This article discusses the historical construction of land tenure patterns in the Communal Areas of Zimbabwe, previously the Reserves of colonial Rhodesia. In many respects the form of communal tenure found in the Communal Areas today emerged during the early colonial period. While being glossed as `traditional', communal tenure is a contradictory amalgam of local, regional and state initiatives. The discussion outlines the historical development of present tenure relations in the Communal Areas, reviews their multiple sources of legitimacy and suggests that common property regimes in Zimbabwe are not simply the artefact of colonial indirect rule.
In recent years the President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, has been promising to chase out all vestiges of colonial thinking in his country. Mugabe's speeches suggest that under-utilised land, found mostly on Europeans farms, is to be expropriated by the state under the Land Acquisition Act, 1994, and redistributed to the land-hungry in the Communal Areas. This highlights the fact that while gains were made after independence in 1980 in redressing the unequal and racial distribution of land, some 70 per cent of the most productive agricultural land continues to be held privately by a very small segment of the population (mostly whites). This land was protected by the recently expired Lancaster House agreement, which set limits on structural reform of the newly independent Zimbabwean political economy and ushered in a policy of `accommodation'.
However, in the current set of initiatives Mugabe is not promising the madzimambo (`chiefs') that `their' lands will be returned to them. Rather, he has suggested that the chiefs should launch a legal claim against the British government to compensate them for `their' lost lands (Mudzviti, 1993: 1).
These contradictions remind us that who owns the land, and by what right, has been and continues to be one of the most contentious political issues in the history of Zimbabwe. Land tenure is arguably one of the most politically sensitive issues for the Zimbabwean government and, along with structural adjustment and democratic reform, will effectively structure the nature of political and economic processes in the country.
The place of Communal Tenure, the legal framework of land management in the Communal Areas in which 57 per cent of Zimbabwe's population live (Weiner et al., 1991: 147), will be particularly critical to the future of many Zimbabweans. Common property regimes (small `c' communal tenure) in Zimbabwe have long been dismissed as economically unviable (see, for example, Alvord, n.d.; Weinrich, 1975: 311; Yudelman, 1964: 113). Rhetorical flourishes aside, the Zimbabwean government has shifted its attention away from resettling Communal Area dwellers on land acquired, for example, through the Land Acquisition Act. State policy has begun to address more directly the viability of land tenure and land use in the Communal Areas themselves. In 1986 the government of Zimbabwe produced its first Five Year Plan, in which agrarian reform was to be effected both through `translocation resettlement' and `internal resettlement', the latter referring to the reorganisation of land use within the Communal Areas (Alexander, 1993: 199). The first Five Year Plan incorporates the suggestions of the Communal Land Development Plan of 1985, released by the Ministry of Lands, Resettlement and Rural Development (MLRRD), in which tenure issues are brought to the fore:
The present land tenure system in the Communal Areas cannot cater for land
pressure and a fair land distribution in general and the development needs
of the individual holding in particular. Instead, the present land tenure
system is hampering to a large extent rural development. [MLRRD, February
1985, p. 18, cited by Ranger, 1993: 360]
As Drinkwater (1989) has suggested, the level of government intervention proposed for the reorganisation of land use patterns in the Communal Areas resembles very closely the highly interventionist policies which precipitated widespread rural resistance to colonial administration. …