The Structure of the Land Occupation Movement
The land occupations unfolded in a complex way, driven by local and regional peculiarities, but they shared a common social base, that of the rural-based semiproletariat, across gender and ethno-regional cleavages. The strengths of the land occupation movement are to be found precisely in this social base, and, moreover, in its militant commitment to land repossession—a commitment that no other civic organization had ever been willing to make. Over time, this social base expanded to include urban poor and petty- bourgeois elements, who were also co-opted into the fast-track redistribution program. This would strengthen the movement, especially by bridging the organizational divide among the rural and urban poor, while the petty-bourgeois overture would not threaten, as yet, the overall class content of the movement. The movement was also strengthened in its momentum by the endorsement of the process by the black capitalist lobby and, ultimately, by the stitching together, through the war veterans association, of a tense but resolute cross-class nationalist alliance on land. In this case, too, the black capitalist lobby would not yet threaten the working-class content of the movement. In all, this cross-class nationalist alliance would stand opposed to the cross-class “post-national” (or “civic national”) alliance of civil society, including the MDC, trade unions, NGOs, and white farmers.
The land occupation movement was organized and led by the war veterans association. This was also a profound source of strength, combining militancy on the land question with an organizational structure permeating state and society. The war veterans activated their organizational roots as much in rural districts, through the local branches of the association, as in all levels of the state apparatus, including local and central government, the police, the military, the Central Intelligence Organisation, the state media (print, TV, and radio), and the ruling party. This pervasive weblike structure would contain the unique potential to mobilize both the rural areas and the state apparatus behind the land cause.
The state bureaucrats would, however, seek to develop hegemony over the land occupations and even own the land revolution. And this would occur through the control of the ideological content of media representations of the “Third Chimurenga”
(“Uprising”); insistence on the use of a state right, legislatively defined (i.e., through amendments to the constitution and the Land Acquisition Act), to expropriate the occupied lands and the larger areas required by an expanding movement; and by its custody of land reform policy as defined in the fast-track program documents and of oversight of implementation at both central and provincial levels. This way, the land occupation movement gradually became “programmatised.”
In this context, the war veterans association would also become a source of weakness for the movement, for several discernable reasons. First, the war veterans association emerged as a single-issue movement, focusing exclusively on the immediate question of land repossession and not on longer-term political economic questions, particularly the post-fast-track phase. Relatedly, the war veterans association would not seek to establish self-sustaining, democratic peasant-worker organizational structures, with a view to prepare for longer-term class-based political education and ideological struggle. Third, while its nationalism was itself organic and indispensable, its class content was not clearly articulated. The movement sustained a militant anticolonial nationalism, focused organizationally and ideologically on land repossession, and as effective as this would prove for land repossession, the class direction of the movement would remain threatened by the direction of class conflict within the war veterans association itself and the ruling party.
The principle tactic of the movement was the land occupation. This tactic built on the previous sporadic and scattered land occupations, specifically those that unfolded during the 1998 Donors’ Conference. The new and much larger wave of land occupations began in February 2000, following a preelections referendum on constitutional reform in which the proposal of the ruling party was defeated, thereby signaling the end game for the liberation movement. Land occupations began in Masvingo but spread to the Matabeleland and Mashonaland provinces, at a slower pace in the former and a faster pace in the latter, which would, in turn, become the epicenter.65 Land occupations focused on white farms but also sporadically on farms owned by black capitalists and the political elite. In the beginning, land occupations focused on underutilized land, but this, too, would change to include productive land, especially land that fit other criteria, such as multiple ownership, foreign ownership, and contiguity to communal areas. Land occupations also expanded to periurban areas, upon the entry of urban poor and petty-bourgeois elements. In a few cases, leadership to the land occupations was not provided by war veterans but individual MPs and traditional leaders, who, in turn, sought to “formalise” their occupations by appealing to war veterans. There were also instances of antagonism between the local initiatives and the higher echelons of the war veterans’ command structure, which would cause friction within the movement. And violence occurred on an estimated 300 farms, depending on the response of the farmers as well as relations with farm workers.
Farm workers, in some cases, supported and joined the land occupations, while in many other cases, they resisted the land occupations, and violence and evictions were used against them. This would prove another weakness of the land occupation movement: its rapid emergence, without a preexisting process of political education and mobilization on the farms, would pit the landless workers against the farm workers, in a climate of distrust, in which the latter would be perceived as having been mobilized by landowners to vote against the government’s constitutional proposals. On the one hand, the farm workers had never been mobilized by their trade union representatives toward land repossession; instead, representatives had always focused on reformist workers’ issues (wages and conditions of employment). On the other hand, war veterans had an ambiguous, even arrogant, posture toward farm workers, viewing them as incapable of nationalist political consciousness. In a tense conjuncture, farm workers were faced with the choice of either defending their jobs and employers or joining the land occupations and staking their hopes on accessing land either through the war veterans directly or through family links in the communal areas. A minority of farm workers of non-Zimbabwean origin were in a particularly precarious situation, and so were women farm workers, the majority of whom were employed casually on the farms and had weak access of their own to the land application process in the rural areas. Farm workers thus found themselves in a confounding antagonism in which their erstwhile employers and exploiters—the landowners—were defending them, and vice versa, in opposition to land redistribution. And this contradiction would not be resolved by initiative of the war veterans, who did not see it fit to win over the farm workers by providing them access to land, beyond 5 percent of the 150,000 displaced workers (to be discussed).
Finally, the strategy of seeking land reform through the ruling party and the state was also both a strength and a weakness of the land occupation movement. On the one hand, the ruling party proceeded rapidly with constitutional reforms to expedite compulsory land acquisition procedures, modifying existing provisions for compensation by limiting it only to improvements on the land and explicitly relegating any other responsibility for compensation to the British government. These were complemented by presidential decrees, under the Presidential Powers Act, to amend the Land Acquisition Act (2000) several times so as to postpone compensation and remove legal recourse and other procedural impediments to land acquisition. Thereafter, the ruling party passed the Rural Land Occupiers (Protection from Eviction) Act (2001), by which the landless would be afforded legal protection from eviction. These legislative changes were conducted through repeated confrontation with the High and Supreme Courts responsible for the protection of private property. In the countryside, the security apparatus of the state (police, military, and CIO) would intervene to provide logistical support to the land occupation movement, as well as protection against possible militarization on the part of the landowners and other violence outside its control. Finally, the state also entered the propaganda war vociferously through the state media, even to the point of threatening the existence of private media (followed, in late 2003, by the shutting down of the leading private daily newspaper, the Daily News).
On the other hand, the fundamentally bourgeois structure of the bureaucracy would not be dissolved. That is, the leadership of the land occupation movement remained unable, even unwilling, to wrest control of the ruling party and state from the black elite. On the contrary, the black elite employed the state apparatus to retain its power and prepare the ground for its reassertion in national politics. And here, the basic tactic was the same as that employed throughout the colonial and neocolonial periods, that is, the splitting of the semiproletariat organizationally between town and country. Besides facilitating and protecting the land occupation movement, the lead?ership of the ruling party used the state apparatus to drive a forceful wedge between organized urban workers and their rural counterparts, by repressing urban working class demonstrations, persecuting trade union leaders, and disorganizing trade union structures. The immediate objective of this instrumentalization of violence would be twofold: the safeguarding of the land reform process against reactionary trade unionism and the securing of the parliamentary (June 2000) and presidential (March 2002) elections against the “post-nationalist” alliance. This practice would survive both fast-track and the elections, to the point of undermining systematically any source of working class organization outside elite ruling-party control, in both town and country.
In this contradictory process, the class balances within the nationalist alliance would also begin to shift against the semiproletariat. The black elite exercised its bureaucratic power not only to make room for the urban petty-bourgeoisie on 22,896 small/middle capitalist farms (by 2010) but also for itself, appropriating 150,000 hectares (0.5 percent of the acquired land) for the benefit of an estimated 178 elites. It also steered the land reform process away from several key agroindustrial estates of private (individual and corporate) and state ownership and, in all, ensured that lands redistributed to the semiproletariat would be largely confined to those of relatively lower agroecological potential and limited access to irrigation infrastructure. The urban working class was further segmented by the offer to over 10,000 families of small (3—20 hectares) plots in the periurban zones and the initiation of land for housing among the homeless and others who pursued this new entitlement on the basis of urban land occupations. Moreover, with the end of fast-track land redistribution and the withering away of the land occupation movement under the single-issue leadership of the war veterans association, there would remain a minimum of an organized structure among the peasantry to exercise influence over the post-redistribution phase of agrarian reform.
We may conclude that the strategy of pursuing land reform through the ruling party and the state did not go far enough within the ruling party and the state to safeguard the peasant-worker character of the movement or to prepare the semiproletariat organizationally against the reassertion of the black bourgeoisie, especially in the post-fast-track phase. Despite this, however, we must also conclude that the land occupation movement succeeded in compelling the expropriation of over 90 percent of commercial farmland, broadening substantially the structure of the home market, removing the racialized structure of class struggle, and laying the necessary foundations for the next phase of the national democratic revolution.