Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

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Why Zimbabwe (and Africa) is so poor

Why Zimbabwe (and Africa) is so poor

Posted On : November 18th, 2012 | Updated On : November 18th, 2012

Eddie Cross says that without property rights there can be no real progress
Fundamentals for the Future – Property Rights

In 1980 when Zimbabwe became a democratic State after 86 years of government 
by various white settler dominated governments, the new government took 
control of an economy that had been created without significant overseas 
aid, had very little debt, a currency that was worth twice the value of a US 
dollar and a population that had the second highest per capita income in 
Africa. That this was achieved despite the country being at war with itself 
for many years, operating under mandatory, universal, United Nations 
sanctions enforced by the Security Council, was an astonishing achievement.

In 2008, when the control of the State by Zanu PF was finally broken by 
regional intervention and the imposition of an inclusive government 
including the MDC, the Zimbabwean economy was in a sorry state. Despite 
receiving many billions of dollars in foreign aid over the previous 28 
years, the currency had totally collapsed and was worthless. National debt 
was 240 per cent of GDP – perhaps the worst in the world and even if all 
export receipts had been used to pay back the debt; it would have taken 
nearly 8 years to do so. Incomes per capita were the third lowest in the 
world, three quarters of the population was living on aid from the west – 
mostly the United States and Europe, nearly all schools and hospitals were 
closed and the infrastructure collapsing.

What had gone wrong?

There are many of my former compatriots who would say “we told you so”, 
arguing on a racist basis that black Zimbabweans simply could not manage the 
State properly. Sure, corruption was and is a problem, sure they made 
mistakes in macroeconomic policy, but in my view that was not the problem. 
The problem was that the new regime destroyed property rights in their 
efforts to perpetuate their hold on the State and maintain their privileges 
and patronage rights.

When I was a small boy, my father became an alcoholic. I must have been 
about 5 at the time. He lost his job as a senior executive with an oil 
company, lost the house and car and all his savings. My mother took over 
with five children and two years of basic schooling. She taught herself how 
to type and write shorthand, got a job as a secretary and quickly 
established herself as a personal assistant and secretary to a senior 
executive in a local company. We moved from the most exclusive part of town, 
to a slum area made up of houses built in the War to accommodate air force 

After living in this house rented from the local authority for some years, 
the government announced that they were going to sell these houses to their 
occupants – the deposit was what we had been paying as rent and in future 
the rentals would go towards paying off the bond. The place would be ours in 
five years.

I was only 12 when that happened but I will never forget how that decision 
transformed out lives. Overnight, our community changed, walls went up, 
gardens were planted, houses painted, roofs repaired even house extensions 
and basic improvements started. In months, the place was hardly 
recognizable. The only thing that had changed was that we now owned the 
places we lived in. We were still poor, we still struggled to put food on 
the table and meet our bills, but we owned our own home.

If you drive around any town, anywhere, you will be able to quickly identify 
where people own their own homes and where they do not. This principle is 
universal, operates in all cultures and places.

Nearly all newly independent States in Africa abolished freehold rights to 
property early in their new history. The reason being that such rights were 
alien to African cultures, where people relied on free access to land as the 
only basis on which they could make a living and have any long term 
security. But such societies did not allow accumulation or differentiation. 
The people were all poor together and the only people, who had any security 
of title, were the feudal type tribal leaders and then the leaders who came 
out of the bush to claim the right to leadership and control, in most cases 
in perpetuity.

Here, because of the constitutional restrictions imposed in 1980, it took 
many years for this process to manifest itself and for the first 18 years of 
independence there were few changes to the security of tenure and property 
rights. In the towns, people built homes and bought and sold them, people 
went into business and invested their savings and time and energy to create 
businesses, farmers went about their business and agriculture expanded 
steadily right up to the year 2000.

Sure over that whole period the regime became steadily more corrupt and they 
violated the fundamental rules of macroeconomic management, but the economy 
carried the burden and there was a slow but steady improvement in life for 
most people. Then came the challenge to the control of the State, this time 
from an unexpected quarter and suddenly the people who came in from the bush 
to assume control in 1980, felt threatened. They then attacked what had been 
the basis of the fragile stability and growth over the previous century – 
property rights. The reason – the people who lived on the farms were just 
too independent and held the balance of power between the towns (where 
secure property rights prevailed) and the communal areas where there were no 
property rights and feudal political structures prevailed.

The problem was that when you attack such fundamental rights you undermine 
those rights throughout the economy. The net effect was not just the 
collapse of agriculture, but the entire economy. Once they did that, the 
whole edifice came tumbling down, the consequences of living for years on 
credit and beyond their means came home to roost, business took steps to 
protect themselves and the productive elements in our society looked for 
greener pastures. Suddenly, in a mere 7 years, we were a basket case.

What made Rhodesia such a resilient and self sufficient place was the issue 
of ownership. It is the only explanation for why farmers, living in isolated 
areas, were able to put up with the pressures of the war, sanctions and the 
real sacrifices that had to be made. They were defending their homes and 
families. But in an urban context, even though the relationship is more 
complex, it is the same and if that is threatened then everything else is 
vulnerable. This is why indigenisation is such a threat to all of us. In 
Zambia, the Mulungushi declaration by Kenneth Kaunda (essentially the same 
thing as indigenisation) stopped the Zambian economy in its tracks and there 
was no significant growth in that country for the next 20 years.

Property rights are fundamental to economic growth and stability. They are 
also the very foundation of democracies and not just in Europe or America, 
but wherever men and women choose to make a place their home.

Eddie Cross is MDC MP for Bulawayo South. This article first appeared on his 


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