiences in the land now called Zimbabwe. It is difficult to be certain about what life was like prior to colonial experience because the indigenous tribes were largely oral cultures that did not leave much written history. Nevertheless, historians and anthropologists have pieced together a useful picture of the two major ethnic groups occupying Zimbabwe prior to colonization, the Shona and the Ndebele. These ethnic groupings are still highly relevant to politics in contemporary Zimbabwe.

The Shona people lived in Zimbabwe for at least one thousand years before the British entered in 1890. They lived in both regions of Zimbabwe, Mashonaland in the north and Matabeleland in the south. To suggest that the Shona were all one tribe is very misleading: the Shona ethnic identity has more to do with shared linguistics and cultural traits than with a command structure. In fact the Shona, with a few noted exceptions, tended to be politically decentralized, making most decisions at a familial or village level. There are two notable dynasties among the Shona prior to British colonization. The first great dynasty, the Mwene Mutapa, ruled from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century. This dynasty largely became a puppet figure manipulated by the Portuguese colonists in neighboring Mozambique.

The second dynasty, the Rowzi Mumbos, drove the Portuguese out of Zimbabwe and built the Great Zimbabwe, a seventeenth-and eighteenth-century walled city now in ruins. They seem to have been highly organized and remained largely peaceful and prosperous. This dynasty was destroyed in the 1830s when the Zulu (later renamed the Ndebele) invaded after being chased out of South Africa. The Shona were primarily agricultural and egalitarian. They decided most issues through popular discussion and consent. They were very religious and the dead ancestors played a vital function in punishing or rewarding the living. Shrines and offerings were plentiful.

For the Shona, land had a sacred quality. Land was held in trust by the chiefs and elders and owned by the community as a whole, including the ancestors. Land could not be sold or taken without great offense to the ancestors and ensuing punishment for their displeasure. Consequently, the Shona could not comprehend the British demands to sell the rights to the land or to abandon ancestral lands and move to some other location even if it were still within Zimbabwe. They also thought that the ancestors would join them in defense of the land against the white usurpers. The concept of land rights to the pre-colonial Shona was more aptly described as guardianship rather than ownership. (Guardianship of the land means that the Shona believed they were to care for and protect the land for their people and ancestors.)

The Ndebele ethnic group arrived in Zimbabwe rather late in 1830 as a result of defeat by other Zulu tribes in South Africa. Unlike the Shona, the Ndebele were hierarchically organized with the king controlling the land, cattle, and military regiments. The Ndebele were pushed north into Zimbabwe by a combination of Zulu forces and Boer Trekkers (Dutch colonists) entering the Transvaal region of northern South Africa. Their economy was based on a mix of agriculture and the raiding of neighboring Shona villages where tribute was demanded. Their most prominent king was a man named Lobengula. Lobengula exercised arbitrary and often brutal power from his court. He was heavily involved in negotiations with the white colonists and consequently became the chief focus of the British colonial invasion in 1890. The Ndebele held the most fertile lands and became the greatest dissenters of redistribution of lands to British colonists. They were also hurt the most by the rapid urbanization that took place in the later half of the twentieth century.


The Portuguese were the first Europeans to come to Zimbabwe. They established a foothold in eastern Mozambique in 1505, and Antonio Fernandez was the first white explorer of Zimbabwe. In 1569 the Portuguese launched an expedition to crush local resistance to colonial rule, but soon found it more expedient to manipulate local tribal leadership. By 1607 the Shona dynasty of the Mutapa struck a deal with the Portuguese to Christianize Zimbabwe and establish trade in return for military aid. By 1629 the Portuguese installed a puppet regime, but the Rowzi Mambo dynasty drove them out, effectively ending Portuguese influence in Zimbabwe.

The British initially interacted with the people of Zimbabwe by sending a series of missionaries from the London Missionary Society led by Robert Moffat in 1816. By 1860 Moffat had established the first white settlement in Matabele-land, at Inyati. The missions made little headway for the next thirty years, although Moffat negotiated a series of treaties with the Ndebele king, Lobengula, granting the British access to mining rights in Matabeleland. Lobengula signed the most decisive of these treaties in 1885, essentially ceding all mining rights to the British. (Lobengula also signed a similar treaty with the Boer government in the Transvaal Republic in 1887.) Lobengula later renounced this treaty as a trick, claiming he would never have ceded away the land if he understood the terms of the treaty. He claimed the translators, including Moffat himself, misrepresented the treaty's terms to him. British colonist and entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes continued to claim rights ceded by this treaty as the justification for British invasion five years later.

In the 1880s the Boers and the British were competing for spheres of influence in the Ndebele kingdom. Rhodes, then governor of the British Cape Town Colony in South Africa, saw the Boer treaty with Lobengula as a threat to British interests in the region and pushed to have Mashonaland and Matabeleland declared British protectorates. Interest in Mashonaland and Matabeleland were fueled by rumors of huge gold reserves in the regions. The British were also concerned about resurgent Portuguese influence in the area that, combined with their power in Angola, would effectively isolate South Africa from the rest of British Africa. The Germans also threatened to cut off South Africa by unifying Namibia and Tanzania through Zimbabwe.

Rhodes proposed to use the British South Africa Company police and settler posses to take possession of both Mashonaland and Matabeleland. This had the added appeal to the British government of gaining another colony with little expense. In September 1890, Rhodes and his posses entered Mashonaland and stopped near the present-day capital of Harare. The Shona had not been consulted at all. They initially greeted the British settlers, but after realizing the loss of land this entailed, they resisted. The colonists sought cheap African labor and a seizure of prime farming land. In 1893 the British South African Company promised six thousand acres of land to each of the settler recruits who would help drive the Ndebele out of Matabe-leland. The settlers were also promised mining shares and cattle as the spoils of war. Lobengula was defeated and later died in retreat. The Ndebele and Shona united to resist the colonial invasion in 1896, but the British bought off the Ndebele leadership and scatter the disorganized, nonhierarchical Shona. The British took control of Mashonaland and Matabeleland and named the territory Rhodesia, after Governor Rhodes.

Rumors of gold originally enticed Rhodes and the white settlers into Zimbabwe but these rumors were largely unfounded. When mining riches were not found, the focus of the invasion shifted to long-term agricultural development and the redistribution of land from the indigenous people to white settlers in the form of large commercial tracts. In 1907 the British began land redistribution and moved the native population to reserves set aside for them. These reserves were of marginal agricultural potential even at the outset, a situation that was made worse by rising population pressures on the reserves. As the population grew, the land was less able to feed and provide for the population. In order to be competitive, the British colonists instituted a number of policies that favored white commercial farmers over Africans. This was achieved by giving the Africans marginal lands away from transportation networks such as railroads and roads so they could not get their crops to market. In 1931 the colonial government passed the Land Apportionment Act designating 17.5 million acres as European-purchase lands, while only 7.5 million acres were designated as native-purchase lands.

The British also increased the rent on African agricultural land and imposed a series of hut and poll taxes on the native population. These taxes were waged on each indigenous household and, later, on each native person. This had two fundamental effects on African agriculture. First, much of the reinvestable surplus went to the tax instead of the improvement of African farms. Second, the 1894 hut tax drew labor into the market as the subsistence African farmers needed to sell their labor to mines and commercial white-owned farms to pay the tax. The poll tax provided 41.4 percent of the government revenues by 1904 and 1905.

Political power was also concentrated in the hands of the white colonists. Property ownership was a requirement for voting, and a literacy test in English only further limited the Africans' ability to vote and control their destiny. Africans were also stripped of any rights while residing in European towns and urban areas. The white minority designated some towns as European, even though they were on the African continent, and Africans living there had few, if any rights. White-owned farms were heavily subsidized by the state. Ninety-nine percent of all infrastructure money was invested in European-purchase areas only. The reserves created a pool of unemployed African workers (estimates as high as thirty percent of the African population) for the labor markets in commercial farms and mines. Despite all of these tactics, African agriculture was initially prosperous and fed much of the mining population until the 1920s. By this time white-owned commercial farms replaced African agriculture in the market and the demise of African farms forced increasing numbers of Africans into the labor market. By the time the white government declared an independent Rhodesia in 1965, over eighty percent of all arable land was in the hands of the white minority. These farmers made up less than one-half a percent of the overall population of the country.

The colonists would also maintain control over the land and the people of Zimbabwe by finding willing collaborators among the indigenous population. These people were invested with recognized authority by the colonial government and given administrative tasks to perform. These tribal members, the bhuku or the "keepers of the book," maintained records of the land and its ownership for the colonial government. This role of land administrator commodified the relationship of the people to the land by putting a price on the land. Another tactic of the colonial government was to endow certain tribal leaders with control over the dispersal of the land, giving rise to tribal factions and war. Legitimacy of authority became tied to the control over territory.

In 1951 the colonial government passed the Native Land Husbandry Act, which forced African farmers to radically change their land tenure practices. Under this new law, Africans were only allowed to own five head of cattle and all the rest were to be immediately sold off. The white commercial farmers bought most of the excess stock at sub-market prices. This change had huge cultural implications because cattle ownership was critical to one's prestige and to the passage from adolescence to adulthood among the indigenous cultures. Under the Native Land Husbandry Act, Africans were also limited to the ownership of only eight acres of land. This virtually eliminated the possibility of significant African contribution to commercial farming in colonial Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). The Act made way for a huge influx of white settlers arriving after World War II for the promise of land and livestock. The white population of Rhodesia doubled from 1946 to 1955. One hundred ten thousand additional Africans were forced to resettle in the reserves from 1950 to 1960.

Such absolute colonial control over the resources of Zimbabwe led to growing resentment among the Africans themselves and they began to organize. In 1961 the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) was formed as the first black African political party in Zimbabwe. Although the Africans agreed that they wanted the end of colonial rule and a return of the land, they disagreed about the tactics of such a change. In August 1963 a splinter group of ZAPU formed a new political party known as the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). The leadership of these political parties, including Joshua Nkomo (ZAPU) and Robert Mugabe (ZANU), were arrested and imprisoned for ten years for their role in the indigenous opposition. ZANU would later win power in a post-independence struggle with ZAPU and control politics in Zimbabwe almost without opposition from 1980 until the elections in June 2000.

These colonial legacies play heavily in the politics of land reform in contemporary Zimbabwe. In colonial Zimbabwe, land had become a status symbol of power, and today, when the majority of the land is in the hands of the white minority opposition, Mugabe and ZANU-PF feel they must seize control of the land to solidify their power base. Elements of tribalism, ethnicity, class, and racism is still present whenever the subject of land is brought up.

Rhodesian Rule

The black Africans were not the only members of the population disillusioned with British colonial rule. Taking their cue from the white minority government in neighboring South Africa, the white Rhodesian local government declared independence from Britain in April 1965 under the leadership of Prime Minister Ian Smith. This Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) followed a white-only referendum in Rhodesia in which independence won by a ten-to-one margin. Limited British sanctions immediately followed as the government of Rhodesia under Ian Smith was declared illegitimate and racist. Smith responded by declaring a state of emergency in Rhodesia that remained in effect until black majority independence in 1980. The United Nations joined in sanctions in 1968. The sanctions hurt commercial agriculture, especially tobacco. However, the government responded by increasing subsidies given to white-owned commercial agriculture, a policy that also helped these farms after independence because it encouraged diversification of crops. Even with diversification the control the white minority had over land ensured that much of the land they controlled was underutilized. In fact, of all the land held by the white farmers, only 3.5 percent of the usable land was under cultivation at the time of independence.

The white Rhodesian government continued the unequal distribution of land developed under British colonial rule and the racially driven policies regarding almost every aspect of life including agriculture, education, health care, and property rights. The Land Tenure Act passed in 1969 had a significant impact on the lives of black Africans living on the government reserves (later renamed Tribal Trust Lands). Under the banner of greater local autonomy and democracy on the reserves, much of the day-to-day administration of the lands was handed over to local black leaders. Unfortunately the government also forced the locals to raise the revenue needed to cover such expenditures as schools and other services. The result of this act was a massive decrease in national spending for education and the closing of many reserve schools due to a lack of resources. The decline in services to the millions of blacks living on the reserves was then used by the white government as proof that the Africans were incompetent and couldn't be trusted to govern themselves. In reality the plan was doomed from the start due to overpopulation, high unemployment, and the lack of resources or arable land to be found in the reserves.

Independence and Land Reform

Although political control had changed from British to white Rhodesian hands, life for the black Africans did not improve. In fact, many would argue that it declined because the British had been committed to the blacks—at least in rhetoric and principle. Realizing that the UDI was not a revolution from colonialism but an exchange of one master for another, rebel movements began to organize and train in neighboring Mozambique and Botswana. The armed struggle began in 1966. After Robert Mugabe was released from prison in 1975 he became the unquestioned head of the ZANU party and a key revolutionary leader. Although forces associated with ZANU and ZAPU were involved in the struggle, the ZANU forces had the greatest success and brought the Rhodesian government to the negotiating table in 1977. According to Mugabe, the struggle was always about land. In 1979 the Rhodesian government, the British government, and the rebels met in England at Lancaster House to sign an agreement that paved the way for black majority rule in a newly independent Zimbabwe. In 1980 Robert Mugabe and the ZANU party (renamed ZANU-PF for the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front) won a resounding electoral victory. When Robert Mugabe, the first (and only) president, declared independence in 1980, sanctions were dropped and foreign aid began to pour in from both sides of the Cold War, despite the declared Communist ideology of ZANU-PF.

As part of the Lancaster House agreement, Britain pledged financial support for a land resettlement scheme based on willing buyers and willing sellers. The Zimbabwe government was to compensate white commercial farmers who sold their land to the government to resettle the millions who had been living on the reserves. Mugabe made land reform a central tenant of his campaign and his first major promise upon election. An ambitious plan was devised for the government to buy 3.2 million hectares to resettle 160,000 black families within the first five years. By the year 2000, 3.5 million hectares have been purchased, but only 60,000 families have been resettled. Whites—less than one percent of the population—still own 11.2 million hectares. Immediately after independence in 1980 the economy boomed due to increases in foreign and domestic demand after the sanctions were lifted. Mugabe claimed that this newfound prosperity was a direct result of his land reform programs, but the prosperity proved short-lived and land reform efforts stalled.

Recent History and the Future

Failure of Land Reform

There were several factors involved in the failure of land reform in Zimbabwe during its twenty years of independence. First, rising debt to fund the land distribution schemes and other expensive government social programs promised by ZANU-PF have crippled the economy. The debt service ratio (the amount of money earned from exports that is required to pay interest payments on a country's debt) rose from ten percent in 1981 to thirty-five percent in 1986-87. Other government expenditures such as the Zimbabwean army's participation in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (with whom they share no border) have increased defense spending by $1 million a day. This increase in military spending will help members of the ZANU-PF leadership to secure lucrative cobalt mining contracts, but at the expense of most social programs, including land reform. There is simply no money left to pay a fair price for land. In 1992 the government passed a Land Acquisitions Bill that allowed the government—not the seller—to set the price for land purchased to resettle blacks on the reserves. This "deal" was to be paid over five years in local (inflationary currency) and the white owners had no recourse in court to government seizures of their land.

Another contributing factor to the failure of land reform is the poor performance of the economy that limits government revenue to pay for land redistribution. The poor economy is caused in part by escalating inflation. Inflation rates peaked in November 1999 at 70.4 percent per year. The inflation level is currently at sixty percent per year. An individual would expect to pay $49 (dollar amounts are in U.S. dollars) to buy the same food that they could have purchased for $2.60 in 1990. The costs of medical care have risen at similar rates. In the ten-year period from 1990 to 2000 the cost of bread, milk, and cereal have increased twenty times. Unemployment is estimated at fifty-five percent, leading to political unrest and protest. The United Nations estimates that seventy-six percent of the population lives below the poverty level.

Government inefficiency, corruption, and poor planning have also contributed to the failure of land reform. To date, the government has acquired nine hundred farms through the land reform programs, but has settled peasants on only two hundred of them, according to the World Press Review. Due to poor planning and a lack of follow up those that have been resettled remain desperately poor. They were granted land, but no supporting infrastructure was developed. Under Mugabe's socialist policies the settlers can't own the title to their new plots, and thus are unable to borrow money to improve the land. The typical experience of farmers on communally held lands is one of overcrowding, marginalized production, and environmental and socioeconomic degradation. Bureaucratic incompetence has also been blamed for the failure of land reform initiatives. The Land Acquisition Act of 1992 clearly spells out the procedures necessary for the compulsory taking of land; however, the bureaucracy has ignored these stipulations and many of the acquisitions have been thrown out in court.

While very few Zimbabweans have benefited from the land reform initiatives, there are exceptions. The members of the ruling ZANU-PF party have received a disproportionate number of the new farm plots. In 1990 a new program was introduced to use land reform as a vehicle for getting blacks into large-scale commercial agriculture. Four hundred thousand hectares of the resettlement land were diverted to four hundred people connected to the ruling party, including cabinet ministers, judges, and army commanders. Without much farming experience among the privileged recipients, the lands remain underutilized at the end of the century. Another exception is the war veterans who fought the white Rhodesians from 1966 to 1980. These veterans have received substantial pensions and recently the right to squat (occupy land without being the legitimate owner) on white-owned commercial farms in return for their unwavering support of the ZANU-PF party and Robert Mugabe personally. The issues of land reform and the participation of war veterans in land seizures and occupations played a pivotal role in the June 2000 elections.

While the return of land to its "rightful" owners before colonial domination sounds attractive in theory, land reform in Zimbabwe has failed because of several practical concerns about the economics of the process. These consequences were unforeseen or ignored by the Mugabe government in the initial excitement over land reform. The fourteen hundred white-owned farms that have been targeted for redistribution owe commercial banks more than $2.6 billion in collateral debt. This debt would have to be paid if the land was seized, and the debt would presumably have to be paid by the government that has taken over the farms. The resettlement programs have distinct disadvantages to the whites that lose their land beyond the denial of their personal property rights. Once a farm is designated for purchase, the farmer looses all rights to it. The title is gone, he can't sell it or borrow on it or grow anything on it, but the government can take its time paying for the land, if it pays for it at all.

The land issue highlights a larger practical issue of the security of any personal property. If the government can't guarantee property rights, investors in all sectors will flee, as they did in 1997 when the government listed fifteen hundred farms for redistribution. The economy hasn't even been able to begin recovering from this loss of international investment confidence. Additionally, land reform is not always profitable for the country's economy. White farmers raise eighty percent of Zimbabwe's export crop. These farmers claim they are more efficient and provide more jobs to black workers than if the same land was redistributed in smaller plots proposed by reform schemes. The white-dominated Commercial Farm Union of Zimbabwe suggests that the proposed land reform would drop national farm production and exports by one-third. Such a decrease would further cripple an already beleaguered economy.

Zimbabwe's international credit has been deteriorating, undermining any chance for successful land reform in the early twenty-first century. The World Bank promised $5 million in new loans to help with a land reform plan known as the "Inception Phase Framework Plan." This plan will experiment with a variety of techniques to resettle thirty-four hundred farmers onto one million hectares of land. Unfortunately, in May 2000 Zimbabwe defaulted on $1.6 billion in other loans to the World Bank. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the two largest multilateral lending agencies in the world, have frozen all future financial aid to Zimbabwe because of the poor performance of the Zimbabwean economy, their poor track record on debt servicing, and their continued participation in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. On April 6, 2000 the United States also suspended assistance to any land reform plans due to the illegal land seizures and lawless behavior in Zimbabwe.

If the multiple man-made factors weren't enough to doom the hopes of successful land reform in Zimbabwe, nature has also contributed to the dismal results. Recurrent droughts in 1984 and 1992 forced Zimbabwe to rely on imports of food and agricultural supplies at the very time that exports had been destroyed due to lost crops. Zimbabwe is particularly vulnerable to such natural disruptions because of its heavy reliance on agriculture for any earnings. In 1999 Cyclone Eline displaced 250,000 people and destroyed much of Zimbabwe's crop. Relief efforts were slowed because all of the country's helicopters were one thousand miles away, fighting in a civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The land given to the black Africans during colonialism and the Rhodesian rule was more drought prone than the fertile white-owned lands.

Election Politics and Land Reform

Although land reform dominates political discussions and rallies in Zimbabwe, there is little money or will to pay the price for successful land reform. There are simply too many conflicting priorities for the Mugabe government despite the heavy reliance on the issue every election cycle. The February 2000 referendum and the June 2000 parliamentary elections are instructive in how the issue of land reform is manipulated in the political process.

Concerned with decreasing popularity in the polls for the ZANU-PF ruling party, President Mugabe called for a referendum vote to substantially change the constitution. The referendum encompassed a number of issues beyond land reform, including an increase in the powers of the president; however, the land issue has always proved to be popular politics. Mugabe focused on Clause 57 of the referendum that granted the government the power to seize targeted white-owned commercial farms needed for resettlement. There would be no compensation for the land, only for improvements such as buildings and irrigation. The growing opposition movement organized under the coalition political party, known as the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The MDC lobbied heavily against the referendum. The white-dominated Commercial Farmer's Union (CFU) also opposed the referendum. The commercial farmers argued that many of the targeted farms had been purchased after the 1980 independence at fair market prices: they should not be held responsible for the sins of the past. They also argued that they were more efficient at production, and that Mugabe was manipulating the seizures as a smokescreen for popular discontent over the state of the economy, high unemployment, and costly troop deployment in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The referendum was rejected by fifty-five percent of the voters.

Mugabe and his government seemed determined not to take "no" for an answer. The ZANUPF controlled all but three seats of the 150-seat parliament. This was clearly enough to pass constitutional amendments by the needed two-thirds majority. In April 2000 the Zimbabwe parliament passed the "Land Acquisition Bill," which allows the government to seize commercial farms without compensation. Mugabe promised the seizure of four thousand white farms covering forty-six thousand square miles. Mugabe and the ZANUPF leadership saw a greater threat in the defeated referendum than the loss of land reform. They saw an organized opposition that stood in their way for the first time in the history of the independent Zimbabwe. This was of great concern because parliamentary elections were scheduled for April 2000. What followed the defeat of the referendum can only be described as orchestrated chaos. The parliamentary elections were postponed until the end of June as a wave of terror descended upon Zimbabwe.

President Mugabe, fearing a powerful opposition, turned once again to the popular issue of land resettlement. He supported a growing number of independence war veterans and others in their occupation of white commercial farms. They moved onto the land and intimidated both workers and owners alike to support the ZANU-PF party in the upcoming elections and to surrender control of their land. At the height of the occupations, nearly fifty thousand war veterans and their supporters, including unemployed urban youth, had occupied thirteen hundred farms. Mugabe fanned the flames of unrest by refusing to carry out a High Court order to remove the squatters from the farms. Instead he declared, "I will say to the white farmers, today is your day too. We have also liberated you from thinking that this country is yours alone. You now know that the country belongs to its rightful owners." Mugabe also gave $600,000 to the leader of the war veterans, Chenjerai Hunzvi (whose nickname, "Hitler," he received proudly during the independence war), to help ensure ZANU-PF's victory in the upcoming elections. The veterans' tactics were often quite violent. The targets of this violence were not only white commercial farmers, but also all political opposition, especially the MDC. Members of the opposition were routinely raped, beaten, and sometimes murdered. Many went into hiding in fear for their lives. Since the referendum, four white farmers and nineteen black members of the MDC opposition have been killed, while hundreds more have been injured. Journalists were detained and tortured regularly. The political districts were redrawn to favor the ruling ZANU-PF in a process known as gerrymandering. These new district maps were withheld from the opposition. The war veterans promised to return to civil war if ZANU-PF was defeated in the June parliamentary elections.

There is some evidence that Mugabe not only turned a blind eye to the terror created by the war veterans but he may have actually helped them. The Financial Gazette, an independent Zimbabwe newspaper, reported that unemployed youth were receiving between $1.30 and $5.25 each day to join the war veterans in the occupation of white-owned commercial farms. Mugabe also turned over to the veterans a shipment of AK-47 assault rifles that arrived from Russia on April 28. Some farmers cut a deal with the veterans allowing them to stay and promising not to support the opposition MDC in exchange for an end to the violence and destruction. The occupations have wreaked havoc on the agricultural exports of Zimbabwe, further harming the economy. When the High Court tried Hunzvi on contempt of court charges for refusing to end the occupations, the court was mobbed by ZANUPF and war veteran supporters who became so unruly that the court had to be temporarily shut down. In the four months between the referendum and the June parliamentary elections, the rule of law was a shambles in Zimbabwe. The veterans promised to end the occupations if Parliament passed a law allowing the uncompensated seizure of the farms. Parliament passed such a law in April, but the veterans refused to leave the farms. This has led the opposition to suggest that land is not the issue at all. They argue that this entire ordeal was a campaign of political intimidation to undermine the opposition in the June elections and to help the ZANU-PF party to cling to power. The MDC opposition also supports land reform schemes, but calls on these reforms to be compensated and transparent (the documents and process must be done publicly). Foreign governments such as Britain and the United States have also called for such a process.

Parliamentary Election Results

Despite months of intimidation, district manipulation, reports of election fraud, and some MDC candidates having to campaign in hiding, the MDC did exceptionally well in the June elections. Of the 120 seats up for election, the MDC and other opposition parties won fifty-seven of seats, just five less than the ruling ZANU-PF party. President Mugabe is allowed to select twenty additional members of parliament and tribal chiefs appoint the remaining ten. Although ZANU-PF will be able to continue a ruling majority with the help of Mugabe's appointments, they will not have the two-thirds majority needed to change the constitution at will. They will need to cooperate with the opposition to pass important legislation such as the budget. Most of the MDC's success was in the urban areas, while ZANU-PF did well in the rural areas where an appeal to redistribution of farm land is likely to play better among the millions still living on reserves.

What is perhaps more critical for the future of politics and land reform in Zimbabwe are a few of the significant winners and losers in the June elections. "Hitler" Hunzvi, leader of the war veterans, was elected as a ZANU-PF party member. After the elections Hunzvi sounded uncharacteristically conciliatory, calling for an end to the violence. The occupations of farmland continued, however. Morgan Tsuangirai, leader of the MDC opposition, lost in a rural district, but he has already declared his intention to run against Mugabe for the presidency in 2002. Roy Bennett, a white commercial farmer whose land was occupied, won as a member of the MDC. Perhaps the most important outcome of the elections was that seven members of Mugabe's ruling cabinet were defeated, signaling popular discontent with the ruling regime. Perhaps the most prominent of the cabinet ministers to be defeated was Emmerson Munagagwa, the Justice Minister and Mugabe's expected successor. Munagagwa was defeated by a two-to-one margin in a rural district by an MDC opponent who had been in hiding for the previous three months in fear for his life. Mugabe accepted the results, calling for national unity and reconciliation. After the election, the chairman of ZANU-PF, John Nkomo, said that the government would press ahead with uncompensated land seizures according to the April Land Acquisition Bill. It may be some time before the impact of these elections is felt in the area of Zimbabwe land reform.

The MDC has said they are willing to work with the Mugabe government but they will not take any cabinet posts and they wish to offer a constructive opposition. The MDC still intends to challenge a few close votes where there are questions about the authenticity of the election results. Because of their strong support in the urban areas, their agenda will be driven more by unemployment than land reform. The government has said that it intends to push ahead with land seizures and redistribution. The CFU reports that several more farms have been occupied since the elections, seeming to indicate that the disputes remain largely unresolved by the democratic process.

Prospects for the Future

If land reform is to be meaningfully and successfully instituted, Mugabe and the ruling ZANU-PF are going to have to live up to their calls for reconciliation and an end to intimidation and violence. If they do not, the MDC opposition is likely to gain even more ground in the 2002 presidential elections. This might come at the cost of renewed civil war initiated by the war veterans. The rule of law and the courts are almost completely ignored in Zimbabwe. It is critical that some semblance of law and order are restored to Zimbabwe. Without this, foreign investors are unlikely to make any more loans to or investments in the country, though it is desperately in need of foreign help. During the 1990s, out-of-control inflation, spending, and unemployment have destroyed the economy. If the squatter occupations are allowed to continue, then commercial agriculture in Zimbabwe, its leading export earner, will be devastated. This suggests that there would be little in the way of money flowing into the economy from any direction.

With a growing population living in poverty, Zimbabwe is poised for significant unrest unless things change dramatically. Mugabe is a shrewd politician and is unlikely to wish to alienate himself further from the voters prior to his own election in 2002 and may try to reconcile with the MDC members of Parliament and encourage the war veterans to end their occupations of farmland without driving them back into the bush for a civil war. Mugabe's empire has been built on patron-client relationships in which numerous favors are exchanged, bonding individuals to the government. As long as he is still in charge of land reform schemes, one could expect to see favoritism for the recipients of "returned" land. Mugabe is also not likely to pay any compensation for land acquisition for three reasons: his government can't afford to pay anything; the constitution no longer required him to after April 2000; and he believes the British should pay because they were in charge when the problem occurred and they did not compensate black Africans when their land was taken.

For land reform to succeed, it is essential that the government be concerned about more than the mere purchase (or seizure) of land to be resettled. Without training, the new occupants will be helpless to feed themselves or anyone else. Resources need to be allocated for infrastructure, roads, irrigation, schools, and clinics. The current government is unwilling or unable to do that. Without such investment, land reform plans appear doomed to failure. Foreign nations, particularly Britain, the United States, and South Africa, have agreed to help provide funding for some of the land reform if it is a transparent process. The IMF and World Bank are ready to start funds flowing again if Zimbabwe's economy should show any sign of recovery and if Zimbabwe pulls out of the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. South Africa is going through a similar transition from white racist rule to black majority rule. They also face issues of very unevenly distributed land segmented along racial lines. The South African solution is a land reform bill that grants tenant farmers rights to settle themselves permanently on white farm property. If Mugabe does not find a way to stop the downward spiral of the economy and, at the same time, distribute land to the poor, Zimbabwe stands to reverse all the gains it has made since independence. If it does not reverse its direction, the stability of the entire southern Africa sub-continent is in jeopardy.

Land reform is not an issue isolated to Zimbabwe. The colonial treatment of native people in Zimbabwe—which includes taking land, cattle, and minerals—and the United States treatment of the Native American tribes are somewhat similar. The issue of land reform not only encompasses Zimbabwe and the Native Americans in the United States; it also includes the Zapatista movement in Chiapas Mexico, the Indians of Ecuador and Peru, the rubber tappers in the Brazilian rain forest, and the Maori of New Zealand. The specific circumstances may differ, but the consequences of an unequal distribution of land in the developing world are very similar. Poverty, hunger, exploitation of laborers, and the destruction of culture are all potential consequences of a lack of commitment to meaningful land reform.


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T. TimothyCasey


1830 Ndebele tribes enter Matabeleland in southern Zimbabwe.

1890 Cecil Rhodes and the British South Africa Company invade Mashonaland.

1893 British defeat the Ndebele and occupy Matabele-land.

1895 Mashonaland and Matabeleland are renamed Rhodesia.

1923 Rhodesia rejects union with South Africa and opts for self-rule.

1930 Land Apportionment Act divides Rhodesia into European and African areas.

1951 Native Land Husbandry Act significantly changes African land tenure practices.

1961 Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) is formed.

1963 Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) is formed.

1965 Unilateral Declaration of Independence by white government of Rhodesia.

1966 Armed struggle by black Africans in Rhodesia begins.

1969 Land Tenure Act detrimentally impacts those living on reserves.

1975 Mugabe becomes leader of ZANU.

1979 Lancaster House Agreements are signed, ending white minority rule in Rhodesia.

1980 Mugabe wins presidential elections and declares independence.

1992 Land Acquisition Act passes that allowing the government to set price for land reform.

1997 Mugabe targets fifteen hundred white farms for resettlement and the economy collapses.

February 2000 Referendum to seize land fails. War veterans occupy white-owned farms.

April 2000 Land Acquisition Bill passes allowing the government to seize farms for resettlement without compensation.

June 2000 MDC opposition makes significant gains in parliamentary elections.

Robert Mugabe

1924- Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born February 21, 1924, in what is now Zimbabwe. At the time, the area was known as Northern and Southern Rhodesia, and ruled by whites in a system similar to apartheid. As a student, Mugabe attended the local Catholic mission school before studying at the University of Fort Hare in South Africa, where he was introduced to African nationalism and socialism. He graduated in 1951 and earned subsequent degrees in economics and education.

After spending several years abroad, Mugabe returned home in 1960. By 1963 he had cofounded the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZANU). Arrested for denouncing the white-ruled Rhodesian government in 1964, he spent the next decade in prison, earning a law degree through correspondence. He was released in 1975 and joined the leadership of the Patriotic Front of Zimbabwe in the civil war of 1975-79.

At the war's end, Mugabe's party swept the 1980 elections, and he became Zimbabwe's first prime minister. By 1987 Mugabe established one-party (ZANU-PF) rule, and became Executive President. He was reelected in 1990. By the end of the decade, economic crises caused many problems in Zimbabwe. Mugabe reestablished his popularity by encouraging forcible occupation of white-owned farms. Although this caused some political backlash, he retained power in the May 2000 parliamentary elections.

Ian Smith

1919- Ian Douglas Smith was born April 8, 1919, in Selukwe, Rhodesia (now Shurugwi, Zimbabwe). He grew up among the ruling white elite and attended private schools. After his high school graduation, Smith enrolled in Rhodes University in South Africa, but interrupted his studies to become a pilot during World War II (1939-45). He resumed his studies after the war, and returned to Rhodesia in 1946.

Smith was elected to the Southern Rhodesian Assembly in 1948 and continued to gain power within the parliament. In Rhodesia, whites controlled the government and economy, and only a small number from the black majority were allowed to vote.

In 1961 Smith founded the Rhodesian Front. Relying on white-supremacist support and violent repression of the black population, Smith led his party to victory by promising independence from Britian and a government based on continued white rule. Smith became prime minister in 1964, and immediately authorized the arrest and banishment of black African nationalists, including now-president Robert Mugabe. He further suppressed civil rights through officially sanctioned police violence.

In November 1965, Smith declared Rhodesia's independence from Britain, and in March 1970, declared Rhodesia a republic. Although he was forced to transfer power to the black majority of what became Zimbabwe in 1979, Smith continued to represent whites in parliament until 1987.