Slow-Motion Land Reform in Southern Africa

By Newsom, David D. | The Christian Science Monitor, August 12, 1998 | Go to article overview

Slow-Motion Land Reform in Southern Africa


Newsom, David D., The Christian Science Monitor


Land acquisition represents a still-smoldering issue in the transition from white rule in Southern Africa - particularly in Zimbabwe where whites, representing 2 percent of the population, control 70 percent of the land. Recent reports from the capital, Harare, tell of efforts to resolve the issue - both by direct action and by law.

Several hundred black subsistence farmers reportedly moved in on three white-owned farms in June in the Morondera region in the north of the country. Complaining that government land reform programs were moving too slowly, they said they were returning to ancestral land seized 120 years ago by the British. At the same time, a New York Times report noted that these squatters, showing a degree of restraint, were careful not to invade cultivated areas and declared they wished to share with, not displace, the white farmer.

The sensitivity of the issue was recognized when majority rule and independence for the former Rhodesia were negotiated in 1979. The new nation's Constitution prohibited the compulsory acquisition of land without adequate notice and compensation.

Political leadership has since been torn between the recognition of the need to maintain stable land ownership and agricultural production and the pressures to satisfy black demands, especially from veterans of the war for independence. Population growth and recent droughts have aggravated the situation.

The temptation to exploit the demand for land is always present. In 1993, President Robert Mugabe was quoted as posing the issue as a contest between "greedy landlords and the majority of land hungry peasants." The Times article reported that the Government of Zimbabwe had in 1997 published a list of 1,500 farms to be seized without compensation. A UN Development report issued this year, however, said that Zimbabwe authorities have backed away from this earlier threat.

Restraint is necessary to avoid major disorder. The resolution of land problems involves many questions. Who will manage the process - the market or the government? Who will get land - middle-class blacks who can purchase or subsistence farmers who will need to be subsidized? Which lands - marginal, underutilized, fully cultivated?

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