By Peter Gambara
The past few weeks we have witnessed three rather disturbing incidents on farm grabs or invasions that left most people questioning whether we do indeed have the right land tenure system in Zimbabwe.
Former Hurungwe West MP, Temba Mliswa’s Spring farm in Karoi was allegedly invaded in a demonstration meant to register the ruling party’s displeasure about his decision to run as an independent candidate in the forthcoming by-elections to fill the vacant seat created after he was expelled from that party.
In Manicaland, the Minister of State for the province Mandi Chimene was reported to have taken former Zanu PF secretary for administration Didymus Mutasa’s farm. Mutasa was also recently expelled from the ruling party.
Some party youths also threatened to invade Ray Kaukonde’s farm(s) after his fallout with the ruling party. However, when former party stalwarts end up losing their properties because they have now fallen out of favour with their former ruling governing party, it begs the question, do we have the right land tenure system in the country?
How safe are all those who got farms under Phase II of the Land Reform Programme (LRP) from arbitral repossession of the farms by the state?
Beneficiaries of the Phase II of the land reform Programme commercial scheme were given offer letters and promised 99-year leases later on.
Under such an arrangement, the land remains the property of the state, which can withdraw the offer or lease at any time should it deem it fit.
This loophole has also caused problems with banks refusing to accept offer letters or 99-year lease agreements as collateral for loans applied for by the beneficiaries.
Efforts to process the outstanding 99-year leases have also hit a brick wall as government recently acknowledged that it does not have the necessary funds to pay surveyors to survey the new farm boundaries of land beneficiaries.
Since the launch of the programme, less than 200, 99-year lease agreements have been processed and these are mostly for high-raking government officials and ministers.
These developments have sent wrong signals to foreign investors, as well as to bankers.
Bankers’ reluctance to accept 99-year leases was based on the argument that government still controlled ownership of the land and there were no guarantees that should a farmer default, the bank can sell the land to a willing buyer. Normally when a person borrows money from the bank and an immovable property is offered as collateral security, the loan is endorsed on the title deed of the property at the deeds office.
In the case of the offer letters or 99-year leases, this cannot be legally binding. Offer letters can easily be replaced at the responsible issuing ministry.
Zimbabwe’s relations with some western countries have deteriorated because government did not adequately compensate the former white land owners.
Government changed the Lancaster House constitution 10 years after independence to make it the responsibility of the British government to compensate former white commercial farmers for any land acquired under Phase II of the LRP.
However, it remains the responsibility of the Zimbabwean government to compensate for any improvements that had been effected on the land for instance, dams, farm houses, barns, irrigation schemes etc. Due to scarce resources, government has also not been able to pay for these farm improvements to date.
Government has also seen its relations with some previously friendly western countries sour after it failed to protect the countries’ citizens from compulsory acquisition of their farms after it had agreed and signed country to country Bilateral Investment Protection Agreements (Bipas) with these countries.
Under these agreements, should government decide to acquire these protected properties, it is supposed to pay the full cost of the farms, that is both the cost of the land, as well as the improvements and the valuations are supposed to be done by independent valuers.
Zimbabwean diamonds were recently seized in Belgium by a group of 12 Dutch farmers whose Bipa-protected farms were compulsorily acquired by the government, but were not compensated.
The farmers sought to recover US$54 million awarded to them in 2009 by the Washington-based International Centre for Investment Disputes for breach of the Bipa following the compulsory acquisition of their properties.
The question that is on the minds of most land reform beneficiaries today, however, is are they safe on their properties they were given under Phase II of the LRP, after the recent land/farm grabs. The lack of decisiveness on the matter has also affected investments on the farms.
Most land beneficiaries who did not get existing infrastructure have been reluctant to put up permanent structures on these farms.
They are afraid that one day they might lose their farms and the investment on them.
Some critics have also questioned government’s commitment to declaring the end of the acquisition process of farms.
While re-organisation can continue to be done, based on the land audits, it is important to bring stability to the land market by assuring that those on the land will not be further displaced.
However, recent utterances from some provinces like Mashonaland East, Manicaland and Mashonaland West to the effect that land should still be acquired from the few remaining white farms in their provinces is disturbing. It is estimated that less than 100 white farmers remain with farms countrywide.
The questions therefore are what message does this convey to the international community at a time we are desperately seeking foreign direct investment (FDI)?
Does our new constitution allow us to discriminate against these few remaining white farmers on the grounds that they are white? Can this be justified in this day and age? And is it worth it?
While such statements are made by low-level activists on the ground, it is the duty of government ministers to state the right position. This is similar to xenophobic attacks in South Africa, where there were calls for national leaders to put the record straight after Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini allegedly called for the expulsion of foreign nationals.
Zimbabwe is failing to attract FDI and this is partly responsible for the liquidity crunch and closure of a lot of our local companies as they cannot re-tool and compete with foreign goods from South Africa.
While countries like Ethiopia are said to be attracting an average of US$1,5 billion per year in FDI for the next three years, Zimbabwe is struggling to attract a mere US$400 million per year in FDI. Our neighbours like Zambia and Mozambique are attracting US$5 billion and US$2 billion in FDI respectively.
It would appear sometimes we shoot ourselves in the foot, by allowing our people to be reckless or by embarking on self-destructive practices. The invasion or retaking of land from the current beneficiaries because they have now fallen out of favour with their former ruling party should be stopped by the relevant authorities.
Mliswa had to take his matter to the High Court to get some redress. The defence given by those responsible for invading the farm was unconvincing, if not embarrassing.
We expect better than that from those responsible to control such rowdy behaviour as such actions tarnish the image of the ruling party and the country.
Sceptics of the land reform programme have often argued that the beneficiaries of the land reform programme should not get title deeds to the land as they did not pay a single cent to government nor to those previous land owners who had bought their farms.
Those who were allocated land under the Commercial Farm Settlement Scheme got theirs under a more favourable land tenure system.
They were required to show that they are indeed farmers by coming up with production plans that they could achieve in a five-year period.
They also had to build a homestead, put in place conservation works as well as paddocks (if this was necessary). Once they had complied, they had the option to purchase the farm and get title to it. They could still get time to pay, just like those who purchase houses in town, get loans that are payable over 10 to 25 years.
This way, the land market will be active and those who want to farm can still do so. It will also bring about the much-needed resources to pay off the land owners who are still to be paid for their improvements, as well as pay those whose farms were compulsorily acquired but protected under the Bipas.
Some of these countries whose citizens lost their land despite the Bipas are Italy, Netherlands and Germany. Most of these countries used to offer us a lot of support for our development projects during the early years and it is important that we re-establish the good relations that once existed with them.
It takes much effort to re-establish soured relations with a former friend and the sooner we get started, the better.
We desperately need to rebrand our image to be able to attract the necessary FDI to resuscitate our economy.
Let’s not allow our local politics to spoil the current re-engagement efforts of the likes of Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa, who is among a few top government officials trying his best to restore the country’s image.
Gambara is a local agricultural economist