Land and agriculture in Zimbabwe following land reform

In May, I was invited to give a talk on Zimbabwe’s land reform and its aftermath by a great new student initiative at SOAS (School of African and Asia Studies) focused on agriculture and development in Africa. The event was hosted by the Royal African Society and SOAS. I was on a panel with Na Ncube who leads a great initiative in Matabeleland called the Global Native (see an earlier blog).

There is a recording of the event available here. Below I have elaborated my notes a bit, so they are more readable. They should vaguely tally with what I said. The discussion was great too, and worth a listen.

So here’s the talk….

A very brief history

Land and its relationship to agriculture has had a long and fraught history in Zimbabwe. As Robin Palmer said in his brilliant book, Land and Racial Domination in Rhodesia, back in 1977:

The most acute and difficult question confronting the first government of Zimbabwe will be that of land, bedeviled by its past use as a political and economic weapon by the whites and by consequent mythologies to which this has given rise. The problem will not be an easy one to resolve.

Indeed, this has come to pass. A difficult relationship between land, agriculture and livelihoods continues.

Before discussing some of our work on land and livelihoods since the land reform of 2000, I want to offer some brief historical context.

In the 1980s – resettlement was central to the post-Independence effort, and various models, based on a willing seller, willing buyer approach to transfers, were tried out. The so-called Model A schemes – a smallholder approach – was relatively successful as shown by the long-term by Bill Kinsey and others.

By the 1990, resettlement had slowed down, and by late 90s, some 72,000 households on 3.2m ha had been settled. This was way lower than the original targets. In this period there was an acceleration of acquisitions of farms by black elites, and commercial farms prospered in the liberalised economic environment.

But by 2000, 20 years after Independence, there had been no fundamental changes in the agrarian system. It was still based on a dualist arrangement – large-scale commercial farms contrasting with communal areas (and some resettlement schemes) – and was hiding many tensions and much political discontent.

From the early land invasions in late 1990s, accelerating in 2000 following the Constitutional referendum, there were major changes in land use across Zimbabwe, as people took the land. What later became the fast-track land reform programme (FTLRP), resulted in about 10 million hectares being transferred to about 220,000 households, within just a few years, involving both small-scale (A1) and medium scale (A2) farms.

This was a volatile period, sometimes violent, resulting a huge upheaval, and a loss of much of what was white owned large-scale agriculture. It is a highly varied story, and any simple narrative is simply not possible, as I’ve argued many times before.

Post-land reform livelihoods: three themes

Since 2000, we’ve been tracking what has happened – now in three sites in Masvingo, Mazowe and Matobo. Since the land reform, we have argued it is important to have some solid data on economic, social and political changes in the face of often highly ill-informed commentary and policy debate.

I want to highlight three key themes from our findings.

First, there is a new agrarian structure. As Sam Moyo and others have described, it’s now a trimodal system: small-scale (most), medium scale and large-scale and estates (importantly still present and often involving multinational agribusiness).

Second there has been varied performance in production, and so mixed success, across this trimodal system.

The small-scale A1 farms have done surprisingly well (this is consistent across our sites: production has grown; investment has expanded, involving what we refer to as accumulation from below; some economic growth potentials have been generated, especially linked to small towns; and new value chains and linkages have been created. To my mind, this is an important, unsung agricultural transformation, but with vanishingly little external support

By contrast, the A2 medium-scale farms have done less well. Capital constraints, lack of investment, limited finance/credit have hampered production, but some new joint ventures and contracting arrangements have helped. Unlike the European commercial farms established in colonial era in these same areas, there has been virtually no finance and state support.

In the large-scale and estate sector, the story has been varied. But the sugar estates are continuing, and are increasingly reliant on new outgrower arrangements to assure profits.

Third, there have been shifts in politics, as a result of this reconfiguration of land and its uses. Again, this is reflected in different ways across the trimodal system.

Most of the new A1 farmers were from other rural areas, mostly communal areas, and the urban unemployed. Not all are doing well by any means, but many are – and all aspire to accumulate, as many are managing to do. They have varied links with ruling party (and not all are supporters by any means). They are now demanding services and support from the state/party, which has so far been strikingly absent. As a more educated/younger/connected demographic than their immediate communal area counterparts, they are now demanding more, with increasingly louder voices.

The A2 farmers represent a very different class composition. A professional middle class dominates, with many civil servants gaining land, part of the state’s deal with such class interests. In some sites more than others, there are also members of the security services and others with strong political-business-military connections. Many A2 farmers are now seeking alliances with other investors, including former white farmers, Chinese and others, in order to boost production and offset debt.

Finally, the large-scale farms and estates, often with direct links to international agribusiness have negotiated the political uncertainties with brokered deals with the party-state, providing them some cover for their interests (see our work on the sugar estates, for example).

Thus the new trimodal agrarian system has generated new forms of production and economic relations and with this a new political dynamic. These are different across A1, A2 and large-scale/estate sectors, and represent an important new class dynamic in the countryside, with major implications for the future.

A constrained agrarian setting

Overall, though, the potentials of the new agrarian structure is highly constrained: by failures in the wider economy, lack of rural credit and finance, insecure tenure arrangements, poor land administration, patronage and corruption (as I have discussed many times on this blog – for example, a few weeks back). The failure to pay compensation to former white farmers, in line with the Constitution, has hampered political progress too, as various international ‘restrictive measures’ (aka sanctions) persist.

Within these broad categories in the trimodal system, we must also look at other actors – some of whom lost out significantly from the land reform. These include former farm workers, now becoming incorporated into new farm structure, but on poor terms; women who gained early, but are losing out due to reassertion of patriarchal structures; and youth, who nearly a generation on don’t have a chance of getting like their parents did in 2000, with small subdivisions being offered and resentment building.

Over 17 years, there have been winners and losers from the land reform, and the net result of the wider political-economic impasse in Zimbabwe has been stagnation in the key economic sector of agriculture (although with a much vaunted bumper harvest this year of course). Generally, there’s a deep lack of policy vision of what to do about rural development and agriculture in the post-land reform setting.

Unfortunately, the current debate about land and agriculture in Zimbabwe is hopelessly limited. All political parties repeat same tired old rhetoric – whether ZANU-PF’s nationalistic stance or the opposition’s version of neoliberal policy prescriptions – while donors or others seem to have an extraordinarily limited grasp of the realities on the ground. None have got to grips with the big implications – technical, economic and above all political – of the new agrarian structure.

What next? Three scenarios

So what next? Whatever the outcome of next year’s election, and whatever happens in the on-going soap opera of succession struggles and opposition coalitions formation, there are some big questions that are raised.

I want to outline three possible scenarios for the future (see also Toendepi Shonhe’s very thoughtful scenario discussion in Gravitas recently, which has some echoes):

Scenario 1: Status quo, impasse and conflict. Under this scenario, a political stalemate emerges post 2018, and with this a failure to address outstanding compensation issues, address security of tenure challenges, and the refinancing of agriculture doesn’t happen. Under this scenario, A1 smallholders continue as now – they will be doing OK, but not reaching their potential. And discontent with lack of state support will build. Among the A2 farms, a few elite enterprises with external finance will prosper, but little else and the pattern of underutilisation will continue. A long-term demand for land continues from youth, former farm workers and others, in the absence of the growth of the wider economy. But without economic dynamism more broadly, linking the agricultural sector with the wider economy, there will be few prospects for most. This is I am afraid is the default scenario, and currently, sadly the most likely.

Scenario 2. Elite capture. A political change (of some sort – in whatever permutation) results in a flood of capital from outside the country for investment in commercial farming. New joint ventures are established particularly in medium-scale A2 farms and estates (including on parastatal land), adding to a trend that has already begun. Pushed by international finance institutions, donors and global capital, this will lead to a process of consolidation, squeezing out small-scale production. Elite pacts will be struck between the state, connected land reform beneficiaries and external capital (including donors), around a narrative of economic growth and modernisation. Selective accumulation will occur among those with A2 farms, and the result will be a reversion to a large-scale commercial farming trajectory, benefiting a few, but excluding many.

Scenario 3. Smallholder led transformation. This is my favoured, ideal scenario (as you may well guess). In this scenario, A1 accumulators in particular – existing now in large numbers and electorally significant, in alliance with other rural producers – will demand support from the state (under whatever regime), gaining greater political voice. They will push for example for transfers of land from underutilised A2 areas to extend A1 resettlements, accommodating youth and others. They will demand more effective and appropriate rural finance arrangements, and service support, including infrastructural investment (as European farmers did so effectively during the colonial period). Building on an existing dynamic of accumulation from below, a smallholder led agricultural and economic transformation extends, with ripple effects on employment and local economic development. This is made possible by support from new political configurations, but these would require policy vision and commitment, seemingly currently unlikely until a new political settlement is reached, and all parties realise how important rural questions are.

Final thoughts

While land reform happened in a way that was far from ideal, it was certainly necessary. The question is what happens now, rather than harking back to past mistakes and misdeeds. And thinking this through needs evidence-informed policy planning that in my view envisages an agriculture that is productive but also equitable, with the real potentials of land reform – centred on a transformatory smallholder vision – at the core, and rejects both the depressing scenario of the status quo or the scenario of elite capture. Time, as they say, will tell.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland



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3 responses to “Land and agriculture in Zimbabwe following land reform

  1. Thank you Ian Scoones & Team for your valuable research and analysis. How can one re-boost recognition and appreciation of indigenous values regarding the land, which in turn would increase support for the most preferred outcome – your Scenario 3? I’m in process of pulling together examples of such indigenous values from my 1998 PhD thesis: *Indigenous Agroforestry and Sustainable Development in Mutoko Communal District, Zimbabwe *(especially Ch.6 *Shona Cultural and Spiritual Relationship to Land and Trees). *Link available at:

  2. Alice

    Well there is almost no farming in Zimbabwe. Often the crops gets stolen just before the harvest. Most food is being imported from South African and now Zambia. And why again PhD thesis? Farming is hands on work and knowledge of the soil and crops and climate and seasons. Indigenous values reading the land? One hundred and twenty seven years ago the people were migrating after 3 years when the soil was exhausted to new land. They never developed a sustainable farm and looked after the soil.
    Most youngsters want to move to the cities and get an office job. To be a farmer you have to be born like one and love the land and soil. Existing on unfertilized land and trying to survive is very hard. Reinvest is not an African tradition. Tomorrow never comes.

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