Feature: Phases of Zim’s land reform: A shifting political economy

This is the phase that most people refer to when they talk about Zimbabwe’s land reform, even though it started more than 20 years ago.

When many people make grand proclamations about Zimbabwe’s land reform, there is often very little specificity — both of where and when they are talking about. For the post-2000 land reform is not an event, but a process — with both a prehistory going back to the colonial era and a future that remains uncertain. Being definitive about outcomes and consequences is impossible.

However, specifying where and when is vital. This article focuses on the temporal dimension and suggests that we should think of Zimbabwe’s land reform in terms of a number of phases, unfolding unevenly in different places over time.

The first phase I call invasion and establishment

This is the phase that most people refer to when they talk about Zimbabwe’s land reform, even though it started more than 20 years ago. This was the jambanja period when people from nearby communal areas and towns, sometimes joined by farm workers, and supported by war veterans, invaded (mostly) white-owned farms, evicting the former owner, sometimes violently. This was then followed by an allocation process that formalised these new farms. At the same time larger A2 farms were established, part of the wider political bargain with elites, offering medium-scale properties — subdivided farms. The scale of the process was far larger than imagined, but people especially on the smallholder A1 farms quickly moved to the phase of farm establishment. In part this was the direct contestation of property rights, but it was also about survival as they set about clearing land, establishing homesteads and getting going with cultivation. Our earlier work concentrated on this period, showing the remarkable process of establishment and its value.

The second phase I call accumulation and differentiation

This phase coincides approximately with the period from 2006 to 2013. Once fields were cleared, homes built and equipment and livestock acquired, production started in earnest. But this was uneven as some did much better than others. This was clear by the time we published our book in 2010 but became even more starker in the coming years. There was much movement of people at that time. Some left, while others took on new roles as labourers, including former farm workers. The economy was in turmoil up to 2009 when dollarisation occurred and for much of this time, production and marketing was localised and inward looking. For A1 farmers this did not matter terribly, but for the more ambitious commercial farmers of the A2 areas, this was disastrous. No-one could establish a business under such conditions of hyperinflation, parallel currencies and extreme shortages, let alone a farming business where there were no credit and loan facilities. After 2009, which for some might actually be another phase during which a government of national unity was formed, there was more stability and the potential to invest. This saw the stabilisation of A2 farms, the emergence of more commercial networks, the growth of markets outside local areas and the rise in contract farming, and so was the prelude to the next phase.

The third, current phase, what I call economic integration and linkage

This phase started in the build up to the ‘coup’, leading to the time Mnangagwa took over, which was full of rhetoric about how business development would triumph. This was preceded by a greater accommodation of elite business interests connected to the party as Zanu PF morphed into the political arm of a military-business elite, with a myriad of ever-changing, competing factions. Gone was the populist language about smallholders of the past. Especially after Mnangagwa took over, some large-scale capital interests — domestic and international, and often combinations — started to invest (although not at the scale that the “open for business” rhetoric had hoped). Some continued the corrupt deals of before, but others genuinely showed the potential to invest in the agricultural sector. There were many such enterprises, facilitating the marketing of a huge diversity of products. Until inflation began to return with a vengeance in the last year or two, this investment had had a number of effects.

The increase in joint ventures on A2 farms ushered in new sources of capital to boost productivity and invest on farms. For some this was seen as a reversal of the progressive gains of land reform, and in some cases such investments resulted in the grabbing of farms that had been occupied but not officially registered, as new investors took on defunct State farms. For others such joint ventures were the fillip that the ailing A2 sector needed. Without commercial finance — the banks were still refusing to lend to farmers due to uncertainties over land ownership and the continued lack of a compensation deal with former owners — such sources of finance through partnership arrangements were essential. As capital — of different types and origins, and with different political connections —engages with land reform areas new dynamics of accumulation and so differentiation — emerged.

The changing political economy of land

Each phase is of course co-constituted with the wider politics of the time. The invasion and establishment phase emerged of course in part as a consequence of the constitutional referendum of 2000 and the rise of the opposition party under Morgan Tsvangirai, with the ruling party feeling under genuine threat perhaps for the first time since independence. This was an unruly period, with few constraints on actions by many, including the war veterans, as the ruling party and then President Robert Mugabe were running scared. The rhetoric of “liberation” and the language of war was used alongside the standard populist positioning of Mugabe in relation to the rural population: he was on the poor rural person’s side as they were his big vote bank, and he would deliver, not just in terms of food and fertiliser handouts during droughts, but the big promise from the liberation struggle, land. The land invasion however, by all accounts took the leadership by surprise and, although attempts to formalise the process were instituted under the fast-track programme, it had its own dynamics outside centralised political control. 

The local differentiation and accumulation period coincided with economic turmoil, particularly the period of hyperinflation, peaking dramatically in 2008 and then leading up to the dollarisation of the economy and the Government of National Unity (GNU) from 2009.

During the hyperinflation period money became meaningless and formal market exchange impossible, but it was also a time when unscrupulous politicians and businesspeople were able to exploit this chaos through huge, corrupt scams, often involving government money.

The relative stability of the GNU and early dollarisation was a dramatic contrast; this was perhaps the only period when a reasonable stable market and wider polity allowed a more conventional pattern of investment. Farming livelihoods can only be understood in terms of this rollercoaster of both economics and politics in this period, which of course began to change as the political pact dissolved following the 2013 elections, and “sanctions” and economic mismanagement combined to cause problems again.

The most recent phase what I have called an economic integration and linkage phase

This phase starts in the build-up to the “coup” and the ousting of Mugabe by Mnangagwa and his military allies and foreign supporters. The opening up of the economy, the attraction of investment from national and international investors and the massive growth of contracting arrangements and joint ventures reflect a new engagement with capital. Rather than the disconnected, subsistence and barter exchange economy that existed in previous phases, in the recent phase big capital has returned. It is not quite what was hoped for following the slogan "open for business", due to continuing sanctions, rising debt obligations and the failure of the Mnangagwa government to meet the requirements for new loans and donor finance. However, despite the constraining conditions, certainly there is money in Zimbabwe’s weird parallel economy: just look at all the new cars, the massive amount of building and the growth of new enterprises in many towns and cities. This may come from shady sources, including the recycling of public funds for private gain, but it also comes from investors with money to spare, including from South Africa, where Zimbabwe is seen by some as a place for rich pickings from speculative investments, even if the risks are high.

What happens next will depend on the political economy of the bargain between the ruling elite, farmers (operating at different scales) across the resettlements and diverse fractions of capital. As before, how this will play out will much depend on the political landscape. With little prospect of major changes following the elections of 2023, it will be the fragile balance between interests among the ruling political-business-military elite that will greatly influence outcomes. And, as everyone knows, this all remains very contested and uncertain.


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