Farm invasions as a form of political control

Jul 10, 2011

One of the unfinished businesses of Zimbabwe's land reform exercise is to establish confidence amongst new farmers that their tenure is secure and can be legally protected when contested. However, that basic requirement for long-term farming development seems to clash against the need in some quarters to maintain tenure on farms as a political tool of control.

'Security of tenure' has been much-talked about with regards to the new landholding patterns since 2000. Officially expropriated farmland now belongs to the state, with new farmers occupying it on the strength of occupancy 'offer letters' or leases. However, given the violent capriciousness of the land invasions by which many white farmers were moved off their former farms, it will take a long time of stability before it is clear that the new system of landholding is legally defensible. This in turn affects the confidence to invest in long-term ways on the farms.

Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that there does not seem to be an official cut-off point for invasions. Not only do some of the remaining long-established white farmers continue of threats to their continued stay on their farms, but there are also occasional 'counter-invasions' against some of the new black land owners.

An interesting example is that of Tracy Mutinhiri. As a deputy minister and senior member of ZANU-PF, she should theoretically one of the most secure of the new landholders. But a group of farm invaders claiming to act on the instructions of Sydney Sekeremayi, a more senior government and ZANU-PF official, are reported to have visited her farm in preparation for chasing her off.   

On what basis? She is suspected of being 'sympathetic' to the MDC party with which ZANU-PF is in contentious coalition with! It is said she is one of the ZANU-PF members of parliament who voted with the MDC bloc to make it possible for an MDC MP to win the position of Speaker of parliament over the ZANU-PF candidate.

That the vote was by secret ballot, making it impossible to be sure who voted for whom, is of little consequence to Mutinhiri's ZANU-PF accusers. Nor are they impressed by the argument that such cross-voting is a normal part of democracy even if it annoys party leaders expecting blind loyalty.  

It is bad enough that she has been 'convicted' of a dubious 'crime' for which there cannot be any hard proof. But even if she were 'guilty' as charged by hardliners in her party, it is fascinating that this can be considered legitimate grounds to deprive her of the 'privilege' of holding on to her farm. Clearly there are influential political actors who regard the 'right' to occupy choice farmland to be based more on political affiliation and loyalty than on any other basis.

Does she have 99-year lease or does she merely occupy the farm on the basis of her political position? If the former, can the lease legally protect her from being 'invaded' off her farm, or will the fact that she appears to have lost her 'good standing' in ZANU-PF weigh more against her than the lease protects her? If her right to remain on the land is legally upheld, would the police be able to protect her against invading mobs, especially if they are acting on the instructions of powerful politicians?

Some of those whose landholding is newly threatened are compromised by the fact that they once used the same type of political muscle in use against them today to chase off their white predecessors, as well as black competitors for choice, well-developed farms.

If a senior politician can be threatened with dispossession of her farm on such flimsy political grounds, what confidence can an ordinary, un-politically connected new farmer have that they are safe and secure to make long-term plans and investments?

The fact that these questions do not yet have clear cut answers that everybody can be confident about is evidence of how far the land reform exercise still is from instituting a new sense of 'security of tenure' to replace that of the pre-reform title deeds.  

Regardless of how Mutinhiri's immediate predicament is put to rest, it will send a chilling reminder to new farmers that whatever legal document they hold as proof of their right of occupation, the politics of land reform are far from finally settled, and that they would be wise to keep this in mind in how they plan.

The continued uncertainty on such fundamental issues is one of many impediments to a full restoration of the confidence needed to build a new system of commercial farming in Zimbabwe.    


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