Land Reform

Zimbabwe’s unexpected U-turn on the land issue

Mugabe off his high horse on land

 South Africa would do well to take a hard look at the latest development on the land redistribution issue in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe’s minister of finance announced a proposed Land Compensation Fund, which, if approved by parliament, will turn the current policy on its head.

With the South African media trying to keep up with what is happening on the local political scene, the important announcement, which could have far-reaching consequences for South Africa, went by almost unnoticed.

Land Compensation Fund

According to Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa, a memorandum proposing the establishment of a Land Compensation Fund was last week presented to members of parliament for discussion and adoption.

The sensational proposal makes provision for the compensation of white former landowners who were forcibly chased off their farms in the early years of the new millennium. That action resulted in an international outcry, which contributed to the introduction of international sanctions against Zimbabwe.

In what is seen as a major policy shift, the three thousand white former farmers may be compensated for “both land and improvements”, as well as equipment taken during the often violent seizures of property led by Mugabe’s war veterans.

President Mugabe previously said payments would be made only for infrastructure investment such as dams, roads and buildings on seized farms. He maintained that the white farmers would not be compensated for the land because it had been stolen from the black majority during colonial rule.

Despite criticism and international pressure Mugabe did not budge and kept defending and justifying the expropriation of white-owned farms. He also turned a blind eye to the occupation, often illegal, of many of the farms, by well-connected politicians, government officials and business people, including his own family and wife, as Zimbabwe’s commercial agricultural sector collapsed.

Income for the Fund with its proposed budget of US$10 billion is apparently going to come from rentals and leases paid by the new occupants of seized farms, as well as from “development partners” and donors.

The new occupants are set to benefit too as the Fund will also be used to assist beneficiaries of seized land to “enhance productivity”.

Odd timing

The timing of the announcement seems somewhat odd.

Zimbabwe is financially broke, the current drought has forced the government to declare a national disaster and to appeal to the world for US$1.5 billion in emergency food aid and other assistance.

It remains inconceivable that the 200 000-plus beneficiaries of seized commercial farmland, which turned Zimbabwe once known as the ‘breadbasket of Southern Africa’, into a food insecure country and a net importer of food, would be able to finance the Fund by paying rentals and leases.

There is, as one observer described it, the peculiar contradiction that the same people paying rents and levies into the Land Compensation Fund are apparently also going to get assistance out of the Fund to “enhance productivity”.

Partly as a result of skill shortages, a lack of finances and climatic variables, and deserted by their government, most of the new landowners and farmers are failing.

In many cases they cannot provide their own seed and fertiliser to grow crops, continually needing inputs from the government.

Land grabbing in Zimbabwe did not reduce the inequality gap. As a matter of fact, it only triggered a sharp decline in food production, inevitably resulting in food shortages and food price increases, which in turn increased misery, hunger and poverty.

Mugabe’s land repossession plan, concocted as a punishment when he was facing a defeat at the ballot box, backfired spectacularly. Ordinary Zimbabweans have become the victims of a vindictive man’s desire for revenge.

Results of land grabs

The Zimbabwean government is placing high hopes on financial assistance from “development partners” and donors to bolster the Fund, but it is difficult to imagine substantial contributions to a politically and economically high-risk country.

The hard lesson learnt is that if you mismanage your economy, you will inevitably have to ask the IMF and World Bank for assistance, and that comes at a price – a price determined by them.

No change of heart

Most observers agree that the land compensation U-turn is not the result of a change of heart or a ‘Damascus experience’, but rather the consequence of years of political and economic mismanagement and pertinacity, which left a once-flourishing agricultural sector and a once-vibrant economy in ruins.

Zimbabwe is bankrupt, mainly self-inflicted, and the consequence of bad, ruinous policies, corruption, self-enrichment and entitlement by politicians and senior civil servants (and their family and friends), nepotism and tender fraud, to name but some of the many transgressions.

President Mugabe recently lamented the estimated US$15 billion siphoned from the country’s diamond fields by his friends and cronies, but he has only himself to blame and his crocodile tears come too late. He knew what was happening and did nothing to stop the plundering and theft.  

To rectify the situation, Zimbabwe needs money, and lots of it, and this is hard to come by in these days of international economic hardship.

China, the traditional ‘turn-to sponsor’ is experiencing its own economic challenges and has also, in light of the gross financial mismanagement under Mugabe’s watch, become a less generous benefactor.

This has left the Mugabe government with little room to manoeuvre and forced them to turn to the only help left, the hated West and ‘reprehensible institutions’ such as the IMF and World Bank.

It must be bitter pill to swallow, but Mugabe has no choice as this is of his own making. According to Finance Minister Chinamasa, President Mugabe is fully supportive of re-engaging his old adversaries.

The Land Compensation Fund is a desperate attempt to try and mend fences with the IMF, the World Bank and Western donors, to try and kick-start growth in an economy that is now half the size it was in 2000.


Some of the more outspoken political parties and individuals in South Africa, favouring the populist Zimbabwean land reform model, should take note of Zimbabwe’s apparent U-turn.

As they say, talk is cheap, but money buys the whisky.

by Garth Cilliers

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