The land is ours. It's not European and we have taken it, we have given it to the rightful people... Those of white extraction who happen to be in the country and are farming are welcome to do so, but they must do so on the basis of equality.” With these words President Robert Mugabe led a concerted land grab that would turn his once stable and economically secure country into mass land of violent chaos.

In 1979 then Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs of the United Kingdom, Lord Carrington, chaired a drawn out Conference that commenced 10  September and only concluded 15 December. The aim of the gathering which included, amongst others, the British delegation, Robert Mugabe, Joshua Nkomo and Ian Smith was to bring the warring parties, in the then Rhodesia, together to settle their differences. This gathering would birth the notorious Lancaster House Agreement which was an undertaking by all involved to see the country proceed to a legal and much deserved state of independence.

“The land is ours. It's not European and we have taken it, we have given it to the rightful people... "

The Lancaster Agreement was finally signed, albeit grudgingly by some, and a few months later Robert Mugabe became the first President of the new sovereign state of Zimbabwe. While democracy had won the day, the issue of land remained a thorn in the side of both the new government and its former colonial power. It was a justified concern as according to "Zimbabwe's Agricultural Revolution" edited by Mandivamba Rukuni and Carl Eicher, “6 000 white commercial farms occupied 45 percent of all agricultural land, compared to only five percent tilled by 8 500 black farmers. Another 70 000 black families futilely cultivated the infertile remaining half of the soil.”

Under the agreement the independence constitution gave protection for property rights for the first 10 years of independence. During those 10 years the Zimbabwean government's acquisition of land was limited to the “willing buyer-willing seller” principle. Thereafter, the Zimbabwean parliament would be able to alter the constitution in accordance with its own legislation.

Between 1980 and 1985, the UK provided £47-million for land reform and this led to successful conversion of portions of what were formerly vast commercial farms into viable resettlement areas for peasant or communal farming with all the necessary facilities (schools, clinics etc.)  In next few years however, politics got in the way and many opportunities were missed (by both Zimbabwe and Britain) and soon a smooth transition to land redistribution and funding hit a bump in the road.

In 1985 the Land Acquisition Act was put together which pushed the “willing seller, willing buyer” spirit of business but the reality was the number of black buyers with the capital to purchase was minimal, the Zimbabwean government had no money to compensate the farmers and the white farmers were vehemently opposed to the Act which rendered the Zimbabwean government powerless to effect land reform.

In the following seven years, another act was pushed through Parliament. The new legislation removed the magnanimous “willing seller, willing buyer” clause and gave the government the necessary authority to purchase any land they saw fit for the purposes of redistribution. The owner of the land would be given fair compensation and 30 days to challenge the acquisition through the courts. This act again saw mounted resistance from the white farmers. Things came to a head when the new British Labour Government came into power and Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short, said of the Land Reform; “I should make it clear that we do not accept that Britain has a special responsibility to meet the costs of land purchase in Zimbabwe. We are a new government from diverse backgrounds without links to former colonial interests.” Clearly the former alliance was over!

Negotiations began to breakdown even further signalling the start of what has become a historical meltdown of a country with much potential.

Land Grabs

After a referendum, which would, among other things, allow government to acquire land without compensation and give Robert Mugabe more power, was defeated in parliament all the wheels came off.  The infamous war veterans and Zanu (PF) Youth saw a chance to engage in lawlessness citing lack of patience at the lack of movement in land reform. Over the next few years, thugs would go from province to province forcibly and violently removing white farmers and their workers from their homes.  Many farmers were murdered and numerous others tortured and assaulted as the country descended into hell on earth.

Instead of condemning the violence and murder, thus potentially bringing the rebels into line President Mugabe went on an extensive anti-West and anti-white campaign, which further fuelled the fire. Families of landowners and thousands of their workers were driven off the land and left destitute or even worse dead.

The country that was largely dependent on its farming community for its revenue was reduced to a shell of its former glory. The land that used to yield billions of dollars in revenue for the country was left in the hands of thugs and corrupt politicians who had no knowledge of farming. Lack of food, basic services and needs became the norm. Many Zimbabweans became refugees in neighbouring African countries while others opted to become fugitives on international soil. Inflation rose and the local currency soon became redundant. The country and its people were desperate and hungry.

Over the years, the man who was once hailed as a shining example of leadership became a pariah. His African peers shunned him and the international community denounced him and all he stood for. Sanctions were imposed; Mugabe had fallen from grace!

But the stubborn politician stood his ground and continued in his quest for land reform, which many state, was an unadulterated disaster with the immediate results on show for all to see.

Tide Turning

Loss of life and violence has no place in modern society no matter what the circumstance and many experts wrote off Robert Mugabe as a murderer and his dream a complete catastrophe. Yet, ten years after the country’s unceremonious collapse, reports have emerged suggesting that despite the clear shortcomings of the barbaric land-grabs, there may be positive change happening in the country as a result. 

The main aim of the land reform was to redress past grievances over land distribution, enhance smallholder food and cash crop production, achieve food self-sufficiency and improve equity in income. As reports now suggest could the long-term vision of a man written off as a lunatic finally be bearing fruit?

As it stands the country now has 170 000 new black farmers, some are engaged in subsistence farming and producing enough to feed their families while others are farming commercially. According to a Zimbabwe Land Reform report by Ian Scoones, farming expert from UK's Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University, there is reason to challenge reports that Robert Mugabe’s plan of ensuring that the black people of Zimbabwe were the owners of their own country and resources was a complete failure.

In his findings, Scoones states that, though it’s far from being classified as a success, there is an emergence of what is now classed as the black “middle farmers” who are finally generating profit from farming.  A small breed that is more learned and organized than the thugs who initially grabbed the land. Those who are farming for their families can, with good rain, also produce enough to sell to local markets. Investment in the land has brought about building of new infrastructure that benefits the new farmer. Most importantly, new market connections are being forged and thus, creating a spirit of entrepreneurialism in the rural areas.

Backing Scoones findings are the statistics on tobacco production in the country over the recent years. Tobacco farming was Zimbabwe’s largest revenue generator and after the land grabs production significantly dropped. In 2008 a meagre 48,8 million kilograms was produced, whereas 200 million kilograms was manufactured in 2000. However 2010 saw production more than double to 123 million kilograms and continue its upward trend to approximately 131 million kilograms in 2011.  In the same year tobacco alone was the main driver behind a 34% growth in the agricultural sector. The 2012 season is estimated to bring in a crop of more than 150 million kilograms in total. 

What is of significance here is the fact that the last couple of years have seen a new trend on the auction floor with nearly every tobacco farmer selling their crop being black. Before the land grabs, less than 2 000 white farmers were growing tobacco, but today more than 60 000 farmers, most of them working from small plots, bring in the crop. A huge benefit for Zimbabwe’s locals. According to Andrew Matibiri, the director of Zimbabwe’s Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board, quoted in the New York Times, “The money that was shared between 1 500 large-scale growers is now shared with more than 58 000 growers, most of them small scale. That is a major change in the country.”

Mad Man or Visionary

Understandably these minor, yet positive, elements in no way justify the past or negate the brutality of past events and the fact that the citizens of the country are still under the yoke of the effects of the land grabs; but one can’t look past the fact that all over Zimbabwe pockets of people have grasped Mugabe’s message that the land is the economy and are now working hard in the fields making slow, yet steady, in-roads to building a self-reliant economy where they are the major shareholders of their wealth and resources. The very objectives land reform sought to achieve.

It’s a fact too, that Zimbabweans who have been living abroad are now opting to move back to the country and make a difference to turn the economy around; there is serious potential for a change of fortune. If financial growth continues to progress at the hands of the locals, then Zimbabwe could emerge in years to come as a country authentically owned by self-reliant Zimbabweans.

Tendai Murisa, tobacco researcher at the Agricultural Advocacy Project surmised it perfectly when he noted that judging the success of land reform by looking at production figures misses a crucial point. “No one ever argued that this is a more productive form of farming,” he said. “But does it share wealth more equitably? Does it give people a sense of dignity and ownership? Those things have value, too.”

All that remains now is the question: Is it possible that the day will come when a black self-empowered, self-sustaining generation will emerge who may see Robert Mugabe as a visionary and not the mad man?