Reshuffling of political power at the top always has implications at the bottom in Zimbabwe. And so from December last year, with the purging of the Mujuru faction at the ZANU-PF congress, there were multiple rumblings elsewhere. As ever in Zimbabwe, issues of land were important. With a new configuration of power and leadership, some thought that this was the time to use their weight to get land.
Since the land reform – and indeed before – a spate of land grabbing has been seen around the time of elections. Either just before, for those fearing losing power, or just after as those with new power exert it. This was especially the case in 2008, when the ruling elite feared time was up. As it turned out the chaos of election violence meant they hung on, and were able to consolidate positions, resulting in another round of grabs. These are widely resented, including by the majority of land reform beneficiaries who after all were normal people, coming from nearby communal areas and towns, with few connected to this party
The fall out of the ZANU-PF congress upheaval has seen some pushing their luck, confident that they are in the right camp, while others have used attempts to grab land as a way of distancing themselves from the toxic consequences of being associated with the ‘Gamatox’ camp (the term associated with the Mujuru faction – a banned pesticide against weevils).
But land grabbers don’t always win. And indeed in this latest round, many, despite their credentials, have lost. Resistance and protest from villagers, authorities condemning the attempts at usurping ‘strategic’ farms, contests in the courts, and local press and international condemnation have put paid to a number of attempted grabs.
The most high profile recent land grab attempt was at Maleme farm in Matabeleland South. Here a senior CIO (intelligence agency) officer tried to force his way onto the farm. There was local uproar. This was a farm that was being used by a number of groups for local outreach. The white farmer was hugely popular in the area, and the projects widely appreciated. The local chiefs got together and petitioned the government, and in local meetings villagers living nearby vowed to destroy the fences and the farm if it was taken over. The chiefs backed them, saying that they would not support the takeover and would sanction the protests. Meanwhile the case hit the press, and international petitions were launched.
This particular grab of course touched a raw nerve. This was Matabeleland, a place where massacres at the hands of a ZANU-PF led military force took place in the 1980s. And here was a Shona officer from the same group attempting to take land. The arrogance and insensitivity was apparent to anyone from the area. The Gukurahundi period is deeply etched in people’s memories, and the seeming peace in Matabeleland is shallow. While the chiefs are notionally servants of the state, and usually closely linked to the party, their allegiances are at root local, as are their memories.
After much obfuscation, in the end the Vice President – Phelekezela Mphoko, the lesser known of the two beneficiaries of the December putsch – came to the area, and talked with the chiefs. He announced that the offer letter – pushed through by the local land committee that included the CIO officer as a member – was to be rescinded, and the farm would be returned ‘to the people’ (or at least the former owner and the various groups that use it as a base).
This was a major victory widely celebrated in Matobo. We have a new study site in this area, and were working on its establishment with colleagues from NUST at the time. It was certainly clear who people – including those in positions of authority in the state – backed in this confrontation. This land grab was a step too far.
But this is not a single, isolated case, peculiar because of its prominence and international exposure. There have been a few others recently where senior, apparently very powerful, individuals have tried to take farms, and have been (at least for now) pushed back. One case in Masvingo, in another of our study areas, was Barquest farm, near Lake Mutirikwi. Here a minister tried to claim land on the farm, notionally as part of a ‘joint venture’ with the farmer who supplies day-old chicks across the province and beyond. The Masvingo authorities have since 2000 designated this as a strategically important farm, protected from take-over. Again the farmer is highly popular and well known in the area. When the attempted grab was highlighted everyone I talked to was outraged. This was a person who allegedly had other farms, including access to conservancy land. Some put it down to an attempt to present himself as a solid backer of the winning faction in December, casting off aspersions of links to the Gamatox faction. Others saw it simply as greed.
In any case, no doubt influenced by the complex political contours that shroud every move particularly post-December, the new provincial minister, Shuvai Mahhofa, asserted her new-found authority, and withdrew the offer letter, and referred the wider allegations of multiple land ownership to an investigation. For now the crucial day old chick operation is safe, and the many involved in small scale poultry production in the region breathed a sigh of relief. Had this happened in 2008, or almost any time in the previous 15 years, the outcome would have been different. Perhaps, some surmised, things have changed.
Across the country there are a number of examples where ‘protected’ farms have been under siege. These are usually commercially successful but strategically important operations such as at Barquest, where small-scale operations in the new resettlements depend on them, and cannot replicate them given the level of expertise and capital investments required. Dairy farms were the most common, where early in the land reform, agreements were made among government officials in the provincial technical implementing ministries that they would not be offered as part of the A2 scheme. Such local agreements among the technocrats however were often not heeded by those in the political-military-security elite, who went on a rampage at key moments, often grabbing, then destroying, these strategic farm businesses. However some have remained, protected in various ways, such as the case of Barquest, and remain important for agriculture in their areas.
Another case has been Centenary farm near Figtree, again in Matabeleland, where a long court case, with many twists and turns, continues to be fought over the farm, where a senior official from the President’s office tried to take it over. This is an important dairy farm in the region, run by a widely respected Matabeleland farmer, with enormous experience in the dairy sector. Unexpectedly, the court upheld David Conolly’s claim to hold onto the farm, and has requested the land grabber to abandon the farm. This dispute hangs in the balance, but just maybe here again common sense – and Zimbabwe’s collective long-term interest in supporting and rehabilitating the agricultural sector – will win out against individual political opportunism.
Land grabbers in Zimbabwe therefore do not always get their way. This is perhaps especially so in places like Matabeleland and Masvingo where local economic imperatives, as well as local politics and allegiances, hold sway. This is reinforced, especially in Matabeleland, by deeper memories of external interference by a violent state. Local voices against predatory land grabbing it seems are gaining the upper hand, and are fuelling alliances of resistance among local people, chiefs, technocrats and local politicians. As a new politics of the countryside emerges, this dynamic may well be important for the longer term.