Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

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Counting the cost of Zimbabwean land reform

Counting the cost of Zimbabwean land reform

Tony Hawkins
01 November 2012

Tony Hawkins says there are no shortage of apologists determined to gainsay 
the awful consequences

Land reform and Zimbabwe’s lost decade

The story of Zimbabwe’s land resettlement began in 2000 when Robert Mugabe 
released his dogs of war to evict white commercial farmers from their land.

That year the country’s farmlands yielded some 4.2m tonnes of agricultural 
produce, according to the Commercial Farmers Union (see chart below). But by 
the end of this country’s “lost decade”, 1998 to 2008, agricultural output 
had slumped more than 60% to 1.6m tonnes. The estimate for 2012 is 2.1m 
tonnes-half of what was produced 12 years ago.

Were that the sole statistic for measuring the achievements of land 
resettlement, it would be bad enough. But when the impact on the economy as 
a whole is taken into account, the picture is far bleaker.

Zimbabwe’s real GDP fell 40% from $6.6 billion in 2000 to $4.1 billion in 
2010, while real per capita incomes in 2011 were 37% lower than when 
Zimbabwe finally gained independence from Britain in April 1980, according 
to the World Bank.

Despite these harsh truths there is no shortage of apologists determined to 
gainsay them. These range from itinerant United Kingdom academics seeking to 
establish a reputation for themselves using specious, carefully-sanitised 
case-study data to the political scientists, journalists and politicians 
determined to prove that sub- Saharan Africa would be a better place without 
commercial agriculture.

It is true that if the official data are to be believed-and they come with a 
very serious health warning-in 2011 there were some 700,000 people employed 
on re-settlement farms, double the number ever employed in commercial 
agriculture before 2000. But there is very little in these data for land 
reform apologists to celebrate. For a start, the figures for 2010 show that 
a year earlier there had been 1.15m people employed on these same farms and 
that some 450,000 jobs had disappeared in just 12 months.

Then there are the wage numbers. Farmworkers on resettled properties were 
earning $10 a month in 2011 in an industry where the minimum official wage 
is $80 monthly, according to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency. The 
average wage outside agriculture is $530 a month, which also speaks volumes 
for the “success” of resettlement.

At independence in 1980, large-scale commercial farmers, almost all of them 
white, owned 15.5m hectares of land, or 39% of the total, predominantly in 
the regions of the country with better climates and soil. The bulk of the 
rest was owned communally (41.4%) while urban/ national parks and other 
state-owned land accounted for a further 15.9%, leaving small-scale 
non-communal farmers occupying just 3.5% of the total.

Following the completion of the land programme in 2009, resettlement farmers 
occupied 26.8% of the land while the share of large-scale commercial growers 
had been reduced to 6%. The communal share was unchanged at 41%, as was the 
share of parks and state-owned land at 15.9%.

A degree of equity in land occupation-though not ownership-was achieved, 
albeit in an extraordinarily arbitrary and unfair way. The Zimbabwean media 
is full of reports of multiple farm ownership by prominent politicians, 
judges, bureaucrats and army, air force and police officers. According to 
the September 14th 2012 edition of the Independent weekly newspaper, Senate 
President Edna Mazongwe owns six farms, Local Government Minister Ignatius 
Chombo owns five, Home Affairs Minister Kembo Mohadi four and Indigenisation 
Minister Saviour Kasukuwere owns two.

Had the process been conducted in a transparent, non-violent and, above all, 
legal manner, it might have been possible to share the apologists’ view that 
social gains had been made, albeit at enormous economic cost. But the entire 
operation was cronyism and political patronage at its worst. Those now on 
the land do not own it. They can never be certain that a future government 
will not seek to reverse the process. Even the arbitrarily-distributed 
social benefits are cloaked in insecurity and uncertainty.

Worse, the programme lacked economic rationale. The original aim in the 
early 1980s was to reduce the overcrowded population on communal lands to 
some 350,000. But by the early 1990s, after a decade of lacklustre progress 
in land resettlement, there were over 1m families eking out a precarious 
living as subsistence farmers.

For land resettlement to work, the government should have opted for a multi- 
pronged approach. For a start, it needed to raise productivity and living 
standards in the communal areas, not just by reducing the population there, 
but also by investing in infrastructure and skills development. At the same 
time, as people were moved out of these areas, they should have had either a 
place-or better still-a job to go to. This did not happen. When fast-track 
land resettlement took off, the government simply allocated land-or allowed 
people to evict the owners and settle-without funding, without extension 
support and without infrastructure. The programme was programmed to fail, as 
it duly did.

This was hardly surprising. A government bureaucracy which has proved unable 
to operate a customs post at Beitbridge on the South African border, or a 
passport office in Harare, was never going to make a success of a 
highly-complex and technical task such as land resettlement, especially 
since it was starved of funds.

A further aspect, neatly captured by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in 
their 2012 book “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and 
Poverty”, was the conduct of “extractive” institutions (their term) as 
distinct from inclusive ones. “Extractive political institutions concentrate 
power in the hands of a narrow elite and place few constraints on the 
exercise of power. Economic institutions are then structured by the elite to 
extract resources from the rest of society.”

In Zimbabwe extractive institutions in the form of cronyism in land 
redistribution, in the exploitation of diamonds and in access to bank loans, 
municipal land and government contracts worked to the advantage of the 
Zanu-PF elite. Recent media reports and anecdotal evidence show that some in 
Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change have been quick to leap 
aboard the same gravy train. Until Zimbabwe’s society becomes more 
pluralistic and its institutions more inclusive, little will change.

The apologists have seized on structural change in the tobacco sector to 
justify their claims that-given time- land resettlement will succeed. In 
2013, according to the state Tobacco Industries Marketing Board, there will 
be more than 50,000 registered tobacco growers, all but 800 of them 
small-scale. In 2012 resettled farmers produced 42% of the crop, while 750 
large-scale commercial farmers grew 29%. Communal farmers and small-scale 
commercial producers grew a further 29%.

Within a few years-since 2007-the centre of gravity in the tobacco industry 
has swung from large to small scale, fuelled in part by the extension of 
contract farming to smallholders. With this shift, quality and productivity 
have declined. The proportion of below-average quality tobacco rose from 16% 
in 2001 to 35.5% in 2010. Over the same period, yield per hectare for the 
entire industry tumbled 20%.

In a dollarised economy, exporters cannot look to currency devaluation to 
offset this combination of declining productivity and deteriorating quality. 
This is where the smallholder tobacco models are falling short. So long as 
smallholders can minimise costs by “employing” family labour, failing to pay 
minimum wages and cutting down trees to cure tobacco rather than buying 
coal, tobacco will probably remain a profitable crop. But Zimbabwe’s tobacco 
reputation was built on producing high-quality leaf. If this prestige is 
tarnished, the country will continue to lose share at the top end of the 

Whatever its socio-political impact, land reform represented a step 
backwards in terms of productivity, efficiency and competitiveness. At a 
time when agriculture throughout the world is moving away from smallholder 
farming to integrated value- chain production units, dominated by commercial 
growers, mostly on medium-sized and large farms, Zimbabwe is heading in the 
wrong direction.

Zimbabwe gave up its technological lead in agriculture and made itself more 
dependent than ever on low-cost production. This has translated into low 
wages, as is already the case on resettlement farms. Or it could also lead 
to increased technology and mechanisation, which will mean higher unit costs 
and fewer jobs in a country with massive unemployment and underemployment. 
Neither is an optimal growth path for a low-income country, starved of 
capital, and with extremely high unemployment in excess of 60% of the labour 

Over time, as economies develop, agriculture’s share of both GDP and 
employment falls. Workers leave the land for better-paid jobs in the towns 
and cities. Starved of young able-bodied workers, farms mechanise and 
productivity rises. There is no reason to expect Zimbabwe’s future growth 
path to be any different. With a mere 700,000 people currently employed in 
the formal economy (excluding agriculture and private domestic service), or 
14% of the workforce, land resettlement cannot and will not solve the 
country’s unemployment problem.

Those who expect-hope for?-a return to large-scale commercial agriculture 
have lost touch with reality. It is not going to happen. No future 
government is going to evict the settlers. Omelettes simply cannot be 
unscrambled. The best that can be hoped for over the long haul is a gradual 
recommercialisation of agriculture by freeing up land markets and allowing 
successful smallholders to expand their land ownership. At the same time the 
state must re-think its policy towards the communal areas by investing in 
infrastructure and seeking to foster off-farm job opportunities in the field 
of agri-business.

This article first appeared in Africa In Fact, the journal of Good 
Governance Africa. 


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