In DepthSoapboxZimbabwean land lessons for South Africa

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Posted on Monday, 13 August 2012 10:11

Zimbabwean land lessons for South Africa

In 2011, tobacco farmers in Zimbabwe earned a total of $400m/Photo/ReutersZimbabwe's controversial land redistribution programme has succeeded in creating a new, rural middle class. South Africa, sluggish to implement its own land reforms, should take note.

 Land redistribution in Zimbabwe has been a major victory for ordinary people, including the middle class. Since redistribution began in 2000, more than 170,000 families got land that was in the hands of 4,000 white families. Of these, around a thousand black Zimbabweans got bigger farms, including a couple of hundred who are multiple-farm owners. That amounts to about 3,000 people who control about 10% of the redistribution: in other words, these individuals got a small piece of the pie, but they got more than others. It's an inequity, but it's a far cry from widespread accusations that 'only the cronies got the land'.

About 20,000 of the new farmers are middle-class, capitalist farmers. A few of them – about 5-10% – are actually family farmers, or peasants who use family labour, but the majority hire labour and have the means to buy machinery and inputs. About 35% of the capitalist farmers are ordinary workers: drivers who got retrenched, rural primary-school teachers and messengers. They are not all elites. We call it 're-peasantisation' or 're-agrianisation', because there has been an expansion of the number of small capitalist farmers. While the instability created by land reform did push down the standard of living for a big section of the middle class and working class in the cities, it created another middle class in the countryside.

The redistribution has lifted a lot of people out of poverty. People now produce, not only export, crops such as maize; they produce beans, vegetables, and other nutritious crops on a small scale, which they trade locally or sell to relatives in the towns. They get food at a lower price than if they were buying them in a supermarket supplied by large farms. Macro statistics ignore this dynamic in favour of statistics decrying the slump in the market for export crops. These statisticians ignore what people produce and eat for themselves.

don't underestimate the social mobilisation and demands for change

At the same time, as export crops like tobacco start to recover, the income from these crops is now shared by 60,000 small farmers and families. This is an obvious source of excitement for everybody, even the World Bank. Last year, tobacco farmers earned a total of $400m. That's now shared among these 60,000 people, as opposed to among 700 white tobacco farmers in 2000.

Tenure security remains an issue in Zimbabwe. The government owns all land, except city land. It has either allocated it to people under permits or they have been given a legally acceptable land-offer letter, which can be converted into a 99-year lease. Selling is not allowed. Now, the core question is whether the lease should be tradable, and can be used as collateral for bank loans; or whether all landholders should get a freehold market title. Many of them are budding capitalists. They've got leases, but they would like that limited amount of land to be in freehold, either to bring in an investor, or to sell. However, there is a big fear that as soon as you create a land market – especially among people who are poor – that land ownership will be concentrated in the hands of the few who can afford to buy.

In terms of a settler-colonial economy, Zimbabwe's land redistribution is a major revolution, which white South Africa next door has to be afraid of. South Africa had 70,000 whites 15 years ago. Now there are still 45,000, growing 80% of what is produced domestically. They are operating in a policy environment that is survival of the fittest, in which only the big farmers survive. Inequitable growth in Zimbabwe, as a result of structural adjustment policies, built the social foundation of a radical movement for land reform. In South Africa, the conditions are not going to be exactly the same, but you have a similar situation. The difference is that in the South Africa environment there is a bit more space to mollify big sections of the middle class, because of the money the government gives in social grants. But it's not real redistribution. It's not actually accommodating the big section of a growing population that's more educated and enlightened, and doesn't understand why there has been no real redistribution now the political conditions have changed.

Radicalisation is happening in South Africa with service delivery strikes, but it hasn't reached its turning point yet. What happens now will depend on whether or not the African National Congress makes a U-turn to introduce more redistributive policies. It talks about this but is moving slowly. South Africa has the capacity to deal with land reform, but it doesn't have the political will, and the opposition to it is also very strong.

The main lesson from Zimbabwe's experience is: don't underestimate the social mobilisation and demands for change. If you didn't have social mobilisation on the ground in Zimbabwe, there wouldn't have been those 170,000 families. There could have been just another 5,000 black elites replacing the white elites●



Last Updated on Monday, 13 August 2012 10:40

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