Four myths about Zimbabwean land reform

Ian Scoones responds to Ben Freeth, says blaming 'land reform' for food insecurity highly problematic

Four persistent myths about Zimbabwe’s land reform

In 2010 we published the book, Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities, based on detailed research that tracked what happened to people’s livelihoods once they got land under Zimbabwe’s land reform in 2000. Since then we’ve extended and deepened the research, looking at changes on-going in Masvingo, Mvurwi and Matobo areas. Today, there’s a huge amount of detailed research in different parts of the country produced by many people. Yet, despite this, many myths about Zimbabwe’s land reform persist. 

Much public discourse, media commentary and policy debate is sadly mired in ideological positions rather than grounded in realities. This was much in evidence in a recent piece by Ben Freeth on Politicsweb, attacking me, and dismissing the work of myself and many other colleagues. Although this was an extreme case, such positions are not unusual, and need to be challenged if a more productive route forward is to be found.

Below I outline four myths that persist, but are upset by informed research. In each case, there is no clear-cut position that emerges as a result; there are inevitably many shades of grey. But what is important is to avoid the simplistic narratives and ill-informed positions that too often get the air-time.

Myth 1: Property rights and investment

This one won’t go away, and remains central to the rhetoric of many, across the political spectrum, with Ben Freeth’s Politicsweb piece being a prime, if rather extreme, example. The basic argument is simple: without secure (read: private property, freehold title) tenure, land is ‘dead capital’, and so has no or little value. Without title, the argument continues, it lacks collateral value and so it is impossible to raise finance. The model of ‘success’ is the commercial farm sector pre-2000, which had freehold title, and good relationships with the banking sector. The argument is that this needs to be either returned to or replicated now, and that the ‘failure’ of land reform can be explained in these terms.

So what’s wrong with the argument, surely secure tenure is important? Yes, absolutely! But there are many routes to tenure security, and elaborate titling is not often the best; a fact widely substantiated by research across the world, notably, perhaps surprisingly, by the World Bank. Permit and leasehold systems may be just as good, and when the institutional and governance arrangements are right, security emerges from communal tenure too, as Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom and others have showed. The ‘dead capital’ argument pushed by Hernando De Soto, and adopted by many free market ideologues, has been found seriously wanting.

As our work has shown, there is much investment going on in some parts of the new resettlement areas, but also a lack of it in others. The variable explaining the differences is not titling or legal forms of tenure, but other factors to do with a range of social, political and institutional factors. The relationship between land, collateral and finance is a complex one too. There are many ways of assuring finance institutions that lending money is a safe bet. Land titles are only one route, but there are other forms of collateral, state guarantee schemes, group lending and so on that have all worked well in other places, including in Zimbabwe. Innovations in agricultural finance approaches are urgently needed, as the old model of large-scale commercial agriculture financing is simply not replicable in a more variegated agricultural sector.

Myth 2: Cronyism, patronage and capture

Most land acquired through fast-track land reform was under the A1 ‘smallholder’ scheme, where by far the majority of beneficiaries were formerly land and income poor communal area dwellers or those from town with no or precarious jobs. The land occupations certainly involved those with political connections, notably war veterans, but this was not universally the case. As our and other work showed, farm by farm the process was different.

Generalisations that the whole land reform was subject to cronyism, patronage and political capture are simply untenable. While some admit that many beneficiaries were often relatively poor, the next argument is that they were necessarily ZANU-PF members. While resettlement areas are unquestionably ZANU-PF strongholds, and the opposition parties have found it difficult to operate there, especially around election times, the electoral picture shows something more mixed. There are many who will ‘perform ZANU-PF’ but have other allegiances, so it is difficult to assess empirically how party affiliation and control affected land access, and subsequent outcomes. Again, across our study areas, it is extraordinarily variable; and volatile.

The A2 resettlement areas show a different story, however. Here there was much more patronage politics at play, and this remains the case, with faction fights playing out in land access disputes. But again, while land was ‘grabbed’ by party and security officials, both at land reform and at subsequent elections, these were high-profile and well-publicised cases, which, while significant politically, did not necessarily dominate. Again, it depends where you are talking about – for obvious reasons such political dynamics played out more strongly in Mazowe than in Masvingo and Matobo, where other dynamics, sometimes related to long-running chieftaincy allegiances or church affiliations, played a role. Land is always political, no question, but we do need to be more sophisticated in our assessments.

We need to look beyond the links to party (or factional) politics to questions of class positions in order to understand the shifting politics of the Zimbabwean countryside. The successful A1 farmers, ‘accumulating from below’, allied with emerging A2 farmers, and successful communal area entrepreneurs are a political force to be reckoned with. They have diverse political commitments, and no clear position (many who I speak to are crying out for an alternative political leadership from whatever source), but no party – whether ZANU-PF or the MDC and now other opposition parties – has a political and policy stance that in any way speaks to their needs, aspirations and motivations, despite the substantial electoral weight that they can apply.

ZANU-PF persists with a tired nationalist rhetoric and assumes that resettlement farmers will follow them as they are the rightful leaders of the land revolution, and if they keep them sweet with subsidies. Meanwhile the opposition seems to have no ideas on land and rural policy, beyond a litany of tired talk about investment and entrepreneurship, which could come from a generic World Bank document from the 1990s. As I keep saying to anyone who will listen, the political landscape is crying out for a new stance on land, agriculture and rural development, and there is a ready constituency there to respond.

Myth 3: Agricultural production and food security

As I have argued many times over the last years, blaming ‘land reform’ for food insecurity is very problematic, as there are so many variables in play. That said, there is no doubt that the restructuring of the agrarian sector has resulted in major changes. While the former commercial farms did not produce as much food in the 1990s as they did in the previous decades, and much food was imported back then, the associated infrastructure, and the capacity to irrigate was important.

Recorded maize production declined dramatically after 2000, resulting in increasingly frequent imports (although in good rainfall years it’s recovered since). Add to this the impacts of climate change/El Nino and the challenges of water management post-land reform, and the picture is mixed, varying by location, type of land use and crop mix (the growth tobacco and the displacement of maize in some of the high potential areas is part of the story of course).

However, despite dire prognoses though there has not been widespread famine conditions in Zimbabwe, even if there have been areas of severe food insecurity. The much-repeated line of ‘breadbasket to basket case' is just so much more complex. Today the food economy is totally different to the 1980s and 90s, with many more producers selling through many more market channels, most of which are not regulated and recorded.

The fact is we just don’t know how much is being produced and sold where, despite the attempts of the ZimVac and other assessments. I have a persistent worry that we are not getting it right, and that the politics of food, whether driven by the government, the UN agencies or the relief NGOs, is grossly distorting the picture.

Our data, now collected over nearly 17 years from many households across the country, does not match the aggregate picture emerging from the national assessments. There is a huge disconnect that poses important empirical questions about what is going on. I have not yet been able to persuade anyone to commission work to find out, and to engage properly with the new food economy in the post land reform setting, but this seems an urgent priority. This would be an important precursor to a more effective national statistical system for assessing agricultural production, marketing and food security; a prerequisite for any sensible food and agriculture policy, as well as economic policy more generally.

Myth 4: Land reform and economic collapse

Suggesting a tight causal link to a complex relationship is always misguided. There are of course many factors contributing to Zimbabwe’s economic woes. They include massive financial mismanagement (especially in the mid-2000s), rampant corruption (continuing), ‘sanctions’ (aka restrictive measures), withdrawal of international finance and credit lines, lack of business and investment confidence due to poorly articulated policy positions (notably around ‘indigenisation’), the collapse of commodity prices (for mineral exports), drought/climate change/El Nino, the strength of the US dollar, and of course the major restructuring of a core sector through land reform, with knock-on effects in employment and upstream and downstream industries. Choosing one or other these factors is clearly inadequate, and a more sophisticated analysis is needed. Of course the economy as a whole hasn’t collapsed, and in some areas it’s booming.

This is where, again, the new realities of a more diverse, informal economy need to be taken account of. This is simply not measured in the formal assessments of GDP, for example, yet represents at least 90% of the economy. Untaxed, unregulated and often based on limited returns and opportunities for accumulation, we should avoid glorifying the informal economy, but we should equally not ignore it – and it’s not all bad. For it is from such small-scale entrepreneurial activities – in agriculture and beyond – that many livelihoods are generated, and from which the wider more formalised economy can be revitalised. With a major restructuring expecting the future to be a replica of the past is the continuous mistake of too many commentators.

As our work has shown, there are huge potentials of new multiplier effects of a vibrant small-scale agriculture sector centred in the (mostly) A1 resettlement areas, linking to small towns across the country which are becoming new centres for economic activity and employment. The spatial pattern of the new economy is different, as are the actors and networks that drive it. Yet policy engagement remains limited. Due to ongoing ‘restrictive measures’, the western donors continue to focus efforts only on the communal areas, where the prospects of growth – and so wider economic linkages – are limited, as we have known for years.

And no-one seems to be thinking about how to make the most of the complementarities of small, medium and large-scale agriculture (don’t forget there still is large-scale agriculture, including very substantial estates – such as sugar in the lowveld), and how agriculture across scales is linked to urban centres and market networks, at a district/regional level, as part of new planning and investment.

Why an evidence-based debate is urgently needed

Land tenure security, class and patronage politics, food insecurity and linking agriculture to economic growth – all complex debates collapsed into sound-bite myths - are each massively important issues. I am the first to admit that there are major challenges in Zimbabwe. But we must ask the right questions if a way forward is to be sought; and this requires solid, research-based empirical information and a balanced assessment that is not distorted by ideological positions, anger and distress, wishful thinking or attempts to recreate pasts that probably never existed.

I am often asked, whether I think Zimbabwe’s land reform was good or bad; whether I am for against it. This is impossible to answer, and journalists get furious by the response, and then often just make up a position for me anyway! The answer is of course far more complex. Land reform was undoubtedly necessary, a long overdue response to the violence and inequality of colonialism. But that does not mean it was implemented well, and with all the ideal outcomes. Our research shows this is not the case – far from it – and, with others, I have long argued for a compensation settlement for those who lost their land in line with the Constitution agreed by all political parties.

Saying that there is a more complex story does not imply (as some argue on social media, in aggressive emails to me, and in newspaper and blog comment strings) that you are necessarily a lackey of the ruling party, complicit in everything that the regime has done. Or that my arguments are somehow ‘destructive’, responsible for Zimbabwe’s ‘ruination’, as Ben Freeth rather absurdly suggests. No, it simply urges everyone to look at the facts, and make a rather more balanced and informed assessment.

So I encourage Politcsweb readers to take a look at the Zimbabweland blog, and read any of the 200 plus weekly postings to get a more rounded view. This is important for the future of Zimbabwe, and indeed South Africa and the wider region too.

Ian Scoones is based at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in the UK, and has worked on agriculture, land and rural development issues in Zimbabwe since 1986.

A longer version of this article appeared on Zimbabweland