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Zimbabweland’s 2020 wrap-up

2020 has been quite a year in Zimbabwe and across the world. The blog has had two major series of posts, and this wrap-up features both – now with the links all working.

One series has followed the COVID-19 pandemic in Zimbabwe, and particularly the consequences of lockdown in rural areas. The blogs are based on discussions with our team based across the country – from Mwenezi to Matobo to Masvingo to Gutu to Mvurwi. The pandemic measures have radically reshaped the rural economy, with diverse impacts on different people. Heavy-handed clamp-downs have combined with (as ever) plenty of innovation and adaptation as people find ways of surviving. Luckily, despite dismal predictions, Zimbabwe has as yet not been heavily affected by the disease, a pattern seen in many parts of Africa. Why this is will be the focus of continuing discussion in the new year when this series will continue.

2020 has also seen the 20th anniversary of the fast-track land reform. Our surveys across Masvingo province have continued throughout the 20 years, documenting how livelihood changed in this turbulent period in Zimbabwe’s history, where economic collapse, political chaos and continuous sanctions preventing investment by Western development agencies have persisted. The other major blog series this year therefore presents of the results of our longitudinal studies looking at what has happened in A2 medium-scale farms, A1 self-contained, villagised and informal settlements across Masvingo. The story is fascinating yet complex, and the blogs present much data to show how there have been both important successes, but also major challenges.

Links to the two blog series are presented below. Additional themes discussed this year include commentary on the important compensation deal signed between former white commercial farmers, yet another blog on land tenure (given the on-going intransigence of the debate) and one on conservation and development in the Lowveld. A new paper on the history of commercial farming in Mvurwi was also highlighted.

As ever the blog has been widely read across the world, with many thousands of views, multiple subscribers and plenty of reposts, notably in The Zimbabwean and Chronicle newspapers. The blog will return in the new year with more evidence-based research and comment on agriculture and rural development in Zimbabwe and beyond. 

COVID-19 in rural Zimbabwe: a blog series

Women and young people in Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 economy, Nov 9

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“Know your epidemic”: Reflections from Zimbabwe, Sep 27

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Innovation in the pandemic: an update from Zimbabwe, Sep 7

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Viral politics and economics in Zimbabwe, Jul 27

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COVID-19 lockdown in Zimbabwe: ‘we are good at surviving, but things are really tough’, Jun 15

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COVID-19 lockdown in Zimbabwe: a disaster for farmers, Apr 27

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Surviving COVID-19 in a fragile state: why social resilience is essential, Mar 30

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Twenty years after Zimbabwe’s land reform: a blog series

20 years after Zimbabwe’s land reform: what does the future hold? Jun 29

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Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (summary and reflection), Jun 22

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Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (A2 areas), Jun 8

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Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (A1 informal settlements), Jun 1

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Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (A1 villagised areas), May 25

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Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (A1 self-contained areas), May 18

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Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on: Introduction to the blog series,May 11

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This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland.

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Guest Blog: Land Reform in Zimbabwe Revisited: Reflections from a book launch in London

At the end of January, the influential London-based think tank, Chatham House, hosted the launch of a new book on Zimbabwe’s land reform – Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land.  It generated some UK media coverage which in turn provoked an outcry from some activists based in London, the Zimbabwe Vigil. Outside Chatham House, they organised a small protest, and handed out leaflets with commentaries from Ben Freeth, Eddie Cross (MDC Policy Coordinator General) and Charles Taffs (President Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union).

Why is it that the debate about Zimbabwe’s land reform continues to generate such heat, perhaps especially in London? Why was it that a protest (admittedly in the end of only a few people) was organised about a book reporting empirical research? Why is it that those who oppose the land reform cannot engage with the empirical data? Why, after so long, can the debate not move on?

I was unable to attend the launch or interact with the protest and find out what they objected to, but I asked Dr Admos Chimhowu, a Zimbabwean scholar working at the University of Manchester, who was offering some comments at the event, to provide a report for this blog which he kindly did. Here are Admos’ reflections:

“Fast Track Land Reform is fast becoming an interesting area of intellectual and policy exchange as more empirical evidence of its outcomes emerges. The most recent event aptly titled Land Reform in Zimbabwe Revisited: A Qualified Success?  took place at Chatham House on the 31st of January 2013. The event focused on the evidence emerging from a recently published book, Zimbabwe Takes Back its Land (Kumarian Press) written by Joe Hanlon, Teresa Smart and Jeanette Manjengwa.

Even on a cold winter evening in London the event had all the elements of intrigue that have come to be associated with the Fast Track Land Reform (FTLR) in Zimbabwe. There was a capacity audience, a highly polarised debate and even a small, spirited but peaceful protest mounted by Zim Vigil outside.

Sir Malcom Rifkind MP was the discussant.  Many may not know that Sir Malcom lived and worked in the Rhodesia in the late 1960s and wrote a very insightful MSc thesis on the Politics of Land in then Rhodesia in the 1960s. His views on the book were very carefully calibrated- recognising the rich historical analysis and the candidly presented empirical evidence. He focused on his own recollection of the polarised discourse in the Rhodesia parliament in the 1960s and also reflected on the post-independence dynamics.  Addressing directly the now infamous 5th November 1997 Clare Short letter (about the British Government not taking responsibility to fund land reforms), Sir Malcom maintained the official UK government line that this should not  be a British responsibility but one for Zimbabwe to prioritise.

Teresa Smart and Jeanette Manjengwa gave insights into the key findings of the book, arguing that notwithstanding all the criticisms of Fast Track, there is evidence that many smallholders who got land are using it to better themselves.  Much of the discussion on the new book focused on its findings and it was clear that the polarisation that has characterised the land reform discourse continues. Some of the early evidence soon after 2000 pointed to a decline in production and productivity but more recent findings are showing a need to relook at what is happening on the land.

The publication in 2010 of Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities marked a turning point in what has become a highly polarised discourse on the FTLR in Zimbabwe. This book was not only a marker of a new counter-narrative, seeking to challenge a generally accepted view that Fast Track Land Reform had been an unmitigated disaster, but it also sought to introduce some academic rigour into what had become a politicised lay and professional media discourse.

Adding new evidence, Zimbabwe Takes Back its Land supports this new narrative. It argues that FTLR in Zimbabwe has worked well for some, but could work better for more people with additional support. There is evidence of beneficiaries investing in and using land to improve their lives.  This should not have been a surprise, because we know from past experiences of self resettlement that eventually people use the land to better themselves with or without state or other support.

At the Chatham House meeting there was a wide-ranging discussion, including on how the FTLR empowered women; lessons from Zimbabwe for South Africa; the need for support services for the beneficiaries; the need for more analysis of those who lost out; issues of employment and labour on the FTLR farms and patterns of emerging social differentiation on the farms. Others raised the contradictions between FTLR as being a success in tobacco production, while the country is still appealing for food aid. There were also challenges from the Commercial Farmers Union representatives who had flown in for the meeting on some of the figures used in the book. Even on a cold evening, Zimbabwe’s land reform still produces some heat.

As evidence accumulates that the FTLR was not an unmitigated disaster, there are, in my view, some new dilemmas to address. There are:

1         How can key actors begin to recognise and accept this growing body of evidence without being seen to endorse the methods used to achieve asset transfer? With South Africa facing similar challenges, any suggestion that massive dispossession undertaken at speed can produce good results in the long term would create problems for some interest groups. But then is dismissing FTL as an unmitigated disaster still tenable in the face of growing and credible evidence? We know that land reform can work to create the basis for long-term development (e.g. from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China), but what conditions need to be put in place now?

2         If it is accepted that the FTLR has worked to improve some (not all) people’s lives should it therefore not be accepted and supported (with all its history and faults)? This is particularly important for donors whose next question would be how to engage with the beneficiaries without being seen as endorsing the process through which these outcomes were achieved Indeed Sir Malcom Rifkind was very clear about his disdain for the methods of Fast Track Land Reform in Zimbabwe. It seems to me that this dilemma can be resolved if the legal issues that remain unresolved are addressed- especially the issue of compensation. This is for the GoZ to work through and can potentially unlock further support for the FTLR beneficiaries.

3         With elections looming in Zimbabwe the various political groups also have a crucial dilemma. Accepting that FTLR has worked for some and is beginning to yield results hands over political advantage to those who led or allowed this to happen. Rejecting the evidence though begins to sound insincere. It seems to me that this one will only be resolved after the elections!

The more I look at the evidence, the more I think we should actually not be surprised that asset transfer programmes will work in the medium to long term. This of course is a very separate question from the methods used to redistribute the land. How well asset transfers work of course will depend on a lot of factors and the book presents stories show cases of why institutional support, recapitalisation, skill and individual drive all matter.”

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