Land tenure issue merits a referendum

GOVERNMENT’S policy ambiguity concerning 99-year land leases for farmers has been interestingly challenged by a re-ignited debate concerning the bankability of such leases.

When Finance minister Tendai Biti mentioned in his mid-term fiscal policy review statement that there was need to ensure that the new farmers acquired collateral by considering issuing title deeds to farmers, MPs appeared somewhat confused. Some, probably Zanu PF MPs, jeered at the proposals and the MDC MPs jeered back when Biti emphasised matters of posterity and productivity. And it would appear that the matter seems to have rested there. There have been no further official pronouncements as to what is going to happen. Neither has the banking sector issued a comprehensive response to the proposals. What is known however is that there was a period in which the Agricultural Bank (Agribank) gave out some small government-backed loans to new farmers based on using livestock as collateral in the last season. Whether these loans were repaid might be a matter for the banks to disclose, a move that would probably be most helpful to the public.
A number of economists have regularly called for the privatisation of state land. And this call had initially been with particular reference to communal areas that are in the control of the state. When the fast track land reform programme (FTLRP) was undertaken, the issue of tenure also affected  the resettled areas that previously were not  under direct state ownership or control. The government then instituted the 99-year lease agreement for some of the new farmers in the hope that this would allow them security of tenure and therefore the ability to acquire bank loans or investments that would boost their productivity. In the aftermath of the inclusive government and the proposals  to Parliament in last month’s fiscal policy review, this issue has been given a much more political dimension due to the proposal for full land tenure as opposed to 99-year state leases.
Zanu PF is clearly opposed to this as it would seemingly rationalise what they have all along called a third Chimurenga. The rationalisation would be in the sense that once full land ownership is given to the individual farmer, the state would no longer have any direct bearing on either the particular usage of the land or alternatively the government no longer being able to threaten any resettled farmer with state repossession of the farm for any reason that may range from the political to the economic. This proposal, as far as Zanu PF would be concerned, would mean that their third Chimurenga has passed the irrational phase and can no longer be used as a political instrument.
For the MDC it would seem that the issue of land tenure has been part of their policy plans for some time now. Their combined calls for a land audit as well as rationalising the land reform has been in the public domain for a while now. Zanu PF has however sought to politicise it by saying it is a disguised yearning for a return to the pre-2000 land ownership patterns. This is however a moot point because even the new farmers have generally indicated that they too would like to be able to acquire resources outside of the state allocations.
Of these two positions, given the still prevalent sensitivity of the land question in Zimbabwe, one cannot find an easy answer. It is no longer feasible to simply argue for the privatisation of all land because of the FTLRP.
If one were to merely privatise the land that was redistributed after 2000, what is to prevent the new farmer from re-selling that land to the highest bidder and thus making national land ownership, once again, the preserve of the few? Even where one were to argue that there is a need to ensure state protection, what prevents the state’s role in 99-year leases from becoming one of unbridled state capitalism, wherein the state directly interferes with issues of land usage on all commercial farms? Ethiopia is an example of such unbridled state capitalism. Its government opted to lease large tracts of its land to foreign based companies whose interests are to feed their own countries’ domestic demands as opposed to the needs of Ethiopian citizens.
The solution to Zimbabwe’s land tenure problem requires a holistic approach. This approach must be one that analyses both the communal areas and those that are now referred to as resettlement areas both before 2000 and after.
The government must examine in a less political manner what it views as the key priorities of land reform. It has said that it wants production to increase as well as to ensure the empowerment of all Zimbabweans. In order to arrive at this, the solution resides in the state taking on a democratic role on issues of land reform.
It has to consult the people in the aftermath of 2000, and in the context of the inclusive government, what they expect of land reform and land tenure. The general public consensus may be that the land must be given to the people, but it is now the methodology that needs public assent, not elitist assumptions of those in government. Indeed, this would be a matter that on its own, merits a national referendum.

Takura Zhangazha is a Harare based political analyst.

Top