more on land reform in southern africa


On the cards for a couple of years now, the South African government is (apparently) preparing to enact its Expropriation Bill. Yolandi Groenewald, from the Mail and Guardian:

On Tuesday Beeld reported that Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson had proposed a new empowerment charter for agriculture requiring farmers to sell a 40% share of their farms and land to black shareholders.


The original target was for the transfer of 30% of farmland into black hands by 2014, but earlier this year the government admitted that this will not be possible because of an inadequate budget.

The government estimates that less than 6% of land has been transferred to black ownership since 1994. Some analysts agree that reform is moving at a snail’s pace, but the figure has also been disputed because it takes no account of private land transactions.


Joemat-Pettersson’s proposal has not been met with enthusiasm in commercial farming circles.

“To expect farmers to transfer 40% of their agricultural interest to black shareholders is outrageous and totally unacceptable,” said Transvaal Agricultural Union president Ben Marais.

“We’ve been experiencing difficulty for some time in meeting the minister to discuss agricultural issues. Meetings were postponed and in the last case she didn’t even bother to give notice that she would not be available.”

Everyone is freaking out that another Zimbabwe style grab is around the corner. Need that be a particularly bad thing? Not really, writes Ben Cousin recently for the blog Another Countryside, who argues that ‘Land Reform in Zimbabwe is not the disaster it is made out to be’:

A widely-accepted understanding of land reform in Zimbabwe is that farm invasions and the massive land redistribution that took place from 2000/01 were nothing but a corrupt land grab by ZANU-PF and its cronies. This is said to have initiated a calamitous decline in the agricultural sector from which it has never recovered. The story is that Zimbabwe moved from being the ‘breadbasket’ of the region to being a ‘basket case’, dependent on humanitarian aid to feed its people. An oft-repeated phrase in the media is the ‘collapse’ of commercial farming, conjuring up images of empty farms and a ravaged landscape.

But this stereotype of Zimbabwean land reform is profoundly unhelpful. It is not based on empirical evidence of the impacts of land reform, or an understanding of underlying complexities and trends over time. Seeing land reform as a total failure clouds understanding of complex new realities that farmers, government officials, political parties and other players are grappling with in trying to chart a way forward.


Contradicting the myth of total failure, the study finds that crop yields and output on the redistributed farms, and particularly on A1, smallholder plots, have increased since the early 2000s. From 2006 onwards more than two thirds of households have produced more maize than they can consume, whenever rainfall is sufficient. Cotton production has been a notable success in one of the sites, helped by processing companies providing inputs and a reliable market. Livestock populations in most sites have increased steadily over time. Many of the new ‘settlers’ are adamant that their livelihoods have improved considerably after land reform, despite four droughts over the past decade. In Masvingo Province, former beef ranches or wildlife farms are now supporting much higher rural populations than they did before redistribution.


What is the way forward from here? Suggestions that a new Zimbabwean government should attempt to reconstruct the old, dualistic farming sector dominated by large scale commercial farming will encounter strong political resistance from the many ordinary Zimbabweans who have benefited from land reform. In any event, a key component of the Global Political Agreement is that land reform is irreversible.

The central challenge of land policy in Zimbabwe is rather to build on the emerging successes of the new farmers and foster a dynamic and efficient agrarian economy with strong links to industry and the urban economy. Resolving ambiguities and uncertainties around land rights and land administration will be critically important. These are the issues that media reports, editorials and public debates on Zimbabwe’s land reform should focus on, rather than tired stereotypes of ‘disaster and failure’.

A complex issue.

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