Zimbabwe today is a country on the brink of famine and total economic collapse. Since last year, inflation has skyrocketed at a rate of 228 percent and unemployment stands at more than 60 percent. Tobacco production, which generates 31 percent of the country’s foreign currency, is projected to plummet by a third. And with no seed for corn, Zimbabwe’s primary food source, at least 60 percent of the population faces food shortages—this in a country which was once one of Africa’s largest exporters of foodstuffs.
Land has been a source of political conflict in Zimbabwe since colonization, when the country was known as Rhodesia, both within indigenous black communities and especially between white settlers and the black rural communities. Under British colonial rule and under the white minority government that in 1965 unilaterally declared its independence from Britain, white Rhodesians seized control of the vast majority of good agricultural land, leaving black peasants to scrape a living from marginal "tribal reserves.
" An end to white minority rule came after a protracted war of liberation in which land was a major issue, but was ultimately negotiated through talks brokered by the British government that led to a settlement known as the Lancaster House Agreement, and then to elections in 1980. Robert Mugabe, leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), the dominant liberation movement, won a resounding victory. However, the new government was bound by "sunset clauses" in the Lancaster House Agreement that gave special protections to white Zimbabweans for the first ten years of independence.
These included provisions that the new government would not engage in any compulsory land acquisition and that when land was acquired the government would "pay promptly adequate compensation" for the property. Land distribution would take place in terms of "willing buyer, willing seller. " (From 1985, every vendor of land was required to obtain from the government a "certificate of no present interest" in the acquisition of the land concerned before going ahead with the sale.)
Released from the constraints of the Lancaster House Agreement in 1990, the Zanu-PF government amended the provisions of the constitution concerning property rights. Compulsory acquisition of land for redistribution and resettlement became possible. In 1992, the Land Acquisition Act also gave the government strengthened powers to acquire land for resettlement, subject to the payment of "fair" compensation fixed by a committee of six persons using set (nonmarket) guidelines, including powers to limit the size of farms and introduce a land tax.
A 1994 land tenure commission also recommended that the best way to achieve vital redistribution was through a land tax, though no tax was in fact put in place. Despite the new laws, the government land acquisition and resettlement in practice slowed down. In the first decade of independence, the government acquired 40 percent of the target of eight million hectares, resettling more than 50,000 families on more than three million hectares. By the end of the second decade of independence, the pace of land reform had declined.
Less than one million hectares was acquired for distribution during the 1990s and fewer than 20,000 families resettled. Budgetary allocations showed that land acquisition was not a government priority during these years. By the end of what became known as "phase one" of the land reform and resettlement program in 1997, the government had resettled 71,000 families on almost 3. 5 million hectares of land. Only 19 percent of this was classed as prime land, the rest was either marginal, or unsuitable for grazing or cultivation.
There were positive and sustainable results from the resettlement process, though problems beset the resettled communities who lacked infrastructure and support networks, whether governmental or from their previous communities. Moreover, population density in the "communal areas," the former tribal reserves, actually increased. More than one million families still eked out an existence on sixteen million hectares of poor land. Despite wealth in one sector of the economy, Zimbabwe remained one of the most unequal countries in the world.