"Taking" is stealing, Prof Scoones

Ben Freeth says the British academic continues his work of enabling Zimbabwe's ruination

Why can’t water reform follow on from land reform in Zimbabwe and ‘we’ take back ‘our water’ asks British academic Ian Scoones?

During the great Zimbabwe farming success story, when property rights were sacrosanct in the commercial farming areas and title deeds could be used to build dams and irrigation schemes, hundreds of thousands of hectares were developed and brought into full irrigation production.  

There was not a single dam or natural lake in the entire country a little over a century ago.  There are now more than 10,000 dams – and hundreds of thousands of boreholes – all built on the back of title deeds to further agricultural productivity.

Farmers knew that with irrigation they could not only safeguard against drought periods and bring their crops through them successfully, but they could also plant early to take advantage of a longer growing season.  Furthermore, by planting orchards and winter crops, they could increase the productivity of their farming enterprises many times over off the same land area.

With title deeds, farmers could take them to the bank, along with their business plans, and money would be lent to them to realize the remarkable irrigation potential in Zimbabwe.  If farmers defaulted for whatever reason on the loans that they received from the banks, their farms would be sold up and a new farmer would buy the farm and try to make a success of it.

That was the way it worked in the hard world of farm business.  The best farmers ended up farming the land and the country became very productive and successful as a result.  Agriculture was the mainstay of the economy and a major foreign currency earner.

Before we compare this with the situation in the communal areas, it is important to get the land facts straight, because so many inaccurate figures have been published over the years.

Zimbabwe comprises a total of just over 39m hectares of land.  

Prior to the chaotic fast track land nationalisation programme, which began in 2000, the land was divided up as follows:

  1. Communal Areas:    16,35m hectares (41.8% of the total land).  State-owned land.

2. Large-Scale Commercial Sector:  Just over 11m hectares (6,000 farms on 28.2% of the total land).  This included land owned by large corporations as well as significant land holdings owned by black farmers.  [Black-owned and some corporate land is still titled.]

3. Parks/Forest Land:      6,33m hectares (16.2% of the total land). This is state-owned land. [The titled plantations do not fall into this category.]

  1. Resettlement Areas:  3,54m hectares (9.1% of the total land). Like the communal areas, this land is state-owned.

5. Small-Scale Commercial Sector: 1,38m hectares (3.15% of the total land).  Titled land.

6. ARDA, the Agricultural and Rural Development Authority, i.e. State-owned land and farming: 250,000 hectares (0.6% of the total land)

7. Urban Areas: 200,000 hectares (0.5% of the total land)


The communal areas exceed the commercial farming areas in irrigation potential because they are mostly on lower ground away from the watershed, which runs diagonally across the country from the south west to the north east.  This means that they have large dam potential and Lake Kariba, the biggest man-made body of water in the world, adjoins various communal lands.

Although there are around 2,000 dams in the communal areas, none of them were built by the people living in the communal areas throughout their entire history – they were all built by the government.  Why? The people living in the communal areas do not have title deeds to leverage the finance required to create such an asset. 

Rhodesia’s Land Apportionment Act of 1930 divided up the land of the British colony into titled land for white ownership, Tribal Trust Lands where the communal concept of land was retained and white people could not purchase land, and Native purchase areas where only Shona or Ndebele people could own property. 

The main objective of the titled land for white ownership was to promote the development of large-scale commercial agriculture and develop the country, but interestingly, historical documents indicate that it was also designed to stop white farmers encroaching into tribal areas.  At the time, the act gave every man, woman and child in those tribal areas an average of 30 acres (12ha).  A family of 10 would thus have an average of 300 acres of land at their disposal back in 1930.

One of the main problems of the communal areas is that they have not progressed agriculturally at all, but the population numbers have increased significantly, creating pressure on the land which successive governments, including the Mugabe government, which has been in power since 1980, have failed to address. 

In the communal areas, land is allocated by the chief of the area, who also has the power to withdraw it at any time, keeping the people dependent and vulnerable.  This has been a powerful tool in President Mugabe’s strategy for retaining control in the rural areas and he has bought the loyalty of many chiefs with 4x4 vehicles and DSTVs.

Consequently, the communal areas have not been the main driver in the country’s food security, nor to generating foreign exchange. The communal people have not built dams.  No greenhouses have been put up.  No pack-sheds have been erected.  No commercial orchards have been established.  Erosion has been a massive problem.  Subsistence maize yields are abysmal.  Food aid has to be distributed almost every year. 

Why is poverty rife in these areas?  The simple reason is that there are no title deeds so there is no way for farmers to progress through leveraging finance to create thriving farming businesses.  The communal areas have become the subsistence poverty traps that they are today because the people do not have title deeds.   

Furthermore, the nationalisation of the commercial farms has essentially created a vast new reservoir of subsistence poverty traps that mirror the communal lands in their lack of any new development.  According to local contractors, not a single new dam has been built on any of those nationalised farms since the year 2000 - and nor are any likely to be built in the future since the people living on the former commercial farms are living on stolen land.  Title to that land is still vested in the farmers from whom the land was stolen, along with their farm machinery, irrigation equipment and other valuable investments that took years of hard work to acquire.

Scoones evidently views the land grab as ‘we have taken back the land’.  In December he wrote:  “Why can’t water reform follow land reform and we take back ‘our water’”.  This, he says, would include water used by the sugar and citrus estates in the lowveld and the few other commercial companies still trying to farm in a business-like, productive way in Zimbabwe. 

“Why should we rely on an old colonial division of water that backs capital against small-scale black farming?” Scoones asked.  In his writings however, he fails to mention that, 16 years into “land reform”, Zimbabwe is now totally reliant on food aid and food imports, largely from South Africa.

I have to wonder at his choice of the word “we” in this taking business.  Given that Scoones is British and “white” - it is clearly not the British or the whites that are part of the “we” in the taking.  One possible interpretation is that “we” means ZANU PF. If this is the case, his populist ZANU mantra is wearing thin as desperate Zimbabweans of all races struggle to survive.

While the authenticity of Scoones and the premises of his research continue to be questioned widely, the results of his “taking” actions are self-evident across the vast swathes of abandoned commercial farm land and the resulting economic collapse. 

If, as Scoones advocates, water is taken from the sugar and citrus estates, forcing them to close down, more jobs will be lost, more infrastructure will be stripped, sugar will become more expensive because we will have to add it to our growing lists of imports, and the water will lie unused in the dams.  

Furthermore, since some of the sugar and citrus estates have foreign ownership, such actions would have disastrous consequences for foreign direct investment which is so critically need for Zimbabwe’s economic recovery.

With respect to food aid, the international aid agencies will have to continue supplying mass-scale food aid to Zimbabwe, as they have been doing in varying degrees since 2001.  As the country falls apart, it is ordinary Zimbabweans who are the losers in this lethal political game.

Who stands to gain? The ZANU PF government, which insists on controlling the distribution of food aid in order to bolster their patronage system and retain power, and left wing, idealistic British ZANU academics like Scoones who profit from promoting the view that land nationalisation and subsistence farming will benefit the people of Africa.

A trip that I took to Lake Malawi earlier this year brought home to me the point I am making here very forcefully.  I was in Malawi towards the end of the rainy season when the maize needed rain to pollinate and progress through the grain filling stage for maturation of the kernels.

The maize was dry and dying, and it was clear that the crops were failing due to lack of water;  but just on the edge of the maize fields was one of the largest fresh water supplies on earth, Lake Malawi.  The water horizon stretched much further than the eye could see because this natural lake holds approximately seven percent of the world’s entire fresh water supply.  Together the large rift lakes of Africa, Lakes Victoria, Tanganyika and Malawi hold a quarter of the planet's freshwater supply.

It was incredible that on the edge of this massive fresh water supply the crops were dying.  “How can that be?” I thought.  The reason is simple.  The farmers on the edge of the lake did not have title deeds.  They could not capitalise and buy pumps and irrigation equipment to utilise the remarkable water resource they were farming next to.  As a result they were living in abject poverty. The Scoones plan to “take back our water” is as farcical as it is disturbing!   

Scoones chooses the ZANU word “taking.”   This I also find disturbing.  Having seen “taking” first hand over so many years during the brutal farm invasions, it is difficult to understand how an educated British academic can advocate such an action.  “Taking” is another word for stealing.  It is the antithesis of property rights.  Countries and people that “take” never progress. “Taking” never works - it leads to destruction and death, as human history through the ages testifies.

While thinking about this concept of “taking”, I was reminded of our children at primary school playing marbles.  Regrettably, the theft of marbles became such a problem in recent years that eventually the headmaster banned marbles in the school altogether.  The marbles syndrome persists – and Professor Scoones appears to be part of it.  

Theft has become a national problem and the marbles syndrome is symptomatic of the environment that we are all currently living in Zimbabwe where the government embarks on mass-scale theft and encourages it as a form of patronage and control. If Mugabe and other senior party personnel continue to take property after property without recourse, and people like Professor Scoones advocate “taking” as a solution, what chance does the nation have of instilling the correct ethics and values our citizens, let alone in little children?  How tragic it is to see that young children can no longer trust their playmates not to steal their possessions.

My father-in-law, Mike Campbell, received a “certificate of no present interest” from the Mugabe government for Mount Carmel farm in 1999.  Every farm bought after the early 1980s had to be offered to the government first for land redistribution and, if they did not wish to purchase it, they were issued with a certificate of no present interest signed by the Minister of Lands.

Despite this, our family and Mike’s workers were harassed relentlessly by Nathan Shamuyarira, a senior ZANU PF official who was already in his eighties and had no farming experience, but desired our farm.

When I met with his widow recently, I asked her why she was not farming.  The previous week I had been to Mount Carmel and had seen our home and the home of my parents-in-law still in ruins, with everything destroyed and in an unproductive, sorry state.  The workers were all hungry and the formerly thriving mango and citrus orchards had been destroyed.  There were no crops growing, and the tractors that she had “taken” had all vanished.

Mrs Shamuyarira’s answer was very telling.  She said that she had tried to farm but had had such a problem with theft that it had become impossible to carry on. 

“What an irony”, I thought!  “Yes, Mrs Shamuyarira,” I said, “theft is Zimbabwe’s biggest problem.  How are we going to solve the problem of theft?”

She said she didn’t know.

I spoke again: “The tenth commandment says that ‘thou shalt not covet’, and the eighth commandment says that ‘thou shalt not steal’.  But in Zimbabwe, covetousness and theft are allowed to continue relentlessly.  We had the same problem, Mrs Shamuyarira,” I went on, “you came and took our homes and all the crops and tractors and everything else despite a court order and against God’s law.  We will never go forward as a nation in Zimbabwe so long as these criminal activities continue to be allowed.”

She told me I must speak to Government. 

“No,” I said, “we must all be responsible for our own actions.”          

One of Zimbabwe’s most highly respected academics, Professor Tony Hawkins, published an article in 2012 titled “Counting the Cost of Zimbabwean Land Reform”.

He said: “By the end of the country’s ‘lost decade’ (1998-2008), Zimbabwe’s real GDP fell 40% from US$6.6 billion in 2000 (the year the farm invasions began) to US$4.1 billion in 2010... Real per capita incomes in 2011 were 37% lower than when Zimbabwe finally gained independence from Britain in April 1980, according to the World Bank.

On January 28, 2016 Professor Welshman Ncube, who is President of the Ncube-led formation of the Movement for Democratic Change party and an advocate and professor at law, wrote the following: 

“Zanu PF’s relentless plunder of commercial farms from 2000 and the rapid ‘displacement’ of villagers into resettlement areas messed up our country’s water management. Poor farming methods, vandalism and lack of capacity eliminated dry season irrigation programs and left us vulnerable to rain fed-agriculture. Add the effects of unscheduled power shortages and you will appreciate why we have no strategic grain reserves. We were warned about El Nino and the reduced rain potential; we knew in advance that at least two million Zimbabweans were vulnerable to droughts, but government focused more on political relevance than human food security....”

Professor Ian Scoones and his ilk, in advocating “taking” – and not respecting title deeds and improving property rights for all of the people of Zimbabwe, will keep Zimbabwe in poverty for as long as their “taking” ideas are given any credence.  Zimbabwe is caught up in a trap of moral bankruptcy and it doesn’t help when British academics assist in fuelling our ruination. 

Furthermore, it is a sad indictment of the academic community that his papers are published and quoted, and that he is invited to speak at influential gatherings which evidently take on his destructive ideas.  It is ideas like these that keep the people of Zimbabwe in bondage, that hamstring agricultural development and that keep the Western tax payer forking out money to feed starving populations in Africa. 

Ben Freeth

Executive Director

Mike Campbell Foundation