A SENSE of déjà vu has engulfed the countryside as a spate of land invasions continue to take place right under the nose of President Robert Mugabe’s administration. Nearly 14 years after the first land invasions catapulted Zimbabwe onto the international stage for the wrong reasons — agitation for land by landless blacks is still continuing — with no signs that this could be coming to an end anytime soon.
The land invasions of 2000 were meant to address the imbalances of a colonial system that pushed locals to the fringes, far from the fertile land which was enjoyed by a handful of privileged whites. Despite the government using the land issue to gain political mileage, which has ensured its continued rule, it has never convincingly tackled the issue of violence and chaos that has characterised most land invasions.
600 villagers comprising of war veterans illegally settled into the Hippo Valley and Triangle sugar cane estates owned by South African sugar producer, Tongaat Hulett. Police for once took action and arrested the militant group in an unprecedented response to recurrent and often violent land invasions.
Numerous cases of land invasions were recorded last year, despite a directive issued by the former lands minister Herbert Murerwa in January last year that there was to be a freeze on occupation of land, especially those protected by foreign investment accords. Government has since been slapped with a US$600 million lawsuit after a German national, Heinrich von Pezold took the State to court for disruptions to his farming business.
Dutch farmers also followed suit and lodged a case with the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes based in Washington. So why has the government been unable to slam the brakes on land invasions? A closer look at the issue indicates that the ruling party has been attempting a difficult juggling act of being both the referee and player in the land issue.
In many cases, it has been its own top brass, that has defied the government’s own directive, which in turn has given ammunition to the poor to go on an invasion spree with impunity. In 2012, 40 members of ZANU-PF’s top brass, among these war veterans’ leaders, military officials, and provincial leaders invaded the wildlife-rich Save Valley Conservancy on grounds that they were moving in support of the empowerment programme.
War veterans also moved into Westheim Farm in Centenary — which has Belgian investments and is meant to be protected by an international bilateral agreement signed between Zimbabwe and Belgium. Douglas Mombeshora, the Lands and Resettlement Minister, has been at the forefront of condemning the latest occupation of the sugar estates which he described as “illegal” and urged police to arrest the invaders. “We do not allow that. This is why police have moved in quickly to put an end to the invasions,” said Mombeshora.
Donald Khumalo, former president of the Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union, said government must decide on how it wanted to tackle the land issue and inform the people on the mechanisms in place to satisfy demand. “There should be a lot of adherence to the Zim-Asset economic policy and I doubt if land invasions are part of the transition to improve the agricultural sector. The government should come clean and tell the people the way forward,” said Khumalo.
Observers view government’s lack of stamping its foot decisively down as a strategy by the ruling party to leave the door slightly ajar to make room for it to exploit the land issue again whenever it pleases and this could explain why it has dealt with land invaders using kids’ gloves. Charles Taffs, the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) president, told the Financial Gazette in an interview this week that, “the government had to deal decisively with the ongoing land invasions in order to provide some assurance to the investor community.”
The chaotic, militant and often violent nature of the land invasions has left the land reforms open to manipulation, corruption and allegations of multiple farm ownership and raised uncomfortable questions for the government on whether the targeted beneficiaries of the exercise had benefited at all.
CFU estimates that nearly 4 500 commercial white farmers were displaced from their farms at the peak of the land invasions by the war veterans who parcelled out vast tracts of land for themselves, often issuing a 24-hour ultimatum to the owners of the land to make way for the new occupants.
Often, refusal to comply with the directive was met with dire consequences for the white farmers, who had little protection from law enforcement agents. The ruling ZANU-PF at the time saw an opportunity with which to invoke populism and revive its fledgling fortunes on the political landscape given the rapid rise of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change led by Morgan Tsvangirai in 1999.
The next two successive elections in 2002 and 2008 were built around the land question by ZANU-PF, portrayed as the “Third Chimurenga.”
Yet, the land invasion precipitated the worst economic collapse of Zimbabwe’s economy which the country is still reeling from 14 years later — as it seemingly turned overnight from being one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s breadbaskets into a basket case.
Foreign investors left Zimbabwe in droves; the international community abandoned the country; businesses closed shop and hyperinflation ravaged the nation. Living conditions plummeted as the majority of the populace could not afford basic foodstuffs, forcing the bulk of its skilled population to search for greener pastures in neighbouring South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and overseas in America, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, among other destinations.
Yet the government maintained that the land invasions were a necessary evil, which had to be used in order to hand over the levers of production to black people. Government has persistently pointed to the transformation that the tobacco sector has undergone as an example of the huge success of the land reform exercise. Nearly 90 000 new black tobacco farmers are producing almost 180 million kg of tobacco crop, which was once the preserve of about 4 000 white farmers who at peak in 2000 produced 236 million kg.
Scholars such as Ian Scoones from Sussex University have backed the government’s land redistribution programme and in a book entitled: Zimbabwe Takes Back its Land concluded that “In the biggest land reform in Africa, 6 000 white farmers have been replaced by 245 000 Zimbabwean farmers. These are primarily ordinary poor people who have become more productive farmers. Agricultural production is returning to its 1990’s level”.