Background to the Land Crisis

26 March 2008


• In 1979 land reform in Zimbabwe began after the signing of the Lancaster House Agreement ending white rule in Zimbabwe and the inequitable segregation of land through the Land Apportionment Act of 1930.  Britain agreed to fund reform on a willing buyer, willing seller basis and, during the first phase in 1980, around 70 000 landless people were resettled successfully on 20 0000km.

• In 1980 between 3,2 and 3,8 million hectares were immediately available to the government for resettlement on a willing seller, willing buyer basis as there was no shortage of available land.

• The 1985 Land Acquisition Act gave the government first right to purchase excess land for redistribution to the landless, still on the willing seller, willing buyer basis.  However, the impact was limited because government did not have sufficient money to compensate landowners.

• In 1992, the Land Acquisition Act was enacted to speed up the land reform process by removing the “willing seller, willing buyer” clause. The Act empowered the government go buy land compulsory for redistribution, and a fair compensation was to be paid.  Despite opposition, some land was purchased, but few families were resettled.  Instead, hundreds of abandoned and expropriated white farms ended up in the hands of cabinet ministers, senior government officials and wealthy indigenous businessmen.

• In 1995, Britain withdrew aid to the land reform programme, accusing Mugabe of giving land to his cronies as patronage.  At that time, British contribution in terms of aid to Zimbabwe stood at half a billion pounds since independence.  Furthermore, £47 million of that was specifically targeted for land reform, and approximately £100 million was budgetary support which could have been used for land reform.

• In December 1996 the government suspended disbursements from the War Victims Compensation Fund to veterans of the liberation war as the fund had been decimated due to mass-scale looting, said to involve senior politicians, officials and relatives.  The war vets became militant, finally taking to the streets the following year and issuing aggressive demands for gratuities, monthly pensions and land (which would be occupied if their demands were not met).

• In 1998, the Zimbabwean government’s published its “policy framework” on Land Reform and Resettlement Programme Phase II and called a donors conference.  The programme (involving the compulsory purchase over five years of 50 000km? from the 112 000km? owned by commercial farmers) was endorsed and the Commercial Farmers” Union freely offered to sell the government 15 000km?. However, some landowners dragged their feet.

• In January 1998 the economic crisis had escalated significantly and, following major food price escalations, riots broke out.  In the same week, the government purchased 50 new ministerial Mercedes-Benz cars.  Ten days later the Presidential Pension and Retirement Benefits Amendment Bill proposed to give Mugabe and his family substantial benefits for the rest of their lives. The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions organised a stayaway.
(Martin Meredith: “Robert Mugabe - Power, Plunder and Tyranny in Zimbabwe”). 

• By this stage, the government was losing significant popularity.  In response to moves by the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), drafted a new constitution.  Discussed widely by the public in formal meetings, it was amended to include restrictions on presidential powers, limits to the presidential term of office, and an upper age limit of 70 years for presidential candidates.

• This was not suitable for the government, which removed those clauses and inserted a new one to compulsorily acquire land for redistribution, without compensation. 

• In November, Zimbabwe announced a plan to seize 841 farms owned by white farmers. In January, authorities announced a reduction of seizures to 118 in order to get a $53 million IMF loan.

• In 2000 the government organised a referendum on a new constitution which would have further entrenched President Mugabe’s power. He was shocked when it was defeated and, within days, the land invasions began.