Land issue: playing to the gallery?


The die has been cast. “Land is the people’s sovereign asset. It is their home, economic resource, a social and cultural asset, their religious shrine, their heritage and very likelihood. They are born on it, live and die on it, and get buried on it. It enshrines our genealogy and ancestry,” President Robert Mugabe told the ZANU-PF national conference.

But he went a step further. “We know some white commercial farmers would want to take the matter to the court when their farms are designated. But this is not a matter for the courts to decide…It was not a matter for the courts to decide when our ancestors lost their land to white settlers, where were the courts at that time? Why didn’t they intervene?”

This was no rhetoric. President Mugabe was addressing the party’s grassroots leadership, the party’s most powerful organ as once they had adopted a resolution, there could be no going back until the next annual conference 12 months later.

Having already conceded to the people’s power that the government should cancel the proposed 5 percent levy on income tax for war veterans, with leaders of war veterans themselves agreeing with the people, President Mugabe had been given the necessary mandate to compulsorily acquire land.

Having failed to turn around the country’s economy despite seven years of economic reform, the land issue seemed the only tangible thing President Mugabe could hold onto and still maintain credibility.

People were no longer interested in empty promises. Besides, there could be no going back since the list of farms identified for acquisition had already been published.

In essence, this meant that people could take over and invade these farms if government were to go back on its word. Besides, as President Mugabe said, land is not just being treated as a basic need but as a form of economic empowerment.

The fact that the country is facing stiff resistance and international concern over only 4 000 farmers out of a population of 11.6 million in itself indicates how crucial the land issue is in terms of economic empowerment.

The country’s commercial farmers have been for years the country’s most powerful lobby. They have completely overshadowed other powerful lobbies like the labour movement which at one time had more than 200 000 members.

But it appears the commercial farmers may be to blame for the present crisis. It appears they have tended to rely on international sympathy than anything else. And, to make matters worse, there has been an implied threat that land redistribution spells disaster as it will destroy food security, a thing that President Mugabe, and statistics show, argued was not true. “It is utter nonsense to argue that our people rely on commercial farmers for their food and other life-sustaining products.”

This is certainly true of the main staple, maize. Communal farmers are producing more than commercial farmers although they tend to keep more for their own consumption. This is despite the fact that the majority of the communal farmers are in the poor regions four and five.

The same is also true of cotton. Peasant farmers produce the bulk of the crop. Despite the introduction of competition in the industry, the Cotton Company of Zimbabwe, for example was able to collect 192 738 tonnes of cotton seed this year leaving only 30 percent of the crop to its competitors, Cargill, a multi-national company, and Cotpro, a company owned by commercial farmers.

Commercial farmers also control the bulk of the national herd although they tend to retain their cattle.

Commercial farmers still dominate in tobacco, the country’s biggest foreign currency earner but a number of blacks, including retired Air-Marshall Josiah Tungamirai, who has already won accolades, have entered into the market.

Contrary to the argument used in support of commercial farmers, crop production in Zimbabwe, according to studies that have been carried out prior to and after independence, has largely been centred around availability of land and finance rather than mere expertise. Some studies have even indicated that some communal farmers were producing more per hectare than commercial farmers.

With both sides appearing to be playing to the gallery: ZANU-PF to its volatile electorate, and the commercial farmers to international sympathisers who are entirely relying on stories by their correspondents, some of whom see disaster behind every black face, the question now seems to be: where to now?

Perhaps, the answer lies in a statement by the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference: “A war was fought and blood was split over the ownership of land. Lasting peace and prosperity can only be achieved if the land is shared equitably……Land is a limited resource. It cannot be produced or multiplied. It must be shared out in such a way that all citizens of the country benefit sufficiently. A general land policy is necessary. The problem cannot be left to the acquisitiveness of the individual to be resolved.

“Whoever owns the land must know that he (or she) has an obligation to the nation as a whole to use the land properly. There is no such thing as an absolute, untouchable, almost sacred right to land. If land is used, or rather misused, in a way incompatible with the common good, the State may put it to better use by redistribution.”

But the ZCBC also notes that for grave reasons, and only for such reasons, the State has a right to acquire land and distribute it equitably. In order to carry out this long and complex process of redistribution and resettlement, a suitable mechanism must be established to ensure that justice, equity and fairness are preserved at all levels. Compensation must reflect the effort which the former owner put into the land and enable him or her to continue being productive for the benefit of the nation.

It also notes that no citizen of Zimbabwe can legally be prevented from appealing to the courts as neutral arbiters, whatever the issue might be.

The State has a duty to ensure that farm workers who lose their employment as a result of land redistribution find alternative employment or land on which to settle. Economic wealth produced on the land must benefit those who have created it. Farm workers have a right to adequate housing, education for their children and health care. The final responsibility for providing these services, however, remains with the State.

The common good requires that the redistribution of land be undertaken in such a way that the ability of our agriculture to feed Zimbabwe, and indeed neighbouring countries, is not affected. Regard for the ecological preservation of the land must also be a priority concern, the ZCBC says.


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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.


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