Land reform: not all created equal


When Americans hear the terms “land reform” and “southern Africa” used in conjunction with each other, many are likely to think of Zimbabwe’s experience in the early 2000s, and to shudder. It was then that many large farms owned by white Zimbabweans were forcibly occupied, with the encouragement of Robert Mugabe’s government and with the participation of veterans of the guerilla war waged decades earlier against British and white minority rule of the country. The rapid shrinkage in agricultural production that followed, and the still later collapse of the country’s financial sector, dug an economic hole from which Zimbabwe has yet to fully emerge.

However, to conclude that all land reform must proceed in a similar manner and have a similar result is to succumb to a kind of reductive, and frankly racist, mode of thought. In 1980, the Lancaster House Agreement gave Zimbabwe independence from the United Kingdom, thus freeing the people who lived there from an earlier, imperialist land grab. The Agreement further granted Zimbabwean authorities the right to redistribute land through transactions between willing partners. The British government would supply half the cost of such transactions.

During the 1990s, the Mugabe government began awarding more and more of these redistributed lands to politically connected members of the ruling party. Whether this corruption provided Tony Blair’s government with a cause or an excuse, Britain ceased its support of the program in the late ‘90s, when money last allocated for it by the Thatcher government ran out.

With the agreement broken, Mugabe’s government began expropriating land without compensation, and the rest of this particular land reform’s history unfortunately unfolded as it did. However, South Africa, with its multiple political parties, independent judiciary, and years of previous land redistribution independent of the participation of a former colonial master, is not Zimbabwe.

Neil Cosgrove is a member of The NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board.

 (TMC newspaper VOL. 48 No.8 October 2018. All rights reserved)



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