Since independence in 1980, the 600,000 black Zimbabwean peasant families confined to marginal and overcrowded land have been eagerly awaiting President Mugabe's long-standing promise of land redistribution. In November 1997, Mugabe finally pressed ahead with his resettlement scheme and released a list designating 1,400 large-scale commercial farms earmarked for acquisition to the Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union (CFU).
Mugabe's resettlement scheme has provoked much discussion and criticism centering around three major issues. First, many of the farms designated for appropriation are also some of the most agriculturally productive holdings in the Zimbabwean economy. Second, the land acquisition process has been criticized for its political rather than economic motivations. Third, news of the impending acquisition is believed to have in large part precipitated the plummet of the Zimbabwean dollar in early November 1997 and sent foreign investors scrambling. These issues call into question the transparency and efficacy of Mugabe's land scheme.
The origins of the land issue in Zimbabwe date back to its British colonial occupation, when the majority of the black population of the country was confined to marginal, unproductive land while white farmers reaped the benefits of prime farmland and cheap black labor. Although President Mugabe has been crying for a redress of this imbalance since his coming to power in 1980, few serious measures had been initiated in the years of his rule. Subsequently, white commercial farmers still own more than half of Zimbabwe's arable land. In October of 1997, however, Mugabe finally hinted at decisive action, stating that 1997 would be final in terms of offering black farmers land, culminating in the list issued on November 20.
However, it is far from clear that black farmers will be the true beneficiaries of the resettlement scheme; many fear that the land will fall instead into the hands of leading members of the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Popular Front. Past experience points to the usual gap between rhetoric and reality when it comes to land reform in Zimbabwe. Leading officials and former ministers have been high amongst the beneficiaries of land previously acquired for redistribution. Formerly white-owned farms meant to accommodate black peasant farmers after sale have been registered in the names of party officials and former ministers. Furthermore, the fact that identification of land for resettlement has been carried out by committees of politicians rather than agricultural specialists causes much concern. The British government, which had previously supported the land reform, expressed its concern that the program would be subject to corruption. Britain stated that it would continue its support only if the land scheme ensured that "a proper land register was established, that the process of acquisition and resettlement was transparent and that resettlement schemes were economic and would benefit the poor. …