Why Zimbabwe has failed to fix rural hunger

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER JOE

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER JOE

Almost 40 years after its independence, land reform remains at the heart of Zimbabwe’s political and economic challenges. But perhaps more than any other issue in Zimbabwe, it has historically been met with inertia from government and the international community.

Governments throughout the world have found difficulty devising economically successful land tenure models that incorporate landless populations meaningfully into food and cash crop production. Zimbabwe is no exception.

In Southern Rhodesia, the development of the settler agricultural economy was based on the widespread expropriation of land and the forced removal of native populations to reserves. Settler populations maintained access to the best land in the colony, where land holdings were based on colour and ethnicity.

Southern Rhodesia’s Land Apportionment Act of 1930 reserved 50% of the land in the country for white settlers, 30% for Africans, and 20% for commercial companies and the colonial government. This set the stage for future President Robert Mugabe’s childhood and the second Chimurenga.

The end of settler colonialism and the coming of majority rule in Zimbabwe did not change skewed land ownership patterns. This was despite the fact that Mugabe came to power largely on the promise of redistributing land to the rural poor

Independence and commercial agriculture
Under the Lancaster House Agreement, Mugabe’s government could only acquire land on a “willing seller, willing buyer, fair market” basis for the first ten years of independence. This undoubtedly stalled land reform. Only about 50,000 households were settled in the first decade of independence.

Mugabe blamed the slow pace of reform on Britain, which cancelled its promised funding of the program in the face of corruption allegations. Critics accused Mugabe of awarding tracts of land to government ministers and party loyalists.

The slow pace of land reform continued after the end of the Lancaster House Agreement. This was in part due to subsequent land acts that protected commercial agricultural production. These continued Lancaster House’s willing seller, willing buyer, and fair market compensation principles, thereby protecting settler commercial agricultural production.

But the government was also constrained by the need to maintain the commercial agricultural sector, its ties to the local economy, and its important export earnings. To a government consolidating power in the country, it became more important to maintain the status quo and keep export earnings rather than to challenge largely white commercial farming interests. In the first decade after independence, agriculture provided 45% of the country’s exports, 60% of the raw materials used by Zimbabwean industry, and 70% of employment for the population.

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Robert MugabeZimbabwe
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