Zimbabwe: The Future of the Land

Zimbabwe is embroiled in turmoil. The economy has hit rock bottom, veterans of the liberation struggle are pitted against commercial white farmers in a bitter land struggle, HIV infection rates are among the highest in the world and the ruling ZANU PF party is facing its staunchest opposition challenge since independence in 1980 in the form of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Recently, the New York African Film Festival (AFF) put the spotlight on Zimbabwe, a southern African nation of 12 million people that is slightly larger than the US state of Montana. The festival featured two films, Zimbabwe 2000 by Zimbabwean filmmaker Farai Sevenzo, who lives in England, and My Land, My Life by South African Rehad Desai, who has lived in Zimbabwe.

Both films explored the complex economic and political issues confronting modern day Zimbabwe. They both dwelt on the land question – an issue that was at the heart of the liberation struggle in the 1970s and which, more than 20 years after independence, remains unresolved.

Zimbabwe’s current land struggles to have their roots in the colonial conquest of the country by settlers from Britain in the 1800s. When white settlers came to Zimbabwe, they forcibly removed from the land its original owners and laid claim to vast tracts of land. By independence in 1980, a group of 4,500 white farmers owned more than 75 per cent of the country’s prime, arable land, while millions of peasant families were squeezed into drought prone, marginal land. Out of the 33 million hectares designated as agricultural land, 11 million belonged to white ‘commercial’ farmers, 3 million were for resettlement of landless blacks by government and another 1 million were reserved for small-scale farmers. Some 6.5 million poor black people occupied 16 million hectares of land that was formerly called ‘native reserves’ — set aside for indigenous people following expropriation by the settlers.

Following the election of a new government at independence, Zimbabweans expected the ruling ZANU PF party to deliver on promises to redistribute land to the country’s landless majority. But, under the negotiated settlement signed among the warring sides at Lancaster House in Britain, the Zimbabwe government had to wait 10 years before it could begin the process of land redistribution. In the meantime, land hunger continued to grow and when government eventually began to redistribute land, on a ‘willing-buyer, willing-seller’ basis, the process proved too slow. Veterans of the liberation war and other landless people began encroaching on land ‘owned’ by white farmers. The white farmers insisted they had to be paid for any of their land taken away for resettlement.

On the other hand, there were growing calls among black Zimbabweans that since the land had been taken away from black people by force in the first place it had to be returned to its rightful owners without compensation. Following the liberation struggle that culminated in the election of Zimbabwe’s first independent black government in 1980, Britain and the US promised to finance the purchase of land from white farmers for black resettlement, but when money was not forthcoming, those demanding compulsory acquisition gained more ammunition to grab land. The crisis eventually exploded into full-fledged violence following a referendum in 2000 in which Zimbabweans voted against a new constitution that contained a crucial clause on compulsory acquisition.

Differences in opinion over how many of these issues are playing out spiced up a debate that followed the screening of Zimbabwe 2000 and My Land, My Life at the New York film festival. A panel discussion tried to crack open these issues. The panel consisted of Sevenzo, Tichafa Tongogara, a journalist and filmmaker based in New York who is the son of the late national liberation war hero, Josiah Tongogara and I. Tongogara stressed that without the necessary funding promised by countries such as Britain, the Zimbabwe government has no option but to go ahead and take away the land and give it back to its rightful owners otherwise history would judge it harshly. He described what is going on in Zimbabwe as “an irreversible path to putting power into the hands of the majority.” While both Sevenzo and I acknowledged that land reform was crucial, we expressed deep concerns about the methods government is employing, and also pointed out that there are other wider issues confronting Zimbabwe that the government has failed to address. I noted, for instance, that there are “broader issues of social justice, of poverty and an out of control AIDS crisis,” that have not been tackled with the same vigour as the land issue.

I took my government to task for failing to stabilize the economy, waiting for decades before seriously tackling the problem of landlessness in Zimbabwe and for failing to deliver jobs – 70 percent of the labour force is currently unemployed. There are shortages of basic commodities – sugar, maize meal, oil, fuel, even Zimbabwe dollar notes. The government is struggling to cope with inflation of 300 percent and life expectancy at birth is now estimated at 35 years for the period 2000 to 2005, as compared to 61 years in 1990. As a journalist, I decried the passing of laws that are curtailing the right to free expression, assembly and association. The Public Order and Security Act for instance, grants the police and government power to curtail any political activity which they deem a threat to national security. “As a film maker it is my responsibility to point out that the state of human rights in my country is deplorable,” said Sevenzo. Sevenzo’s film was made during the 2002 presidential elections in Zimbabwe, a period of gross human rights violations in the country.

Once the discussion was opened to the floor it quickly became very heated. Land, poverty, governance and race are highly emotive issues. A member of the Friends of Zimbabwe, an activist group in New York that supports the government of President Mugabe noted that Zimbabwe was at war internally and externally “against forces who want to reverse the question of national liberation”. For him, Mugabe represented a force against neo-colonialism and stood for the rights of oppressed black people around the world who continue to be dominated by western imperialism. He noted that the MDC was unacceptable as it was financed by the same people who wanted to maintain colonial rule in Zimbabwe. The MDC is often linked with western funding and with white commercial farmers and industry captains, some of whom served pre-independence regimes.

Sevenzo noted that he was shocked on his recent visit to Zimbabwe to realize that there is very little tolerance by government for opposition politics. Many continue to die simply because they openly profess to belonging to the opposition he noted. It’s sad, he said, that “there is state sanctioned violence” in Zimbabwe. The violence in the country has not only been chronicled by Zimbabweans. International human rights groups are increasingly condemning growing incidences of abuse. At the release of a report on human rights in Zimbabwe in June, the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch noted that “not only have the army and police personnel failed to protect people from human rights abuses, but they are now carrying out abuses themselves.”

Despite the often heated debates around President Mugabe and the main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirayi, it was evident during the New York discussions that the problems of Zimbabwe go beyond mere personalities or political parties. Many Zimbabweans feel that the future of the country demands the broad participation of its people, both at home and abroad. It is also generally agreed that unless the land question is resolved in a way that benefits the majority of the people and the country, it will be impossible to reduce poverty in Zimbabwe; that unless the rule of law is restored and basic freedoms are guaranteed for all, there cannot be peace in the country. Despite years of posturing, it has been reported that the ruling ZANU PF and the MDC are now engaged in talks to resolve the political crisis, a welcome move, because ultimately, the country’s problems can only be solved by Zimbabweans, through constructive engagement.

Further reading

Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum
Kubatana.net – ZimRights
The Zimbabwe Independent
ZW News

About the Director

Gumisai Mutume

Gumisai Mutume is a Zimbabwean who writes for the New York-based United Nations publication Africa Renewal.