Zim land reform: unsustainable new farming system replacing an unsustainable old system

Sep 1, 2011

Why land reform of one kind or another had to take place in Zimbabwe is well known, as are the problems that have resulted from the method that was chosen. While the new, still-in-progress system of agriculture is clearly not meeting the various needs required of it, an article about the current eviction of one of the remaining farmers from the old system also points to how it was a system that despite being once highly functional, had fallen behind the times in many ways. The old system has been decimated, but the new system cannot really work as currently structured. It is becoming clear that shifting ownership of who occupies which land is just one step in a long process of coming up with a new system of land management and of agriculture.

The story is about Kenneth Bartholomew, a longstanding white farmer being officially removed to make way for Felix Pambukani, a new black farmer, in Chegutu, a small farming town 100 km south of Harare. The Daily News' focus is on the 800 farm workers who are about to be both jobless and homeless.

“All the workers have been ordered out of the farm by (September 2) by the Messenger of Court. “It’s a pity, I don’t know where they will go since some of them have been at the farm for more than 20 years and do not even have homes,” said Bartholomew.

"Bartholomew was evicted from the farm last (August 26) by the Messenger of Court with the aid of riot police from Chinhoyi and Kadoma amid fierce resistance from both his workers and the ZANU-PF youths in the Selous district who sought to block the eviction. Zanu PF youths and the workers succeeded in blocking the first eviction attempt on (August 24) but failed the second time after the Messenger of Court came with riot police as reinforcement. The fortified team of police officers assaulted the white farmer before throwing his belongings out of the farm house, warehouses and garages."

For a decade, police have been extremely selective in whether and how they get involved in any aspect of deeply political land issues. Just a few weeks ago, the white farmer the late army General Solomon Mujuru chased off his farm talked about how his dispossession and eviction was effected, back in 2001. A court ruling had allowed the farmer to rescue his farm equipment. When officers of the the Messenger of Court showed up at the farm, at the time already being occupied by Mujuru's people, they were threatened with death, chased away at gunpoint and told never to return. They didn't, and the farmer never recovered any of his equipment nor any compensation from Mujuru. That was the end of the matter, 'rule of law' be damned, because Mujuru was simply too politically powerful for what the courts said to be actionable by the police or anyone else.

It is therefore ironic that the police are now allowed to aggressively apply the 'rule of law' in evicting Bartholomew. It is also ironic that the police are seemingly eager to do so when in countless other cases over the years they have been content to fold their hands.

This arbitrary selectivity in how the rules are applied is one huge remaining problem that prevents a new land/agricultural confidence. Regardless of the legal document of occupancy one possesses, in a contest between two people interested in the same piece of land, too often the degree of one's political (ZANU-PF) connectedness seems to be the over-riding factor. As this can change (just suspended ZANU-PF MP/deputy minister Tracy Mutinhiri now has good reason to worry about whether she will be able to keep her land reform farm), it appears a new farmer would be foolish to make investments on the premise of being given security of tenure by his/her 99-year lease. This goes directly against recent efforts to convince banks that the leases give almost the same protections as the old freehold title deeds. Clearly that is not the case at the moment, and it will take a long time before there is widespread confidence that it is. A major incentive for a serious new farmer to think long term and sink all he can into his farm just isn't in place yet.

As the Daily News points out, it is unusual that Bartholomew enjoys the support of ZANU-PF members in his area, who are opposed to his eviction.

" Zanu PF supporters in Chegutu created a buffer zone at the farm protecting Bartholomew from eviction. They say he is a bonafide Zanu PF supporter who always went out of his way to help villagers. He drove water bowsers around, distributing the precious commodity at the homes of the villagers. The people also told of how he distributed grain to the villagers in their time of need and also contributed to funerals in the area by providing transport and food. Most importantly, they said he used to provide the villagers with transport to Zanu PF rallies and meetings, a deed which made him a darling of many in the area."

Poor relations with surrounding communities is one of the reasons the white farmers of old were widely resented, even as they were also admired for their farming prowess, and feared for their economic/psychological power over them. It appears Bartholomew was clearly different, although that has not saved him from the dispossession fate of many other white farmers.

However, there is something very wrong with the villagers giving Bartholomew's reported ZANU-PF sympathies as a reason why he should not be evicted. The Daily News even refers to this as the 'most important' reason why the villagers can't understand his eviction.

Are a land occupier's ZANU-PF sympathies or membership more important than his farming ability in whether he should stay on his farm or be replaced by somebody else? If so, then forget about agriculture as a profitable, wealth-generating entity recovering any time soon, because there is obviously no direct correlation between ZANU-PF sympathy/membership/loyalty and being a good farmer.

Even if Bartholomew were allowed to remain on the farm, what had clearly become the expectation by the surrounding communities that he would support their political party activities is wrong and inappropriate, even if it at one time might have appeared politically smart and protective of his interests. The new farmer, who is likely to be struggling for many years to get himself established, if he does so at all, also has the additional heavy burden of being judged not according to his farming, but by how he compares to his predecessor in these sorts of extra-curricular activities.

Even if he wanted to, out of conviction or self-interest, the new farmer is unlikely to be able to deliver water to surrounding villagers with a tractor, or ferry them to ZANU-PF meetings. Quite apart from issues of his ability to do these things, there is what should be the overriding issue that he should not be expected to do them at all.

The new farmer's main responsibility is to use that land productively, but there has now developed a culture/expectation where the reality is that he will be under considerable pressure to attempt to 'buy' community support with a 'godfather' role similar to that of the evicted white farmer. He will inevitably be found wanting, and if he tries too hard to please, it could make him bankrupt. If he doesn't try at all, pleading that he can't afford and is busy developing his farm, he will be marked as a bad guy. He is in a no win situation because of the deeply politicized nature of the land reform effort. This is an issue that in one way or another will negatively dog the whole land reform effort for years to come.

"Zanu PF supporters were seething with anger questioning why their “son” was being evicted after what he did for the community. They demanded to know who Pambukani was riding on and his party credentials, saying they had not seen him at any Zanu PF rally."

New farmer Pambukani may be happy and eager at his good fortune, but in addition to the farming challenges he will encounter, he clearly faces huge additional problems and expectations. Will he be allowed to be non-political, non-partisan by village neighbors who had become accustomed to being take to and from ZANU-PF meetings by his predecessor? What if he can't feed community funeral gatherings? What will be the implications of his refusing, or simply being unable to play these roles?

It is extremely unlikely for many reasons, but what if Pambukani said, "Sorry I won't take you to ZANU-PF meetings because I am supporter of the MDC party," as is his constitutional right to be? Or if he said he was strictly politically neutral and did not want to be seen as pro or anti one or the other? All political hell would break loose in a region and a national environment where especially around the charged land issue, that is not a realistic position to take. Both in national terms, and in terms of the expectations of the community, he must somehow be seen to throw his lot in with ZANU-PF. His farming dedication and ability will not come first above all else, but last, under 'any other business!'

"Information and publicity secretary for the Selous district ZANU-PF youth wing Tichaona Kayumba said the party youths supported Bartholomew because he had been the heart of the community, giving villagers food hand-outs, supplying the community with drinking water, supporting the community and Zanu PF party events with his trucks and said without him, the farm will never be the same."

Indeed "the farm will never be the same" without its Santa Claus, but is it even fair for anyone to expect that it should be? What are the implications for a new farmer of coming into an area where these are the sort of expectations against which his 'good neighborliness' will be measured? Even if he succeeds by strict farming measures, without being able/willing to perform these 'extra' duties, for the surrounding villagers the land reform effort that replaces a Bartholomew with a Pambukani will still look like a huge setback and failure.

Pambukani's per hectare yields will not impress these people if they do not enjoy direct social and other benefits from his activities. And it is hard to blame them, although the mentality of expecting that an area's commercial farmer will sort of be the 'patron' of the surrounding community is also medieval, problematic, and subject to its own potential abuses, from both sides.

Discuss the long term social, political and other implications of this for Pambukani, the villagers and indeed, for the country! Is there any level at which these difficult issues are being tackled? Can the country afford not to think about/tackle them?

These are just some of the ways this Daily News story shows the many things wrong with the over-politicized farming environment in place now. If this politicization was thought necessary to achieve a radical change in the racial makeup of land tenure, now that that narrow goal has been achieved, how then does the society go back to a largely de-politicized environment that encourages a sense of security in long-term farming investment and improved productivity? Issues like this are not really being addressed, but they are even more fundamental than those that are, such as how to try to make bankers feel confident to consider farm leases as loan collateral. To address the latter before resolving the former is to put the cart before the horse.

In many ways that are not necessarily immediately obvious, successfully creating a new system of land ternure and commercial agriculture for Zimbabwe is going to be an uphill struggle.

The Zimbabwe Review


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