Zimbabwe planned to embark on a fast-track land reform programme prior to 1997 long before the formation of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and the nation’s refusal to sanction a new constitution which most media analysts allege sparked the government’s onslaught on mainly white commercial farmers as a form of retribution for supporting the No vote. But the new labour government of Tony Blair, which abdicated any colonial responsibility for Zimbabwe, said it would only support a programe that was open and transparent and would not undermine investor confidence.
This is revealed in a letter from former British Minister for Intenational Development Clare Short which was published by the Guardian. In her letter Short said that her government would not support “rapid land acquisition as you now seem to envisage”. The later is dated 5 November 1997, but could have been written earlier as the date is written in ink while the month is typed.
Zimbabwe had just listed more than 1500 commercial farms for compulsory acquisition, but observers said the legal instrument which then agriculture minister Kumbirai kangai used allowed for farmers to claim back their land if a year expired before the government acquired the farms. They argued that if Kangai was really serious acquiring the farms he could have designated them as this would have been more binding.
Despite Britain’s abdication, the Zimbabwe government agreed to hold an international donor’s conference in September 1998. Britain refused to send a senior government official insisting that its High Commission to Zimbabwe Peter Longworth would represent it. The Conference was a total flop as it came up with a programme that would have seen the resettlement programme taking up to 30 years to complete. But a letter sent to Mugabe by Tony Blair , dated August 27, 1998 clearly states though Britain wanted an open and transparent land reform programme, it clearly recognized that the then pattern of land ownership in Zimbabwe needed to be fundamentally changed.
It was after the failure of the international donors’ conference that Zimbabwe decided to embark on the fast-track resettlement programme, which most people believe is largely responsible for the present economic crisis in the country.
Clare Short’s letter
Department for International Trade
94 Victoria Street
Hon Kumbirai Kangai
Minister of Agriculture and Land
5 November 1997
George Foulkes has reported to me on the meeting that you and Hon John Nkomo had with Tony Lloyd and him during your recent visit. I know that President Mugabe also discussed the land issue with the Prime Minister briefly during their meeting. It may be helpful if I record where matters now rest on the issue.
At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Tony Blair said that he looked forward to developing a new basis for relations with Commonwealth countries founded upon our new government’s policies, not the past. We will set out our agenda for international development in a White Paper to be published this week. The central thrust of this will be the development of partnerships with developing countries which are committed to eradicate poverty; and have their own proposals for achieving that which we and other donors can support. I very much hope that we will be able to develop such a relationship with Zimbabwe. I understand that you aim to shortly publish your own policies on economic management and poverty reduction. I hope that we can discuss them with you and identify areas where we are best able to help. I mentioned this in my letter of 31 August to Hon Herbert Murerwa.
I should make it clear that we do not accept that Britain has a special responsibility to meet the cost of land purchase in Zimbabwe. We are a new government from diverse backgrounds without links to former colonial interests. My own origins are Irish and as you know we were colonised not colonisers. We do however recognise the very real issues you face over land reform. We believe that land reform could be an important component of a Zimbabwe programme designed to eliminate poverty. We would be prepared to support a programme of land reform that was party of a poverty eradication strategy but not on any other basis.
I am told, Britain provided a package of assistance for resettlement in the period immediately following independence. This was I gather carefully planned and implemented, and met most of its targets. Again, I am told there were discussions in 1989 and 1996 to explore the possibility of further assistance. However that is all in the past. If we look to the present a number of specific issues are unresolved, including the way in which land would be acquired and compensation paid – clearly it would not help the poor of Zimbabwe if it was done in a way which undermined investor confidence. Other questions that would need to be settled would be to ensure that the process was completely open and transparent including the establishment of a proper land register. Individual schemes would have to be economically justified to ensure that the process helped the poor and for me the most important issue is that and programme must be planned as part of a programme to contribute to the goal of eliminating poverty. I would need to consider detailed proposals on these issues before conferring further British support for resettlement.
I am sure that a carefully worked out programme of land reform that was part of a programme of poverty eradication which we would support would also bring in other donors, whose support would help ensure that a substantial land resettlement programme such as you clearly desire could be undertaken successfully. If..is to do so they too will need to be involved from the start.
It follows from this that a programme of rapid land acquisition as you now seem to envisage would be impossible for us to support. I know that many of Zimbabwe’s friends share our concern about the damage which this might do to Zimbabwe’s agricultural output and its prospects of attracting investment.
I thought it best to be frank about where we are. If you think it would be helpful, my officials are ready to meet yours to discuss these issues.