Communal Land Rights in Zimbabwe as State Sanction and Social Control: A Narrative

Article excerpt


Land remains the most central issue: underpinning social, economic and political processes in Southern and Eastern Africa (Palmer, 1996; Simon, 1995). However, the dominance of and preoccupation with the repossession of former settler colonial (white-owned) large farms for distribution to the marginalised majority black population (Moyo, 1995; Simon, 1995; Palmer, 1999), although very necessary and long overdue, has delayed or precluded serious attention to other more subtle land related conflicts. These include issues of security of tenure and land access, inequities in the communal and resettlement areas (Kinsey, 1999) and within urban and peri-urban zones (Maxwell et al., 1998) as well as tension between communal area peasants and commercial farm workers, most of whom are of Malawian, Zambian or Mozambique origin (Ranger, 1985: 287; Mbiba, 1999c: 202-4). Another issue also sidelined is to do with conflicts between peasant farmers and those in Small Scale Commercial Areas plus the productivity of the latter since 1980.

Moyo (1995:128) concurs that Zimbabwe's national land debate has neglected land problems facing communal land. Concrete programmes to deal with environmental degradation, land use, declining productivity, distribution, tenure, transfer of rights from state ownership (disguised as communal ownership) are all stalled pending resolution of the redistribution of large commercial farms. A dominant view on communal lands is that by descent all Zimbabweans of African origin have a right to use the communal lands (CFU, 1994; ZFU, 1994). Exclusion of urban workers has been rejected, using the social security argument (Whitsun Foundation, 1979; GoZ LTC, 1994; see below). However, this rejection has not considered contradictions in the argument vis-a-vis those with ownership of freehold urban property and other forms of urban security (Mbiba, 1999c).

The article accepts the validity of the social security argument in some cases, but points out that these rights are a construct whose persistence has helped perpetuate repressive urban management regimes as well as gender inequities at the household level. The third section of the article will present a historical evolution of the construct and highlight the existence of social differentiation in the communal lands. Society in these areas is not so homogeneous that positions taken in debates on the future of this construct would be driven by vested interests within or outside the various groups. This is followed in the fourth section by presentations of how the spatial construct was translated into the socio-economic `social security' argument for urban workers. The changing scenario with regard to urban trends and ownership of urban houses by black Zimbabweans is also outlined. This highlights the importance of housing as well as the failure of postcolonial governments to provide adequate urban housing. It is within this context of failure that the construct of communal land rights has partly been used as an urban management option by the state. It has also been used for political sanction and control (Auret, 1994), an issue not covered in this article.

The article was written prior to the political and economic crisis that followed the key 2000 events such as the constitutional referendum, the national elections and the emergence of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) as a vibrant political challenge to the ruling ZANU (PF) party. In this context a question that could be asked is `To what extent will this changing political landscape affect communal land rights?' or, to put it differently, `What would happen to communal land rights under an MDC government, assuming the party came to power?' This is an exciting question that would require the use of a different literature base and methods from those employed here. The responses to this question in the postscript are therefore tentative remarks based on limited press material. …