The Struggle For Land and Justice: Will South Africa Continue “Soft-Soft” or Adopt The Zimbabwe Approach?

Empowered farmers

Empowered smallholder farmers in Gwanda rural district in drought prone southern part of Zimbabwe. They use solar powered irrigation to plant throughout the year. Photo: Sifelani Tsiko 

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It’s now almost 25 years after the end of apartheid and the land question inside Africa’s most powerful economy still remains largely unresolved.


The reasons for this are many and varied. The land issue has not gone off the radar. It still remains an emotive issue which demands sober answers. On the ground, South Africa still remains one of the most unequal countries in the world in terms of land distribution.


So far, the land reform that has been implemented since 1994 with a huge dose of caution, has not proven to be effective in addressing the country’s huge inequality of land ownership between the Black and White population. The White minority still own vast tracts of very productive land, due to historical injustices that developed through colonization of South Africa and during the apartheid rule.


Whites today still control 72% of agricultural land despite the fact that they just make up 8% of the population. The real owners of the land, Black South Africans, who make up the majority, still have nothing–the percentage they control is still negligible. The Black majority is increasingly becoming restless and agitated. Pressure is mounting and in August this year the ruling African National Congress (ANC) announced that it would forge ahead with plans to change the constitution to allow the expropriation of land without compensation.


A motion to this effect had been passed by parliament early this year. All major political parties in South Africa have agreed there is a need for extensive land reform in the country.


Land, despite all the distractions and cynicism by some White racists who want to preserve the old order, is a very critical tool for resolving poverty, inequality and unemployment. All the problems we see today inside South Africa are largely due to the slow pace of land reform.


The issue of murders on farms and security problems facing South Africa is regrettable but has been used by White farmers and some of their sympathizers in the West to completely divert attention from the core issue–the critical need for redistribution of land. Many White people in South Africa are a very protective lot and they will not let Africans secure their land back easily. Land redistribution is not and will never be an easy stroll in the park. During the colonial era, the Black majority in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Africa had their land confiscated by apartheid regimes and their marauding settler forces using brutal means including massacres. They seized land with brute force, leading to the genocidal killing of tens of thousands of Africans.


Land acquisition requires radicalism. Zimbabweans would not have reclaimed their land back had they continued with the soft-soft approach of the “willing buyer” and “willing seller” deceptions. It took Zimbabwe radicalism supported with grassroots back–up of the landless masses to attain the goal to solve the issue of the unequal land distribution and entitle more land to the majority Black population.


Zimbabwe under the late president Robert Mugabe used far more effective means to redistribute the land owned by white Zimbabweans to black Zimbabweans despite a huge international outcry that it was “chaotic” and “disorderly.” Despite the vicious criticism and challenges that went with the Zimbabwe model, land redistribution here in South Africa’s neighbor, has seen scores of Black farmers using agriculture to lift themselves out of poverty to become successful farmers who are food secure with improved livelihoods. This is the story that is not reported in most Western media.


Initially, the radical land redistribution program had a severe knock on effect on the Zimbabwean economy, but now the country is slowly working its way up to boost farm productivity and efficiency. Multilateral institutions suspended aid for land reform and maintained an awkward etiquette of arm’s length policy towards Zimbabwe’s land reform. Sanctions were imposed on Zimbabwe—crippling the economy—for force the country to buckle in, on the land issue.


Zimbabwe remained resolute and stood firm on the land issue. In 2013, the World Bank inside the belly of the beast, vindicated the importance of land reform in Africa. “Securing access to land is critical for millions of poor people. Modern, efficient, and transparent policies on land rights are vital to reducing poverty and promoting growth, agriculture production, better nutrition and sustainable development,” then World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim, said.


Land reform has been a song Zimbabwe has sung for the past three decades, but few bilateral and multilateral institutions ever danced to it. To many, moves by the World Bank acknowledging the importance of land in socio-economic development are a big surprise. The IMF, World Bank and other western multi-lateral institutions disseminated carefully sanitized data which demonized and harped on Zimbabwe’s land reform as lacking economic rationale.


When the Government convened the Land Donor Conference in September 1998, in Harare, with the attendance of donor organizations from Britain, US and multilateral institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, there was little commitment financially with major donors insisting that the land acquisition program not be compulsory but be on a “willing buyer,” “willing seller” basis. And, despite serious opposition, Zimbabwe’s agrarian reforms have raised the profile of land as a powerful weapon to emancipate not only Zimbabwe but Africa as a whole from foreign aid and intervention. Land is a prerequisite for socio-economic development for Africa despite the challenges that go with agrarian reforms.


The myths and beliefs that Zimbabwe’s land reform has been a total failure, that it benefited the elite, that agriculture is in complete ruins and that the rural economy has collapsed – is the main fear that is behind what we are seeing in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa today.


Contrary to these misconceptions, Zimbabwe’s land reform program has been a huge success gauging from what Black farmers are now doing on the ground to improve crop output. These farmers provide hope for other Africans. Yes, challenges remain, just as they do elsewhere in the world. It is quite clear that Zimbabwe’s land story has a role to play in clearing the confusion over Africa’s land questions and myths and to help build knowledge that will free Africa from the malignancy of low self-esteem, perpetual dependency on the West, lack of pride in African values and history and the sad episodes of stereotypes that undermine Africa’s potential.


If anything, the soft–soft approach in South Africa won’t deliver the Black majority to the promised land. Africa must grow what it eats.

Sifelani Tsiko is a veteran Zimbabwean journalist based in Harare. [email protected] 


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