Zim land reform can actually teach SA a thing or two


Although the land debate in South Africa is fixated on the constitutional review process at the moment, it remains unclear for many how, once expropriated, land will be redistributed, and who will select the beneficiaries and how. This applies particularly to privately owned farms.

What forms of livelihood opportunities and models of agriculture will be created, and what will the government’s investment be? Zimbabwe went through a radical, fast-tracked land reform process. What can we learn from it in trying to answer some of these big questions?

“We do not want to be like Zimbabwe’’ is probably the most expressed and least substantiated argument against land redistribution in South Africa. This is based on the belief that Zimbabwe’s land reform process was a chaotic and violent disaster that must be avoided at all costs.

Although it is true that there was chaos and violence, many land and agrarian scholars have argued that the process and outcomes were very complex and cannot only be reduced to that. There were important successes, such as the fundamental changes to the agrarian structure that allowed for many small and medium-sized farms to be established, thereby breaking the problematic structure that was similar to what we have in South Africa today.

The similarities between South Africa and Zimbabwe in their history of land dispossession by white settlers, their establishment of large-scale industrial agriculture and their experiences of post-independence land reform provide a good basis for the former to learn from the experiences of the latter.

For instance, in both countries, after attaining independence or democracy, the ruling parties (Zanu-PF and ANC) represented the general interest but later became vehicles of wealth accumulation because of the politics of patronage.

Without going into too much detail, I wish to emphasise how one successful aspect of Zimbabwe’s fast-tracked land reform process can be replicated in South Africa. I also aim to highlight one of its major failures that South Africa has a high potential of repeating.

Research indicates that, at independence, Zimbabwe had about 6 000 commercial farmers, who were predominantly white. After almost two decades of the government-led land reform programme — which, similarly to South Africa’s, was premised on the principle of a willing buyer, willing seller at market value — only about three million out of 15‑million hectares of agricultural land had been transferred to black farmers.

READ MORE: The Promised Land

In 2000, the fast-tracked land reform programme was implemented. New farmers were allocated more than 4 500 farms, making up 7.6-million hectares.

Unlike in South Africa, where redistribution of farms has been a mere replacement of white with black farmers while keeping the size of the farm intact, in Zimbabwe large farms were subdivided into different sizes.

Researchers have clarified that this differed from one region to the next, and was to a large extent based on what the farms were previously producing and their ecological location. Therefore, it was not a one-size-fits-all approach. This led to the establishment of two main models, one focused on small-scale production (A1 schemes) and the other focused on commercial production at a slightly larger scale (A2 farms).

In addition, much larger A2 farms, replicating the vast farms of the past, were created. Agrarian scholars show that, by 2003, more than 93% of beneficiaries were A1 farmers on more than 40% of redistributed land, and that these farms were all productive.

In terms of size, in Masvingo province, for instance, the average size of new A2 farms is 318 hectares and the size of A1 farms is 37 hectares, including crop and grazing land. The lesson for South Africa to explore here is the subdivision of farms.

One failure that we should avoid that has been highlighted by research is the extensive grabbing of prime farms by political, bureaucratic and business elites affiliated with the ruling party, and the allocation of plots along partisan lines.

A major consequence of this was the displacement of many farmworkers and farm dwellers, estimated at 300 000 in total, coupled with a decline in productivity.

This is a lesson South Africa should not to repeat — the elite capture of land reform and the dispossession of farm dwellers. Instead, the redistribution of farms should prioritise farm dwellers and workers, and create jobs and livelihood opportunities for the black majority, women in particular.

So far, the South African land redistribution process has failed to yield such outcomes. To achieve this requires a major shift from the dominance of large-scale industrial agriculture towards a combination of small, medium-sized and large farms, practising various types of farming and supplying alternative markets.

A clear targeting of beneficiaries, taking into consideration geography, gender, class, skills and capabilities, will be crucial. None of this is going to materialise without state investment, coupled with effective administrative and governance systems.

Sithandiwe Yeni is a national co-ordinator of Tshintsha Amakhaya, a civil society alliance for land and food justice in rural South Africa.


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