The Interaction of Land Reform Models, 1980—1997

The first period can be further subdivided into two, 1980—1985 and 1985—1992: in the first, political emphasis was placed on engaging actively with the market and delivering land to the peasantry, while in the second, land redistribution tapered off, alongside the deteriorating fiscal status of the state and the embourgeoisement of the liberation movement. As such, the first subperiod was also the one in which the ruling party sought to appease its main constituency, and the second was the one in which the social base of the ruling party would shift to the aspiring black bourgeoisie and in which a rift would emerge between the ruling party and the countryside.

Yet, the land occupation tactic was not relinquished from one period to the next, it was only modified in form. The early independence years were characterized by “low profile, high intensity occupations,”56 which received sympathetic support and even encouragement from political leaders at the local level of the ruling party, mainly in Manicaland province. And in these years, the pace of land acquisition and redistribution through the market was relatively rapid, totaling approximately 2,200,000 hectares, at 430,000 hectares per year. This included land that had been abandoned by white landowners in the liberated zones of the war and, hence, was more easily acquirable. In Matabeleland, the land occupations and the land reform process itself would fall victim to the ZANU-ZAPU power struggle and the security crackdown by the state; only after the Unity Accords in 1987 did the political climate in Matabeleland begin to tolerate land reclamations, but even then to little effect, as the land posture of the state was already under transformation.

From 1985 to 1992, the countrywide pace of acquisition diminished dramatically to 75,000 hectares per year and to a total of about 450,000 hectares. This deceleration was accompanied by a reversal of the political response to land occupations at the local level, including the Mashonaland provinces, as well as by a transformation of land occupations to what we may term “normal low intensity.”57 Significantly, from 1985 onward, the state resorted to the establishment of a “squatter control” apparatus at the local level, through Squatter Control Committees accountable to the Ministry of Local Government, for the purpose of monitoring illegal self-provisioning of land and carrying out mass evictions.58 This meant, in effect, that, on the one hand, the semiproletariat lost whatever informal influence it may have once had over national land policy, but on the other hand, the state itself would not succeed, even through squatter control, to stem the process of land self-provisioning. Thus, a political stalemate in the battle over land would set in and form the background of structural adjustment.

Over the period of 1980-1992, market-driven land reform proved its inability to deliver on Zimbabwe’s land question. The process not only was slow and incremental but also delivered land of low agroecological value and imposed onerous fiscal demands on an already financially constrained state. As has been noted elsewhere,59 only a small proportion of the land acquired (19 percent) was of prime agroecological value, the rest in the less fertile regions. By the mid-1980s, the state realized that it was facing diminishing returns on its resources devoted to land acquisition. This was the case despite the fact that the United Kingdom, as the former colonial power, provided financing for land reform on a matching-grant basis. On the whole, Britain contributed US$44 million to land reform, an amount grossly inadequate to the resolution of Zimbabwe’s land question. The slow and mistargeted nature of the land reform process would become, from the mid-1980s onward, a source of bitter diplomatic conflict between the governments of Zimbabwe and the United Kingdom.60 This was compounded by the gradual emergence of black large-scale commercial farmers, who had also benefited from the market method.

This conflict intensified on the expiry of the Lancaster House provisions for “willing-buyer, willing-seller” land transfers and the enactment of constitutional provisions for compulsory acquisition. In 1990, despite the launch of structural adjustment, the government signaled a change of direction on land policy, and in 1992, it proceeded with a new Land Acquisition Act, legalizing compulsory acquisition with provisions for compensation and legal recourse, and without displacing the market principle. Thereafter, the market method would continue to prevail in the political process, as structural adjustment submerged the land question resolutely, but the two methods (state and market) would enter a period of open competition. Importantly, compulsory acquisition was the favored principle not only of the semiproletariat, but more immediately, of the aspiring black capitalist class. In fact, black capital in the 1990s would enhance its presence in the large-scale commercial farming sector, such that by the end of the market-based reform period, about 800 black commercial farmers had emerged, either through land purchases or leases on approximately 10 percent of large-scale commercial farmland. But in all, the pace of land reform remained slow. In 1992-1997, about 790,000 hectares of land were acquired, at a pace of 158,000 hectares per year; this involved the resettlement of 600 peasant families displaced by the construction of the Osborne Dam.

The combination of structural adjustment and “indigenisation” of the land question had as its corollary the intensification of low-profile land occupations. As private and public sector jobs were shed, real wages reduced, and farm incomes undermined, the demand for land and its natural resources increased among the semiproletarian households, in both rural and urban areas.61 Thus, several new squatting trends emerged in the 1990s. In one trend, squatting spread from large-scale commercial farming areas to other land tenure regimes, to such an extent that the bulk of officially recognized squatters were now in communal areas (33 percent), plus resettlement areas (12 percent), urban areas (10 percent), and state lands (31 percent), and only a minority (14 percent) on commercial farms.62 In another trend, land sales and rental markets deepened within communal and resettlement areas. Title to such land is legally vested in the state and administered “customarily” by traditional authorities in the first instance. But in the 1990s, communal land was increasingly commoditized by payment of fees or political obligation to local MPs, ruling party members, chiefs, headmen, and spirit mediums. In turn, land conflicts among “villagers” and “squatters” also intensified.

These new squatting trends rendered “squatter control” ever less effective, though the apparatus continued to be applied with vigilance. In 1992, the squatter control policy was reconstituted within the Ministry of Local Government to establish a hierarchy of national, provincial, and district squatter control committees and to grant “the land authority or owner” the legal power to evict. In effect, this meant that the national land problem would be “parochialised” on communal land and “privatised” on commercial farms. And on this basis, mass evictions were repeatedly implemented under structural adjustment, in some cases involving hundreds of squatter families at a time, in a manner reminiscent of the methods of the white-settler colonial state.63

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