Why Are Zimbabwe’s Land Reforms Being Reversed?

Zimbabwe’s current politic–economic trajectory has exacerbated peasant distress. Under the current president Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe has adopted neo-liberal economic policies that favour large–scale agriculture, and the promotion of capital investments across all sectors of the economy. 


Initiated in 2000, Zimbabwe’s Fast Track Land Reform Programme (FTLRP) has reversed racially-skewed landownership patterns by transferring land from the minority white settlers to the majority landless black population (Moyo 2013). After Zimbabwe's independence from Britain in 1980, 15 million hectares of land were controlled by 6,000 white farmers. By 2010, 13 million hectares of land were transferred to approximately 2,40,000 landless black families. Of this, the FTLRP accounted for 9.2 million hectares of land being transferred to 1,67,671 families (Moyo 2013). The FTLRP has moved away from the market-based willing-buyer, willing-seller mechanism championed by the World Bank and IMF, to a more redistributive character. While receiving recognition from social movements, the FTLRP has been condemned by international financial institutions and the West (Raftopoulos and Phimister 2004).

According to estimates by the Sam Moyo African Institute for Agrarian Studies (SMAIAS), a policy research institute based in Harare, about 2,40,000 households benefited from the FTLRP and an estimated 1 million people are said to be indirect beneficiaries of  the new agrarian structure (Moyo et al 2009). The FTLRP is not only redistributive in its character but has also restructured tenure systems from freehold to state-based tenure, known as the nationalisation of land.

Due to the FTLRP, agrarian finance was reconfigured. Capital flight—private commercial banks withdrew funding for the new indigenous farmers—forced new forms of finance to emerge. Among these new forms is self-finance, where farmers use funds from agricultural sales, pensions and remittances. Self-financing is the dominant form of finance for resettled farmers, followed by state subsidies and contract farming for export crops such as cotton, tobacco, sugar and other horticultural crops. Changes in agricultural financing patterns along with  major droughts negatively impacted crop production in the first decade of the FTLRP, as declines in 15 major crops were witnessed during this period. Production of crops such as tobacco, cotton and sugar recovered in 2009 as a result of the dollarisation of the economy and injection of finance through contract arrangements. 

The Peasantry under Mnangagwa

The ouster of former president Robert Mugabe, who was widely viewed as a symbol of pan-Africanism and radicalisation for introducing policies aimed at native African empowerment, and the ascension of his former deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa who is pro-capital has brought policy changes in the broader economic and agriculture sectors. While Zimbabwe  had previously adopted an inward-looking policy and only reached out to the Far East under the “Look East Policy,” the policy orientation post-November 2017 has shifted towards one that seeks to reach out to the US, Europe and Bretton Woods Institutions. 

Within the new administration’s current orientation is the view that agriculture is a vital cog in the economic engine. Therefore, agribusiness  firms and former white-commercial farmers  have to be fully embraced. This is being actualised through a number of initiatives such as the “Zimbabwe is Open for Business” mantra, the Investment and Business Facilitation bill as well as the Transitional and Stabilisation Plan that seek to simplify investing procedures as well as attract land-based investments (Mazwi et al 2018).  Additionally, the government has recently indicated that 37 foreign and local investors have been approved in the agricultural sector (Ncube 2019).

Concomitant to these announcements has been displacements of the peasantry in the countryside. Farm workers from the Bromley and  Manzou area in Mashonaland report of forceful evictions by state security. From our preliminary assessments, since November 2017, more than 30,000 people have either been evicted or threatened with eviction to make way for mining operations, foreign investments, and agribusiness operations, or for occupation by the bourgeois. Some of the farmers facing eviction have been living on their farms as far back as 2000, and are in possession of government–issued offer letters. These evictions are unwarranted, arbitrary and unjust.  They have fuelled growing fears by land and agrarian activists, the peasantry and the progressive intellectual community that if left unchecked, these developments could lead to a reversal of the land reform programme. Also underway are unbalanced and exploitative  “joint ventures” between black peasants and former white commercial farmers. While these arrangements, seen from the perspective of addressing gaps in agricultural financing and boosting agricultural production, resettled farmers cede control of land and production process to former white commercial farmers (Mazwi et al 2018). This will undoubtedly lead to land alienation and concentration by the elite, thereby intensifying social stratification and the pauperisation of the peasantry whose livelihoods are dependent on land control and ownership.

Economic Downturn and Peasant Distress

Since ascending to power in November 2017, the current Mnangagwa administration has implemented economic austerity measures whose impact is being severely felt by the peasantry. Through a budget speech presented by the Minister of Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube in November 2018, the government proposed to scrap a widely accessible state-led contract farming model known as command agriculture (CA) that offered input loans to resettled farmers. Unlike other forms of contract farming schemes offered by the private sector, CA did not require farmers to provide collateral upfront. The requirement of various forms of collateral security from the peasantry presents a serious hurdle for peasants who wish to access agrarian finance from the private sector. The state-led contract-farming scheme has played a major role in the country attaining  its first maize surplus post the 2000 land reform.  At the same time, the peasantry has managed to service the debts that were accrued from CA. Contrarily, richer farmers who are mainly composed of the country’s elite have not adequately serviced loans advanced to them (Mazwi et al 2019).

The weakening of the local real time gross settlement (RTGS) dollar—both on the official and parallel market—against the US dollar as well as skyrocketing inflation which stood at 97.85% in May 2019 (Kazunga 2019) has spelt doom for the peasantry, rendering their income from output sales valueless. It will be difficult for them to make any meaningful investments from crop sales or return to farming for the next season. The taxing system has also been broadly applied to the whole society. A compulsory 2% tax on most financial transactions has resulted in high costs for peasants. Conversely, the extractive industry, and more specifically the mining sector, has been awarded tax holidays for the next 10 to 15 years. The administration’s current trajectory is highly in favour of big capital at the expense of the struggling peasantry. The economic downturn in Zimbabwe is such that some farmers in the tobacco sector are reportedly smuggling their crops to neighbouring countries in an attempt to fetch a higher output price.

Charting a Way Forward for the Mnangagwa Regime

The previous Mugabe administration had its challenges: corruption, extravagant displays of wealth and the current currency crisis are only a few of them. However, it had a pro-peasant stance on land tenure and input subsidies—though the latter was limited due to capital flight. The current state of affairs calls for a rethink of future strategy. Here, we offer some insights of what could help Zimbabwe to navigate its way out of the economic crisis, and more importantly, help the peasantry reclaim its autonomy.

  • Resolving the current economic crisis requires a political settlement as the disputed 2018 presidential election lies at the heart of the crisis. Political dialogue must include not only political parties, but also various groups from the peasant and labour force, who are adversely affected. Rather than question who should be president, the focus needs to be on what must be done to a country whose middle and lower classes are bearing the brunt of a harsh economy. 
  • Also required is the removal of economic sanctions imposed by the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) (Mamdani 2009). Dialogue, both on the domestic front and at the international level, is key in resolving the agrarian crisis. Political engagement, which has so far been called for by the neo-liberal parties, the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union—Patriotic Front (Zanu—PF) and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, must consider the aspirations of the largely agrarian communities.
  • There is an urgent need for the formation of vibrant  peasant movements that can reclaim the emancipatory discourse that has been largely missing due to the current administration’s anti–peasant approach. The peasant class has been submerged by economic crisis, and have been demobilised since the fall of the Mugabe regime. Peasant organisations in Zimbabwe were aligned with the ruling ZANU–PF, and Mnangawa’s removal from the party also led to the demobilisation of some pro-peasant elements. Reformulated peasant organisations must demand from the duty bearer better services and programmes for the agrarian class. 
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