Challenging myths about Zimbabwe's land reform

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Perceptions about 'fast-track' policies need to be changed, but new research needs to be more thorough,writes Kirk Helliker.  

Zimbabwe Takes Back its Land (Kumarian Press) offers a very useful introduction to fasttrack land reform in contemporary Zimbabwe for a broad popular audience unfamiliar with the existing literature on fast-track.

Its value, however, as a contribution to a more specialised body of knowledge about fast-track is more problematic. In recent years a number of important works have appeared about fast-track, notably by Sam Moyo, Ian Scoones and Prosper Matondi.

Their works are based on in-depth and original fieldwork and they come to similar conclusions about fast-track. In the end, they all counter the dominant popular and academic narratives about fast track - narratives based on a number of self-perpetuating myths which undermine the legitimacy of fast-track and claim that it has led to significantly reduced agricultural production, national food insecurity and massive poverty in the countryside.

They claim, on the contrary, that there are high levels of agricultural production taking place on redistributed farms and that the farms are providing secure livelihoods for a far larger number of families compared to when they were white owned.

The work by Joseph Hanlon, Jeanette Manjengwa and Teresa Smart fits quite neatly into this overall perspective on fast-track and thus does not provide any fresh insights. Perhaps the only real contribution to the existing academic literature is the claim - made by the authors themselves - that "this is the first book to take into account the remarkable economic recovery since the US dollar became the dominant currency in early 2009, which has given a huge boost to land reform farmers".

In this regard, the authors conducted their own research (undertaken in 2010 and 2011) on three redistributed farms in three separate districts. But a tremendous opportunity was missed by Hanlon et al. In this regard, a vast number of MA and PhD theses exist which have been written about fast-track by Zimbabwean students both inside and outside Zimbabwe, including six theses emerging from the Department of Sociology at Rhodes University alone in the past five years.

Hanlon et al fail to draw directly on this vast array of theses in any significant way. These theses, based primarily on rich ethnographies, would have provided Hanlon et al with a much more refined and nuanced understanding and analysis of livelihoods on redistributed farms.

The book repeatedly stresses, based on existing longitudinal studies of the earlier resettlement process in Zimbabwe dating back to the early 1980s, that it takes a generation for new farmers to be fully productive. In the case of fast-track, despite the serious disruptions in agricultural production initially, agricultural production in Zimbabwe "has largely returned to the 1990s level".

For instance, in the case of maize during the 2010/11 agricultural season, and despite erratic rain at times, production was 83 percent of the 1990s average. Fast-track farmers, including both Al small-scale and larger A2 commercial farm ventures, have contributed significantly to this, in large part because of the more extensive use of land compared to the underutilisation of land by white commercial farmers.

At the same time, in the case of both Al and A2 farmers, there is significant variation and unevenness in levels of production and livelihood conditions, with some farmers doing exceedingly well while others are struggling. Fast-track redistribution has also led to a major increase in the number of people working full-time (family members and hired labour) on redistributed farms - from 167 000 prior to fast-track to about 1 million in 2011.

In outlining fast-track restructuring, Hanlon et al also challenge other myths, including the idea that most of the fast-track farms have been given to ruling party cronies. While not denying the existence of cronyism, they argue that only 5 percent of A2 farmers are Zanu-PF cronies. In addition, they dispute the claim that the land occupation movement was simply a Zanu-PF designed and implemented plot for purposes of winning the 2000 national elections.

On the contrary, the occupations were initiated by war veterans in opposition to Zanu-PF and eventually "Zanu-PF were forced to accept' and legitimise the occupations. Ultimately, this book is for a more popular audience and insofar as it becomes widely distributed, and it is hoped that it does, then it will contribute significantly to challenging the prevailing narratives of fast-track which equate it with chaos, disaster and destruction.

By: Kirk Helliker

Helliker heads Rhodes University's Department of Sociology.

Caption: REFORM: Zimbabwe has been going through a political crisis for the past decade. The problems have been escalating since the last elections in 2008 and the formation of a government comprising Zanu-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change.

Picture: Mujahid Safodien

Source: Sunday Independent