To understand fully the complex character and contested process of the fast-track reform, the land question should be viewed from a historical perspective (Palmer, 1977; 1990). Land was a major economic resource expropriated from the indigenous peoples at the start of colonialism in the 1890s, and expropriation continued intermittently until the 1950s and even into the 1960s. Land dispossession symbolised colonial subjugation. Perhaps no other issue was more emblematic of national liberation. Nationalist politicians did not tire of reminding their supporters that the primary purpose of the independence struggle was the restoration of the land expropriated by colonial settlers. In the 1950s and 1960s, a nationalist position on land was taking shape. In 1963, the newly founded Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) party demanded the abrogation of the Land Apportionment Act of 1930 and the Land Husbandry Act of 1951 (ZANU, 1963, quoted in Nyandoro and Nyangoni, 1979). It further stated that ‘absentee ownership of land shall be forbidden’ and that ‘unused land shall be declared communal’. ZANU eventually created a National Land Board to administer an equitable distribution of land.
Nowhere else on the African continent (with the exception of Kenya, Namibia and South Africa) had there been such a massive expropriation of land. Independence in 1980 was therefore expected to lead to the recovery of this important material and symbolic resource. The structure of land-ownership and use was clearly inequitable at independence (Sachikonye, 2002). About 6,000 white commercial farmers owned 15.5 million hectares, while 8,500 small-scale farmers possessed 1.4 million hectares. The remaining indigenous communal farmers — about 700,000 households — subsisted on 16.4 million hectares. This was less than half of the country’s agricultural land. Of particular significance was that 75 per cent of the land owned by communal farmers was in agro-ecological regions 4 and 5, which are drier and less fertile. There was therefore a keenly felt sense of historical injustice and deprivation, focused on land. Not surprisingly, it was one of the most contentious issues negotiated at the Lancaster House talks on Zimbabwe’s independence in 1979. Nationalist negotiators subsequently said that at that conference, the UK and US promised to contribute significantly to land purchase to redress imbalances in land ownership. However, the UK and US disputed this.
Whether it was made or not, that promise was not enshrined in the independence constitution. The constitution contained onerous clauses protecting private property, including land. As one leading nationalist recalled:
we said that the new constitution should permit government to expropriate land if it was not being properly used. The British said ‘fine’, so long as we paid the full market price. But we knew that vast acreage were lying idle and therefore without a market price in areas formerly reserved for white ownership. To buy areas adequate for resettling the many land-hungry African farmers, who had been confined to the former tribal trust land, would be beyond the financial ability of the new state (Nkomo, 1984: 195-6).
After independence, land reform focused on settling people on land acquired from white commercial farmers on a ‘willing seller, willing buyer’ basis . But this was relatively expensive. The independence constitution had tied the government’s hands by entrenching property rights, so that only under-used land could be compulsorily purchased (Cliffe, 1988). Even so, purchase involved immediate payment of full value in foreign exchange. The cost constraint significantly restricted government’s room for manoeuvre on the land question in the 1980s.
This was the structural context in which the post-independence government embarked on a land reform programme whose centrepiece was resettlement of the landless and poor on newly acquired land. The programme’s overall objective was to resettle 162,000 households on 9 million hectares. That would have represented a transfer of about 23 per cent of families from the congested communal lands on to new land. It was not to be. Owing to the resource constraints and limited political will, only about 48,000 households had been resettled by 1989.
In general, what distinguishes this phase of gradual land redistribution from the later ‘fast track’ phase was its peaceful and orderly character. The process of selecting settlers for resettlement was, by and large, transparent. Resettlement itself was accompanied by provision of essential inputs such as seed and fertiliser, and infrastructure such as roads, clinics and schools. As one aid mission concluded, the resettlement programme in the 1980s made ‘impressive strides towards its principal objectives’ (ODA, 1996). The majority of settled families had benefited considerably from the increased opportunities for income generation, and the availability of services such as health and education.