Zimbabwe’s land reforms led to widespread evictions and neglected farms, but it returned prime agricultural space to people who hadn’t been legally able to own or manage it for generations. GPJ sat down with two men – an activist and a one-time farmer – to discuss the land reforms’ long-term impacts.
HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Nearly two decades after violent land seizures first sent many white farmers and their families packing, the chaos continues in this agrarian nation as people grapple against one another for the right to control those once-thriving farms.
The Fast Track Land Reform program, which began in 2000, encouraged Zimbabweans to use any means necessary to abruptly evict white farmers, who had for generations lived off the wealth of land that, in some cases, their ancestors had stolen from local people. White farmers who have been evicted say they’re owed a chance to defend what’s theirs in court, but the government denies that they have that right.
It was the first time in generations that ordinary Zimbabweans had a chance to work a piece of fertile land. But the violent seizures continued, not only against the white farmers who remained but also against other Zimbabweans who wanted to take the land. Now, military and political leaders control much of the best land, even though many people speculate that they don’t have land title deeds to prove their ownership. (Read more about land seizures here.)
To better understand the issue, Global Press Journal’s Kudzai Mazvarirwofa spoke with two men who represent opposing viewpoints.
Dr. Pedzisai Ruhanya is a former news editor who has studied international human rights law. He is a former president of the Harare Polytechnic Students Representative Council and the programs manager for the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition. Ruhanya is the director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute.
Ben Freeth came to Zimbabwe from England in 1980 when his father was asked by Zimbabwe’s new leaders to help establish their armed forces. Freeth’s family eventually owned a farm that was violently seized and nationalized. Much of the land and livestock were torched during the takeover. Freeth and his employees suffered severe beatings. He became internationally known in 2008 when he and his father-in-law sued President Robert Mugabe for human rights violations.
GPJ met with each man individually due to their conflicting schedules: Freeth at a coffee shop in the north Harare neighborhood of Mount Pleasant and Ruhanya at his office in the capital city’s central business district. The men were asked the same series of questions, and their answers, edited for clarity, are presented together here.
Kudzai Mazvarirwofa, GPJ Zimbabwe
GPJ: The relationship between white farmers and black farmhands has been called “exploitative” because those farmhands were often entirely reliant on the white farmers. Do you think that farmworkers have more access to food and security now than they did before?
Ruhanya: It’s even worse. In fact, we have gone backwards to some kind of pre-industrial stage in the sense that the current farm owners are not using these farms as businesses. They are being used as personal or family assets without the broad understanding that farming is a business that can be used to revive the economy of the state. Our economy is agro-based, meaning we have to invest in it to feed upstream and that has not been the case. Quite a number of the new farm owners do not pay their farmworkers’ salaries. The infrastructure still being used was the same that was developed by the white farmers and some of it has even deteriorated, including the houses of the farmworkers.
Freeth: When I look at situations on our own farm I see that none of the workers are working, none of them are being paid and none of them have got money to send their children to school.
GPJ: Some white farmers were born here and say they bought the land.
Ruhanya: They bought the land from who? It was stolen land. That is the history of Zimbabwe, that there was land disposition. The law cannot accept an illegality. If one buys stolen land, one cannot expect to make an argument that they bought the land. How do these whites, who came from all over the world, come to occupy the land?
Freeth: It is not fair or just to punish someone for crimes that were committed by someone else, for example, an ancestor. This is our home, too, and we have a right to justice and a lawful system.
Kudzai Mazvarirwofa, GPJ Zimbabwe
GPJ: Do you believe that white farmers might have pre-empted land reform if they had willingly given up some of their land?
Freeth: No. Unfortunately, this is a political thing. We happened to employ a lot of people on our farms and so we had a big proportion of the electorate on our farms. And when the [Movement for Democratic Change] was formed in 1999, suddenly Mugabe realized he was going to lose the election in the year 2000. And so, something needed to be done quickly about that and he unleashed the so-called war veterans and they were paid to go off and terrorize the farmworkers. So when it comes to elections there is no way that one of them would break ranks and vote for the opposition. So this democracy thing is an absolute sham, especially in the rural areas in this country.
Ruhanya: Yes! I think what the white commercial farmers failed to understand is that with the gaining of Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, the status quo had changed. They should have realized that the privileges they used to enjoy under the racist Rhodesian government went with Rhodesia. So it was in their interest to appreciate that with the coming of independence there was a need for the majority to enjoy the civil and political aspects of independence as well as the economic aspect. They should have realized after independence that there was need for equity in how land was distributed. If they had realized that, we would not have witnessed the land seizures or the fast track land reform. Had they managed to play ball with the government in terms of equity distribution of land we would not have had these extreme measures.
I think Mugabe’s legacy was the land question. If I were Mugabe, I would resign today because one of the greatest questions of the day in politics has been resolved.
GPJ: The current land-grabbing situation stems from Fast Track Land Reform. What do you think could have been done better to avoid what’s happening now?
Ruhanya: The first thing we must acknowledge is that the issue with the land question is a legitimate concern for Zimbabweans. We differ on the methodology but on the rationale there was no question about it because the issue of the land question was at the core of both the first and the second “chimurenga” [See editor’s note below]. It was at the core of the Zimbabwean struggle for independence and emancipation. What the government could have done better is to make sure that those people who had settled on the land, particularly those who were on the commercial farms who were willing, had the resources to make that land productive.
It makes no sense to acquire that land and make it unusable or make it unproductive, as is the case. Quite a number of people who have taken the land are not using it. They are using it for resorts; they are not using it for productive methods.
Editor’s note: “Chimurenga” refers to Zimbabwe’s liberation struggles.
Freeth: This lawlessness is unacceptable. We cannot have situations where people are able to just take over farms with the police doing nothing to uphold constitutional rights. We went to court on this, eventually the Southern African Development Community Tribunal in Windhoek, Namibia, and we got a judgment from all the five judges from that tribunal – an African court for an African problem – and those judges said what is happening in Zimbabwe is wrong.
There should not be racial discrimination. There should not be this law where we do not have a right even to go to court and contest for our livelihood.
GPJ: Do you think that those with the power to distribute land have the power to rein in military leaders?
Freeth: There would need to be a system put in place that those who distribute land can lawfully govern distribution effectively and fairly because right now there is chaos.
Ruhanya: In this country we have supremacy of politics and not supremacy of law because everything is seen with a political lens. Anything that doesn’t advance the political hegemony of the ruling state doesn’t matter. Land is used for political ends and not for productive or equity means. Even white commercial farmers, on the basis of equity distribution, they should get land. Since the land is now in the hands of the state, let us then now look at issues of production and equity ownership. The government should make sure land is not used for political ends or for patronage purposes.