Constitution legalises land grab

Zimbabwe Approaches the Falls

The proposed constitution gives legal sanction to government land grabs


Zimbabwe, since its independence in 1980, has seemed perpetually either on the precipice of disaster or primed for great success. Over the years, it has been called the "jewel of Africa" for its impressive gains in education and its once-productive farming and manufacturing sectors. But when the government seized large commercial farms through the 2000s, largely for its own political ends, it led to a decade-long economic tailspin that now makes Zimbabwe a third poorer per capita than it was in 1998.

On Saturday, the country's citizens will vote on adopting a new constitution. The document emphasizes improvements in human rights, freedom of the press and equality between men and women. But one important element is missing: the restoration of property rights to all Zimbabwean citizens.

That means commercial farmers who had their land seized will have no redress if the constitution is approved. The language, in short, enshrines government land grabs as perfectly legal.

Meanwhile, even current communal farmers will not be assured of land titles, thus binding them to a life of grinding poverty, reliant on food aid and subsidies for agricultural inputs.

What the authors of this proposed constitution—and indeed much of the development-aid community—have missed is that most Zimbabweans don't wish to be better farmers. Like most people since the dawn of civilization, they want to be released from a life of farming. They want the freedom to try other occupations that offer a better fit for their particular strengths. A title to land enables its holder to sell it to someone else who may be more skilled at farming. This freedom is the first start toward an economy that grows in richness and complexity, and is less dependent on the vagaries of world commodity prices.

Zimbabwe's strong economic growth since it adopted the U.S. dollar in 2009 has distracted the government from the hard work of rebuilding domestic and international faith in its rule of law, property rights and good governance. The country now ranks near the bottom of the world in these areas, according to the Fraser Institute.

Indeed, Zimbabwe's recent economic growth is largely a mirage, with 65% of it fueled by government spending that rose to $3.2 billion in 2011 from $257 million in 2008, according to the International Monetary Fund. As a result, government deficits have grown rapidly, and since Zimbabwe can no longer print money, it looks to China and the West for loans and aid to fill the gap. Recently, the government offered all the future revenue from Victoria Falls as collateral for a $381 million loan from Beijing.

Unless Zimbabweans vote no on Saturday, one day Zimbabwe's enviable physical assets will be traded away, and its strongest asset—a well-educated and hard-working population—will miss yet another opportunity for betterment.

Mr. Richardson is an associate professor of economics at Winston-Salem State University, in North Carolina, and author of "Zimbabwe: Why Is One of the World's Least Free Economies Growing So Fast?" a study forthcoming from the Cato Institute.

March 15, 2013