Who is to blame for Zimbabwe’s land reform disaster?

Britain, not Zimbabwe, must pay for colonial land grabs.

Zimbabwe farmers Getty
Corn fields are harvested at Ivordale Farm on August 1, 2018 outside Harare, Zimbabwe [Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]

On August 31, the government of Zimbabwe announced that foreign white farmers settled in the country who lost land between 2000 and 2001 under former President Robert Mugabe’s controversial programme of land reform designed to empower landless Black peasants could apply to get it back.

To enforce this dubious arrangement, the government will revoke offer letters to Black farmers who were resettled on the land formerly belonging to white farmers. And where restitution proves impractical, white farmers will be offered land elsewhere.

A month earlier, the Zimbabwe government had already agreed to pay $3.5bn in compensation to local white farmers “for infrastructure on the farms they lost” when their lands were forcibly taken by the government.

The arrangement to return confiscated lands to foreign white farmers, coupled with the compensation scheme for their local counterparts, essentially brings to an end Zimbabwe’s struggle to reclaim the land grabbed by British settlers during the colonial era and serves as the latest “final resolution” to the land question.

Under British colonial rule, Africans could not occupy or buy land freely. The 1930 Land Apportionment Act, passed by the Southern Rhodesian legislature that year and accepted by the imperial British government in 1931, made it illegal for Black Africans to own land outside of established “native reserves”. These “native purchase areas” comprised some 22 percent of the country’s least arable land, while the white people living in Southern Rhodesia, who constituted 4.5 percent of the country’s population, gained access to around 51 percent of the country’s most arable land.

So approximately 50 million acres of land were made available to a white population of just 48,000 settlers, and one million Africans had to share 20 million acres. What’s more, as with most British colonial heists, the Land Apportionment Act led to African communities being removed from fertile lands to accommodate newly arrived white settler communities.

Subsequently, the low agriculture yields accumulated within “native reserves” led to rising economic hardships and poverty within African communities. With time, land became the colonial administration’s raison d’etre and an emotive rallying point for African nationalism. In 1973, Herbert Chitepo, a leading nationalist, said: “To us, the essence of exploitation, the essence of white domination, is domination over land. That is the real issue.” 

Later, at the 1979 Lancaster House peace talks that eventually led to a negotiated agreement for independence, Britain made a commitment to fund Zimbabwe’s land redistribution programme. It provided £44m ($96.8m) in aid in the years after independence, but that meagre amount could not fund a comprehensive land reform programme.

And despite repeated calls for it to honour the commitment made in 1979, Britain reneged on that pledge in 1997. Clare Short, the then-international development secretary, advised the Zimbabwean government that the election of a Labour government “without links to former colonial interests” meant Britain no longer had “special responsibility to meet the cost of land purchases”.

Short also emphasised that “My government recognises that the present pattern of land ownership needs to be fundamentally changed. We remain willing to assist with a land reform programme which is transparent and fair and has the support and participation of beneficiaries and stakeholders.”

Even Boris Johnson, a man with unbridled passion for the British Empire and colonial relics, criticised former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s handling of Zimbabwe’s land reform programme.

In 2015, in a column for the Telegraph, Johnson wrote, “The British government agreed to fund the arrangement, compensating the former colonial farmers for land that they gave up. Under that arrangement the white farmers were able to survive – more or less; Zimbabwe remained economically viable – more or less.” He added, “And then in 1997, along came Tony Blair and New Labour, and in a fit of avowed anti-colonialist fervour they unilaterally scrapped the arrangement.”

New Labour’s decision to reject Britain’s responsibility towards providing money for the land reform played a role in motivating and advancing the violent farm seizures that gripped Zimbabwe in the 2000s. It also led to a rushed and badly executed land distribution programme that subsequently established a toxic political atmosphere which still prevails in the country.

So it just beggars belief that Britain found it expedient to extricate itself from assuming responsibility for the actions committed under the banner of the British Empire’s colonial designs. Southern Rhodesia was established in 1923 as a self-governing British Crown colony and the land at the centre of today’s questionable compensation deal was not acquired through a cordial negotiation process: settlers occupied land and committed atrocities in the name of the British Empire.  

British settlers, for example, hanged Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi, two spirit mediums, in 1898, after they led a people’s revolt against attempts to appropriate land and impose colonial rule. The settlers also shipped Nehanda and Kaguvi’s remains to a London museum, to be displayed as war trophies.

So why should Zimbabwe have to compensate white farmers for land that was stolen under murderous circumstances in the first place? Why should Black Africans who suffered 90 years of colonialism, actually have to pay for Britain’s colonial endeavours? Amid the widespread economic problems that it is experiencing, Zimbabwe cannot afford to pay $3.5bn in compensation to white farmers. 

Worse still, it cannot just revoke the land offers presented to Black farmers, as that would not be fair. On what basis should the “new farmers” lose their land? Similarly, how will they be compensated for their losses? And, as the government capitulates to the West’s unreasonable demands, will the large tracts of fertile land lost under colonial rule ever be compensated? The latest deal, far from solving the land issue might, in the long run, lead to further instability on the farms.

The government is at pains to stress that compensation is for infrastructure improvements made on farms and the landmark agreement is a prerequisite to mending ties with the West. The United States government, for instance, has reportedly made compensating farmers one of many requirements for lifting economic sanctions. But why is America not insisting that Britain compensate Black Zimbabweans for the original loss of land?

Without compensation from Britain, the land deal simply affirms the ill-gotten gains of white supremacist rule in Zimbabwe. It flies in the face of global efforts to demonstrate that Black lives matter too. Surely, Britain must reassess the compensation claims arising in Zimbabwe, and pay up. The West cannot insist on one standard for Britain and white Africans, while promoting another for Black Africans. Britain, not Zimbabwe, must pay for the land appropriated during the colonial era. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.