Zim land-reform myths: Beyond false binaries

Ben Cousins (”Time to ditch the ‘disaster’ scenarios”, May 21) may well be correct that the stereotypical portrayal of land reform in Zimbabwe as a “total failure” is unhelpful. Yet his challenge to this crude media representation of what has happened on Zimbabwe’s farms is in danger of reinforcing a false binary of good versus bad land reform.

An appreciation of the potential of peasant agricultural production in Zimbabwe is not new. The communal sector’s success in this regard was, after all, one of the reasons white Rhodesia prohibited peasant access to urban markets in the 1930s.

But was the chaotic and violent land reform that Zanu-PF presided over really intended to rectify the inequalities manifest 20 years after independence? What was really possible in the context of the violent power play of the ruling party, having lost the constitutional referendum in 2000, and following the shock election results shortly after that? What have been the consequences for Zimbabwe as a nation? Can the end results justify the means? Do the relative “success” stories that Cousins alludes to provide a robust basis for replication and progress? Have the foundations for a new way in Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector been laid?

The real situation, as Cousins points out, is much more complex. But it is not only about the “complex new realities that farmers, government officials, political parties and other players are grappling with”. Indeed, Cousins’s representations of the variables affecting land reform raise significant questions he chooses not to engage with.

The empirical evidence of what has transpired on Zimbabwe’s farms is acutely limited, and the consequences remain highly contested. This is why the MDC pushed for and secured agreement in the Global Political Agreement for a land audit, something Zanu-PF opposed and still resists, 16 months later. One can speculate that this is not only about hiding the fact that many farms were handed out to party bigwigs and supporters, but also because it will also expose the detail of Zanu-PF’s lines of patronage in the land programme, providing a clearer picture of exactly who got what and who was excluded. A meaningful audit will also help us to cut through the emotive propaganda of those who believe Armageddon has arrived, or that we are on the road to the promised land.

The land-reform process must also be reviewed in relation to the violence, destruction and abuse (as well as related culpabilities) that accompanied it. This is relatively well documented. The violence poisoned the foundations of this “new beginning”. It remains to be seen whether defenders of violent land reform can move beyond a rudimentary, self-serving and manipulative anti-imperialist justification. Some commentators on Zimbabwe’s farm sector (such as Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros) continue to justify these violations as collateral damage in the quest for broader structural “advances” necessary to break old farming relations of minority white control of prime agricultural land.

The Masvingo study of 400 households, to which Cousins refers, may provide insights into how some beneficiaries of land reform have fared, but it is not a representative sample. He admits as much by pointing to the different situations on the “high-potential” farms in Mashonaland, where hundreds of thousands of farm workers were brutally displaced and then disenfranchised. To what extent, therefore, does the Masvingo study capture the dynamics and power relations around restructuring of land as an asset of economic production and political power?

The Masvingo study is certainly intriguing and we await its publication with interest and a hope that it will shed more light on the research methodologies employed. For example, we need to know how access to the new farmers was secured (and with whose permission), what questions were asked, not only about crop production and the emergence of “novel commodity chains”, but also how they came to be on the farms, plus issues of patronage, political connectivity, loyalty, attitudes towards ownership, security of tenure, and so forth.

Cousins says the Masvingo research shows the land programme has reduced gross racial and class inequalities, yet he fails to explain how the new patterns of land usage relate to political and related economic power structures and dependencies that have evolved and mutated around Zanu-PF’s threadbare nationalist project. What have been the costs to the majority, for the relative few to benefit?

Cousins’s analysis misses the historical and political dimensions of land reform. Without a clear sense of land tenure and title, it is fair to ask: To what extent is this constituency’s future dependent on demonstrating particular loyalties, or at the very least not questioning them?

Cousins is correct to promote an empirically based assessment of land reform, but such an assessment must also grapple with the recent historical origins of violence, power, politics and displacement, and not just a selective engagement with colonial dispossession. We must examine how the reform process has broken down some power structures, yet generated and reproduced other elite and marginalised constituencies. We must examine how land reform has promoted or undermined democratic forms of management and administration through a bifurcated state, in which the threat of militarisation around the land issue remains ever-present. We must examine how land control continues to be wielded by Zanu-PF as a political tool, especially since large parts of the rural areas turned against Zanu-PF in the 2008 elections.

The suggestion that the new forms of agricultural production that have emerged in the wake of land reform could form the basis of a new model of agricultural production in Zimbabwe needs to be critically examined. Further studies of the generally richer agricultural areas in Mashonaland, where there is anecdotal evidence of sharp production decline, are needed.

Cousins should be supported in his call for a challenge to the “myths generated by the stereotypical views”; let’s just make sure it’s not a selective, self-serving exercise.

Piers Pigou is a senior associate at the International Centre for Transitional Justice

Piers Pigou

Piers Pigou

Piers Pigou is Crisis Group's senior consultant for Southern Africa. Formerly he was Crisis Group’s Southern Africa project director, overseeing the organisation's research and advocacy activities in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Madagascar and Angola. Read more from Piers Pigou

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