Zimbabwe: Winners and losers from Mugabe’s land legacy

By Nicholas Norbrook

Posted on Monday, 12 September 2016 09:04, updated on Friday, 6 September 2019 17:16
imbabwe's President Robert Mugabe looks on during a rally marking Zimbabwe's 32nd independence anniversary celebrations in Harare April 18, 2012.REUTERS/Stringer/

The Africa Report takes a road trip across Zimbabwe, from Harare to Masvingo Province and Mashonaland East – to see the long-term impact of the country's early-2000s land revolution.

It is dawn on a perfect winter’s day in Harare. The air is chilly, but the sun soon brightens up the clear blue sky. Driving towards the city centre from the northern suburbs – home to President Robert Mugabe’s State House with its unblinking sabre-armed guards – the sense of economic desolation amid colonial pomp is unmistakable.

Thousands of people, trekking in from townships such as Highfield, are making their way to offices… or more likely to set up a stall to sell maize meal, tomatoes, onions or potatoes. Or they stand at street corners selling cellphone top-up cards, tea towels and handkerchiefs. The well-educated generation after independence is being reduced to penury. There is talk of a breaking point soon.

Even tougher times loom ahead. With the worst drought in a quarter of a century, more than four million people – almost a third of the country – could require food aid. Supplies will dwindle further in next year’s lean season.

The government is paying off its arrears to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank to try to get new loans. Western governments are watching closely. Some worry that a political implosion caused by 92-year-old Mugabe’s sudden departure from office could finally crack the society asunder.

Tendai Biti, a former finance minister and opposition luminary who runs a law firm in the capital, explains: “We have a rentier economy […]. The government says the gross domestic product is about $15bn, but that’s an overestimate.”

Biti and most of his fellow oppositionists want a transitional government with popular accountability to manage economic reforms. They do not trust the government, especially after Mugabe admitted this year that some $15bn in diamond revenue was stolen in the past seven years.

Everybody agrees on the severity of the crisis; its causes are fiercely disputed. At the heart of the argument are the politics of land. Each side quotes its own history. The Land Tenure Act of 1969 gave more than 15m hectares of the best land to 6,000 white farmers. Meanwhile, more than 700,000 black families – over four million people – shared 16.4m hectares. At independence in 1980, 42% of the land was owned by whites.

Facing rising demands from war veterans wanting higher pensions and from trade unionists calling for better wages, in February 2000 the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party launched what Ugandan political scientist Mahmoud Mamdani calls the “greatest transfer of property in Southern Africa since colonisation”.

Within three years, war veterans backed by state security forces seized 90% of commercial farms – more than 10m hectares. For Mugabe and ZANU-PF, it was the ‘Third Chimurenga’, the logical sequel to two earlier wars against foreign invaders. Liberating the land became Mugabe’s clarion call.

For Britain, the US and sundry Western powers, it was the abrogation of property rights and the destruction of commercial farming and the wider economy. Their officials reel off grim measures of the world’s fastest-shrinking economy.

Most Zimbabweans are caught between ZANU-PF’s hammer and the West’s anvil. Pragmatic and patient, many of them have tried to make the most of the new economics and avoid political persecution. Western sanctions never hurt ZANU-PF ‘s rulers much nor helped its opponents. Now, ZANU-PF ministers and their Western counterparts are talking again; Mugabe’s endgame and economic revival are on the agenda.

As this new chapter opens, we set off in our trusty vintage Mercedes from Harare through 1,000km of tobacco, sugar and maize farms to talk to the winners and losers of the tumultuous events that took place some 16 years ago. We see lots of desperation, people failing to make ends meet. Schisms are ripping open the society. Elsewhere, people are building a new order and a new economy, in spite of their political leaders.


On our way out of Harare, we stop off at a new supermarket in the Lanes neighbourhood. It is perhaps a kilometre away from State House and a treelined stretch of suburban road where young women sell sex and face police intimidation. Inside the supermarket, it is suddenly the late bourgeois world. Well-fed black and white Zimbabweans inspect shelves groaning with fruit and vegetables. The butcher is busy hammering out choice cuts of meat while the serious drinkers are drawn to a well-stocked display of beer, wine and whisky.

Almost as popular is the dairy section, where Kefalos – a brand of yoghurt with hip packaging – stands out. It is a high-quality local brand, produced at a farm just beyond the city limits on Mubaira Road in Waterfalls.

We drive past the toll gate on the A2, where groups of apostolic sect members in their brilliant white robes congregate, before turning onto a deeply potholed road. At the factory gate is a taciturn white farmer, Kefalos managing director Leif Reeckmann, originally from Denmark. He made his deals with the government and survived the land seizures. Now, he is fighting in the marketplace. His ice cream won awards in South Africa when business was good, but turnover has dropped to $10m a year from a peak of $16m.

He says he will lay off more of his 120 workers if things get much worse. “The standards here are world-class,” says Reeckmann. “That is still in people’s heads. They still have buying patterns based on their parents, but the youth don’t think Zimbabwe makes things anymore. They all watch South African TV.”

Local agribusiness companies face heavy challenges: some from South African competitors, but also in buying local ingredients. The milk in Kefalos yoghurt, for example, is now among the most expensive in the world. That is partly due to Zimbabwe’s adoption of the US dollar, which has strengthened sharply over the past year. That is cutting into Zimbabwe’s productivity and price advantages, as other countries in the region devalue their currencies.

For finance minister Patrick Chinamasa, “the government has taken steps to bring finality to the land question so as to enhance agricultural production.” Finality, according to Chinamasa, involves fixing new boundaries, agreeing 99-year leases for new farm owners and paying compensation to those who had their farms seized. Officials will not be drawn on when and how much compensation. Some suggest it could cost $3bn. It is unlikely to be a priority, whichever party wins in elections planned for 2018.

Driving south from Harare, we pass through verdant, rolling countryside. The grass yellows as we near the southern provinces. Green-tipped spears whizz by as we pass endless well-maintained sugarcane plantations in Chiredzi.

Many agribusinesses elsewhere in the country have been shuttered. But here, heavyweights such as Triangle Sugar Estate still tick over. It runs around the clock. At night, huge floodlit gantries sit astride a railway yard where cargoes are baled up and shipped out. Triangle’s sugar cane fields stretch out for 13,000ha.


South African sugar company Tongaat Hulett owns all of Triangle and 50.3% of nearby Hippo Valley. It boasts a sugar milling capacity of 640,000tn per year, processing its own crop and cane from farmers in the area. Huletts SunSweet is Zimbabwe’s best-selling sugar.

Triangle and Hippo Valley estates are typical of the economy before land reform, where low-paid workers were bussed in from Zambia and Malawi. They are capital intensive, but have little connection to the rest of the rural economy. Like mines, these plantations are enclaves where millions of dollars leave the country straight to the owner’s overseas accounts, according to Ian Scoones, from Britain’s Institute of Development Studies (IDS). He argues that land reform has boosted production and incomes in ways not generally recognised.

The government’s Fast-Track Land Reform Program cut up 6,000 large farms into smaller farms of about 5ha, known as A1. Larger commercial farms of around 50,000ha were taken over, then handed out as A2 farms. While Scoones sees some success in the A1 farms, many of the A2 farms have been relative failures, hampered by a lack of skills, finance and inputs.

Esther Chikote, who occupied a plot of land in 2000, has 20ha near Wedza: a small cattle shed, some brick-built round huts, and a small field near the homestead. Like many, she uses only a tenth of her land. But she is making it work, she tells us, laughing and explaining that she sends money to her husband who works in town, “Not the other way around!” She put all her children through school and employs four workers.

On the road, we meet a driver who recalls losing his way in Mazowe, some 50km north of Harare. There, first lady Grace Mugabe seized a citrus estate from Interfresh, expelling locals from the adjacent land. Turning into what he thought was a hotel, the driver was immediately surrounded by armed goons demanding his licence. He has never taken that road again.

But it is too simple to lay all blame on the land grab by the ZANU-PF elite. White farmers stymied efforts at reform and were backed by the West. It was very different from the sweeping land reform and the redistribution of feudal holdings in Japan; that was driven by US General Douglas MacArthur, who led the allied occupation after the Second World War. In Zimbabwe, land reform was fatally entangled in local politics just as popular anger against ZANU-PF and Mugabe was rising in the mid-1990s.

Professor Sam Moyo, tragically killed in a car crash last year, was one of Zimbabwe’s leading authorities on agriculture. He explained to The Africa Report in 2009 how a panel of experts had warned Mugabe just before the Organisation of African Unity summit in 1997 that delays on land reform would worsen the government’s political woes. War veterans had already starting to agitate for land and were ready to embarrass Mugabe at the summit: “He [Mugabe] was worried, he told us that he couldn’t [seize commercial farms] because the British would invade.”

But when Mugabe triggered the land seizures in 2000, it was not the carefully planned and negotiated reform programme that Moyo and the other experts had advocated. Rather, it was a political reflex, a military campaign that was spinning out of control. The more than 300,000 farm workers chased off the land were caught, sometimes literally, in the crossfire.


By then, white farmers were financing the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai. After ZANU-PF lost a referendum in February 2000 on a new constitution, which included clauses for land redistribution but also greater presidential powers, the farm seizures started. Taking over lucrative farms helped keep top politicians and military officers loyal.

Abutting the Triangle Estate is the Malilangwe Trust, which runs a conservation area and tourist lodge. Buffalo, lions, zebra and elephants roam the park. Mark Saunders runs the trust. Before that he farmed tobacco for 10 years in Marondera, until his farm was seized.

Saunders is philosophical. “We had a chance to do some land reform, share some land in 1998 [at a conference organised by the World Bank]. But we didn’t take it.” He says the bounce back in sales shows that smallholder tobacco farming can work.

After looping back to Harare for a day, we set off again down the A5, the motorway heading south-east, in search of tobacco farmers. A small white pick-up truck stops for fuel along the Wedza road heading into Marondera – prime tobacco country. In the back, three men steady large bales of tobacco. They are heading for the auction house. One explains: “Our family was resettled in the 1990s, and they [the government] helped. Tractors ploughed up fields, and they gave help [seeds and fertiliser].”

Before 2001, around 3,000 white farmers exported all the country’s tobacco. Today, about 90,000 black tobacco farmers share revenue of around $650m a year. That money is now circulating in the economy. “It’s driving new demand for small-scale services,” says Scoones, who points to a property boom in tobacco towns. Taking a sample of 400 households across Masvingo Province, Scoones reports that on average $2,000 had been invested per farming family, creating a new class of “middle farmers” who are “accumulating from below”.

It is not all roses, so to speak, in tobacco. In the latest auction season, which began in April, tobacco farmers were not being paid in cash because of the dollar shortage. Some had to open bank accounts in far-off towns, others were using mobile-money transfers.


On the auction floors, there was little of the usual bustle. Instead, groups of youths, some wielding knobkerries or other weapons, gathered. They collude with ‘makonyera’, the shadowy traders who try to cheat farmers out of their crop. On the approach to the auction houses, police run roadblocks to shake down farmers transporting their crops for sale.

Tobacco is losing its allure for smaller farmers. Gugulethu Matope explains that amongst her neighbours around Fair Advantage Farm, which was invaded in 2001, “True, 2010 to 2013 was good. But no one grew tobacco this year. Everyone is going into tomatoes.” On her own plot, she has set aside a hectare for cabbages and tomatoes.

Matope burnt down her tobacco curing barn in case she was tempted to go back into into the crop. “The process is hard,” she says, “the labour is hard.” Beyond the hassles with police and money, the contracts that she and her neighbours have been offered by the big tobacco companies do not provide a worthwhile return.

More than 75% of Zimbabwe’s tobacco is grown on contract. That has helped to raise finance in a weak economy, but it gives the whip hand in negotiations to big companies such as China’s Tian Ze or British American Tobacco (BAT). Some 40% of Zimbabwe’s tobacco ends up in China, the world’s biggest market with some 300 million smokers.

Toendepi Shonhe, at the African Institute of Agrarian Studies, has been studying tobacco farming in Marondera. He concludes that the producers have to do more processing. “A kilo of untreated tobacco is just $3. But a kilo of cigarettes costs $60,” he says. Companies such as BAT work across the tobacco sector, he adds: they arrange contracts with farmers, they run tobacco processing plants and they manufacture, package and market cigarettes.


Smallholders who have been pulled into global markets by tobacco multinationals are now the ‘disguised workers’ of the trade, says Shonhe: “Just like those people in China who work for nothing to make iPhones that Apple sells for hundreds of dollars.” Despite the nationalist bluster of the land seizures, Shonhe argues that many of those now working the land have gained little. And several white farmers – the target of ZANU-PF’s wrath – have simply moved into the more lucrative financing and processing of tobacco.

And the smallholders have to deal with a predatory state. Chrispen Sukume, of the Zimbabwe Livestock and Meat Advisory Council, explains: “Farmers wake up at 3am to avoid police, else they are $30 down before they even hit the market.” He complains about creeping taxation on farm goods as the government struggles to pay its civil servants.

Before land reform, farmers would slaughter 550,000 head of cattle a year. Now, it is just 250,000, mostly in the informal sector. The local government authorities are levying 10% on each cow slaughtered; typically a cow sells for $500.

“And that $50 kills the farmer, as it is about 50% of his profit, given all the expense of rearing the cow and getting it to market,” says Sukume, “it’s regressive taxation, as cow sales are now by poor people in the poorer, drier areas.”

Agriculture and husbandry are not creating enough new jobs. Many educated young people are trading, often on the streets, rather than producing. Artist Gareth Nyandoro tracks this legacy: in the art gallery by Harare’s central park, an eerie looped audio track of a street seller pipes out behind a sorry-looking installation: a pile of banana skins, sugar cubes, a pair of children’s socks, crumpled clothes and crisp packets.

These informal workers mostly vote for the opposition MDC. They faced the brunt of ZANU-PF violence during Operation Murambatsvina, a brutal slum clearance programme in 2005. This divided politics between city and countryside, between provinces and regions, and now between political factions, is also Mugabe’s legacy.


We see Marava Misheck, the MDC senator for Masvingo, at a petrol station and arrange to meet in Chivhu. He buys us pizza, we buy him drinks. “How can a soldier be an economist?” he asks, blaming the crisis on the militarisation of the regime. “We took over the country at the barrel of a gun, then we destroyed everything.”

But what if the tumultuous land reform opens up new possibilities that might be transformative within a generation? In Mashava, behind the asbestos mines, we meet a small community of farmers who are practising the art of the possible.

Isaac Mpofu, a Mashava farmer, is pleased with his piggery. Although, the tenants are not yet in their stalls, the structure is sound. When it rains, the slight slope will sluice dung into a small dam downhill. “We will keep fish there,” he says. “We are not wasting anything.”

Drystone walls capture water, channelling rain into vegetable gardens, retaining vital moisture on the land despite the scorching heat in Masvingo Province over the past five months of drought. A new farm building, built a few months ago, shows the money the family is able to reinvest.

Mpofu’s neighbour, Blasio Mavedzenge, says city dwellers cannot grasp the change in the countryside. Standing next to a red tractor, he surveys the 20ha of land that he and his wife took over in 2000. He points to his manure pits, two depressions in the ground, a metre square each. “We don’t need fertiliser; we can triple the nitrogen content like this,” says Mavedzenge.

They have got used to doing without the state. And that is creating a new social ethos and structure on the farms, says Mavedzenge. Before land reform, the employees on white farms were like “pampered slaves. If you get a bicycle, the owner would take you to task because he knows how much he gives you,” he says.


Mavedzenge now employs three workers and their wives. “While the whites held you at a distance, here we eat from the same pot.” New workers are more mobile, might own land themselves and hold work parties or nhimbes, sharing labour to get fields cleared, for example.

As they get established, the new farmers started hiring workers and the rural economy started to pick up. “Previously here, six cattle farmers employed around 10 people per farm,” says Mavedzenge. “Now there are around 500 households living here, and at least half employ at least one labourer. So that’s 250 jobs instead of 60.

What this means politically is harder to fathom. These new farmers may be happy with ZANU-PF’s land reform, but they are also more demanding. IDS’s Scoones describes how some farmers he worked with had clubbed together to resurface a road. “These people were just pissed off they couldn’t get their stuff to market. These places are supposed to be serviced and roads are supposed to be graded, but the council wasn’t doing anything. So they came together, hired a grader and built their road.”

When citizens start supplanting the state, that creates a new political dynamic. A better-fed citizenry is less likely to be bullied by withholding of food aid. “We have our solar panels. We have our own water,” says Mpofu. “We don’t want the municipality coming round.” A new spirit of independence is emerging. The beneficiaries of land reform are gradually getting richer and less grateful to their political leaders.

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