After decolonization, land reforms in Zimbabwe aimed to redistribute land to the formerly disenfranchised black majority. Although these reforms were not "perfect" to say the least, they provided immense benefits to the rural women, allowing them to own land in their name for the first time, thereby providing an escape route from numerous patriarchal practices. All this is now in jeopardy, with the introduction of the new Statutory Instrument 62, which reverses these land reforms. Kim Nyajeka, through her article, examines how the reversal of land reforms can impact the future of women landowners in Zimbabwe.

The allocation, occupation, and use of land has played a monolithic role in post-colonial narratives; throughout the Commonwealth and beyond. India’s post-independence land reform policy has provided a template for many former colonies — particularly the objective to “eliminate all elements of exploitation and social injustice within the agrarian system, to provide security for the tiller of the soil, and assure equality of status and opportunity to all sections of the rural population.” Efforts towards land reform in Zimbabwe were similarly aimed at redistributing land to the formerly disenfranchised black majority.

While controversial in many respects, the land reform program in Zimbabwe has benefitted rural women immensely, as will be explained over the course of this article. However, these benefits are now in jeopardy. In September 2020, the government of Zimbabwe promulgated Statutory Instrument 62 (SI 62 of 2020), effectively declaring the land reform program’s reversal — committing to provide both compensation and possible restitution for those who had their land expropriated between 2002 and 2009.

Land Reform in Zimbabwe

Between 1981 and 2009, Zimbabwe witnessed the evolution of land reform programs aimed at redistributing the more fertile agricultural land, owned and occupied by white farmers of European descent, to black people, whose families had been previously banished to less fertile “reserves” during the height of the colonial era. Initially, a “willing buyer, willing seller” land reform project of the 1980s had, by 2000, evolved into the “fast track land reform” which was characterized by haphazard violence and forceful evictions of white farmers and their families, and in some instances, the black laborers on the farms.

In 2000, the government amended Zimbabwe’s Constitution by incorporating Article 16A, which essentially reversed the Lancaster House Agreement[1] and allowed Zimbabwe’s indigenous people to “reassert their rights and regain ownership of their land.” Compensation to white farmers for the dispossession of their land was to be paid directly by the United Kingdom. Thus, began the Accelerated Land Reform and Resettlement Program, under which the government listed 2706 farms for compulsory acquisition. In 2001, the Zimbabwe Parliament passed the Rural Occupiers Act, which effectively legalized the occupation of white-owned farms. In 2002, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that, due to the Land Reform Program’s violent execution, at least seven white farmers had been killed since 2000, and many were severely assaulted before being evicted off the land. The report noted that the attacks were politically motivated in many cases, as several of the targeted farm owners were supporters of what was to become the most prominent opposition party in Zimbabwe, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). By 2003, nearly 1,35,000 black families had been allocated land on former white-owned commercial farms.

In 2005, Parliament passed the Constitutional Amendment 16B and 17, which allowed for government acquisition of land without compensation. As a result, the fast track land reform began to slow down, with a few occupations being executed sporadically until 2009, after which the prevalence of occupations and forced evictions appeared to pick up once again.

Women and Land Reform

About 34% of households in Zimbabwe are headed by females, with 38% being in rural areas. The fast track land reform program was the first piece of legislation that allowed women to be allocated and own land in their names. This was a unique turning point in Zimbabwean history and culture that goes unacknowledged. There was a shift in the patriarchal paradigm where even after independence, the colonial laws that limited land rights for women remained enforceable law.  It is estimated that 23,500 women received land during the fast track land reform program — with some commercial farms being subdivided into smallholder plots.

Female war veterans and civilians alike took full advantage of the land reform measures, joining in freely and independently. Women were allocated land alongside men, allowing them to join new communities away from abusive husbands, family disenfranchisement, disputes with neighbors, and, more often than not, accusations of witchcraft. Many looked to a future of offering the land down to the next generation on their own terms, outside of the patriarchal cultural practices that limit or exclude women from inheriting land.

The land reform process led to greater production of agricultural products like maize and winter wheat. Although women farmers, even as landowners, still face prejudice when trying to access loans for equipment and government grants for fertilizer, this has not hindered many from becoming successful breadwinners in their own right. This positive development has challenged the status quo of what a farmer is in Zimbabwe — which is especially significant in an agriculture-based economy where farmers are synonymous with leadership.

SI 62 of 2020

By way of SI 62 of 2020, Zimbabwe’s government has agreed to pay USD 3.5 billion to white farmers whose land was forcibly taken away by the government in the fast track land reform. Likewise, these farmers also qualify to apply for restitution of their former lands. While the promise of compensation is arguably justifiable — the concession of restitution opens a pandora’s box of concerns. Of paramount concern is the possible displacement of women farmers living and working on the smallholder farms on what was formerly a single commercial farm.

The response to SI 62 in Zimbabwe has been varied. Opposition parties have expressed their concern over how the compensation and restitution of land will be executed. The Ministry of Lands and Agriculture, tasked with implementing the legislation, like many government authorities, is understaffed and underfunded. As such, the risk of corruption remains rampant, compromising the fairness of the land redistribution process. As noted, while the narrative around farming has shifted tremendously, these women farmers still face heavy bureaucratic discrimination, hindering their access to resources. Such discrimination can and mostly will spill into this restitution process, with women being the first to have their land taken from them. Furthermore, removing them from the land will leave many in a more vulnerable state.

On the other hand, the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) has welcomed the SI 62, noting that the need to compensate farmers is necessary to repair Zimbabwe’s economic relations with the international community. The violence of fast track land reform led to harsh economic sanctions being imposed on Zimbabwe by the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States — negatively impacting international trade and investment relations with some of the country’s biggest trading partners. This contributed to the further destruction of Zimbabwe’s already ailing currency, leading to the devaluation of the Zimbabwean Dollar and, subsequently, the infamous hyperinflation crisis. As such, the CFU believes the government’s decision to compensate the farmers who had their land expropriated is a step in the right direction towards reversing the negative impact that fast track land reform had on the economy. The CFU is yet to comment on the effect SI 62 will have on the smallholder farmers currently living on expropriated land, let alone women farmers.

Conclusion

At this juncture, all many can do is speculate about how SI 62 will be enforced in the coming years. As it stands, women are likely to be disproportionately impacted by this de facto reversal of the land reform program. History indicates that the land reform in and of itself was violent, with plenty of unnecessary harm and damage done to families and the economy. That being said, and although its motivations were largely political, the necessity of the affirmative action effort that was the initial land reform program cannot be invalidated.

Indeed, there is a need to balance the call for compensation and restitution of land to white farm owners to preserve the positive accomplishments of land reform. One can only hope that the promise to achieve this, brought by SI 62, accounts for the need to compensate the smallholder farmers for their loss of livelihood. A possible solution could be to allocate different fertile land to these smallholder farmers to ensure that they can continue to have independence, provide for their families, and meaningfully contribute to the economic recovery of the country.

Edited by: Sreyoshi Guha

[1] The Lancaster House Agreement was the ceasefire agreement signed by the Rhodesian government and the Zimbabwean resistance forces, ending the liberation struggle in 1979. Part of the agreement allowed farmers of European descent to keep their land, acquired during the colonial era, without risk of expropriation or nationalization.