By Peter Gambara
WHILE attending an investment conference in South Africa, President Emmerson Mnangagwa was asked about the situation of a Rusape white farmer, Robert Smart, who had been evicted from his farm some months earlier.
In January this year, the President made sure that the farmer was allowed back on his farm. Government, through the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture and Rural Resettlement, also instructed that white farmers still on the land be issued with 99-year leases. Previously they were issued with five-year leases. This has generated a lot of debate with many of the white farmers obviously welcoming this announcement.
Some black farmers have called this a reversal of the land reform programme, while other black farmers have asked why government is prioritising giving 99-year leases to white farmers when they themselves have been on the land for close to 20 years now, without these leases.
Further debate has centred on whether the 99-year leases are the best land tenure system we should adopt since it is affecting access to loans for beneficiaries and not encouraging enough investments on the farms.
Other white farmers have questioned the basis of issuing the 99-year leases to their colleagues.
The white commercial farmers have, therefore, advocated for a land audit so that all underutilised land and cases of multiple farm ownership can be identified. Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa in his 2018 budget statement assured the nation that government was moving to undertake periodic land audits.
After compulsorily acquiring land from white farmers in 2000 government sought the best land tenure system for that land and eventually settled on 99-year leases for A2 farms and permits for A1 land.
Essentially, this means the land continues to belong to the State, with the beneficiary leasing the land from the State.
Such land tenure arrangements have been successfully used in some African countries.
However, in Zimbabwe, our banks have continued to refuse to accept the 99-year leases as collateral for loans. Banks have continued to demand collateral in the form of title deeds of properties in towns. Government reacted by rectifying the lease agreements so that they could be accepted by the banks. But the result is yet to be seen.
The major cause of disagreement with the banks has been the transferability of these 99-year leases in the event that the loan beneficiary defaults on the bank loan. Government has continued to insist that they would want to still control the transfer process from the defaulting farmer to the potential new farmer and banks have found this to be cumbersome and unattainable.
Some have argued that the issuance of title deeds to land beneficiaries can actually solve two problems. Firstly, it will encourage investment on the farms. Secondly, as the land beneficiaries pay the purchase prices, that money will be used to pay off the compensation that is still due to the former owners. This will lessen the burden on government to pay compensation to former owners.
At the end of the day, all this points to the urgent need for Zimbabwe to bring closure to this debate if the nation is to benefit from the land that caused a protracted 10-year long civil war.
Peter Gambara is an agricultural economist.