couple amongst crops

Credit: Janet Cousens / Act for Peace.

By Charles Mutasa, an international development policy consultant who focuses on issues related to socio-economic development, governance, land, health and human rights.


Since its independence from Britain in 1980, Zimbabwe has attempted four different land reform phases aimed at addressing land injustices and inequality inherited from the colonial era.

Apart from facing a number of difficult economic problems, including infrastructure and regulatory deficiencies, ongoing indigenization pressure, a large external debt burden and insufficient formal employment, controversy over land reform remains the major obstacle to sustainable development.

The population of Zimbabwe is estimated to be 13.06 million—52% being female—and is largely dependent on agriculture. The country is landlocked and situated in southern Africa over a total land area of 390,757 square kilometers. That the land issue has been the epicenter of Zimbabwe’s socio-political and economic struggles since colonial times is hardly disputable.

Land reform has moved up and down the ladder of development prioritiesover the past 120+ years. Indeed now, as in the past, it remains the root of the political tension within the country, and with the former colonial power Britain and other Western countries.

As with other African countries, land ranked high among the grievances that motivated the indigenous black majority to form a nationalist movement and launch liberation wars to free their country from colonial oppression. Given its emotive nature, the land issue
threatened to derail the 1979 Lancaster House negotiations for Zimbabwe‘s independence between liberation movements and the white minority Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith. The
derailment was centered on land owned by the white colonialists that was to be shared equally with the black majority in the country after independence.

Twenty years into Zimbabwe’s independence, the government’s Fast Track Land Reform Program (FT LRP), initiated in July 2000, radically transformed the agrarian sector in a manner that has farreaching socio-political ramifications.


The period of formal colonization in Zimbabwe lasted 90 years, from September 1890 to independence in April 1980, and was marked by European settler occupation of Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), and the dispossession of millions of black farmers of their land. A series of land policies deprived the majority their land rights while granting rights to a few privileged white elites. The black population was deliberately marginalized by a system of
state managed repression, segregation and violence.

Beginning in 1890, the settlers’ colonial government, initially led by Cecil John Rhodes’ British South Africa Company (BSAC), was characterized by a systematic dispossession realized largely through violence, war and legislative enactments which resulted in racially
skewed land distribution and ownership patterns. By letting the BSAC—a private company—take charge of a colony, the British had inadvertently set up a particularly unjust colonial administration system.

By 1914, white settlers, numbering just 23,730, owned slightly more than 19 million acres of land while an estimated 752,000 Africans occupied a total of 21,390,080 acres of land.

The first liberation wars began in the late 1800s but were subdued by the settlers’ superior firepower. As the decades passed, land dispossession, extra-economic regulation (e.g., blacks required a travel pass to be in urban areas; certain jobs were reserved for
whites) and taxes turned Zimbabwe into a labor reserve economy reliant on cheap domestic and foreign migrant labor to work on farms, roads/rail and urban factories. As black Africans lost their lands through wholesale evictions and forced removals, their agricultural economy was reduced to subsistence levels by the late 1930s. Most black
communities were forcibly moved to areas designated as native reserves/communal lands with poor, infertile soils and located in the inhospitable and tsetse-ridden areas of the country, such as Gokwe and Muzarabani.

The first significant piece of land legislation enacted by the white colonialists was the Land Apportionment Act of 1930. The Act legally enshrined the de facto land stratification,
designating half of the country’s land as exclusively whites-only (who then comprised a mere 5 percent of the population). The Act also allocated a greater proportion of the better land to white farmers and made provisions for evicting indigenous farmers to drier
and infertile agro-ecological regions.

It also prohibited Africans from owning or occupying lands in designated white areas, crowding them in less-productive land and degrading the eco-system. Consequently, the white settlers took the most and best land (51%), leaving the Africans with poor infertile lands (22%), while the remainder (27%) was set aside for forestry, national parks and other government developments (see Table 1).

This process forced a large number of rural residents to leave their farms in search of work on large farms or in urban areas. Efforts to address racial discrimination and land inequality suffered a significant setback when, in 1965, the white minority Rhodesian government of Ian Smith declared itself independent from British control and vowed that there would be no black majority rule in the country for a thousand years. As part of
the effort to resist colonial segregation and land acquisitions, nationalist movements launched a guerrilla war campaign in the 1960s.

The guerilla war campaign intensified in the 1970s but had no clear winner. This resulted in a negotiated peace settlement, through a 1979 ceasefire agreement brokered by the British government. The ceasefire was followed by negotiations for a new independent
Zimbabwe held at the Lancaster House in Britain. The resulting Lancaster House Agreement set a framework for key outcomes, including a roadmap to elections through a universal plebiscite, a Constitution, and steps to achieve equitable land reform. Land reform involved the targeted resettlement of the black majority from unproductive
native reserves to land designated for resettlement, which was to be purchased by government from the white commercial farmers who had large tracts of underutilized land.

Land reform in post-independent Zimbabwe

However, the Lancaster House Agreement and the 1979 Zimbabwe Constitution made land redistribution to the majority of blacks impossible in that the law protected the minority interest of the white commercial farmers.

The Constitution circumscribed the compulsory acquisition of any property, including land, for a period of ten years after the date of independence, 18th April 1980. Any Constitutional amendments during this ten-year period needed a 100 percent majority approval in Parliament, something that was impossible given that the Constitution also reserved 20 Parliamentary seats for whites for the next seven years.

Zimbabwe’s land reform experience since 1980 entails four different phases:

(1) market-based system using a “willing seller–willing buyer approach,” which could not be altered within the first decade of independence;

(2) compulsory acquisitions of land by government for public use (1992-2000), based on gazetted compensation fees;

(3) the period of increasing violent, extrajudicial land occupations by war veterans and villagers (1998-2000); and 

(4) the current Fast Track Land Reform Program (FT LRP) that began in 2000, and is an appropriation of land from white farmers without resort to courts for compensation. This phase is still ongoing, but is now sometimes used by top political elites from the ruling party as a way of punishing white farmers who oppose their rule or openly support opposition politics.

1. Willing seller-willing buyer

Between 1980 and 1990, Zimbabwe’s land redistribution approach was marketbased
but state-managed, with the sole stated purpose of targeting the landlessness and overcrowding among rural and urban poor.

The approach established a willing seller-willing buyer system of land exchange, in which
the government purchased land from commercial white farmers who wished to sell it. It was an international effort including some European countries, Kuwait, and the largest contributor, the British government, matching ‘pound for pound’ contributions from
Zimbabwe’s government.

Government-acquired farms consisted of small plots of a hectare or less, to resettle the poor and marginalized black families from the congested native reserves. During this period, increased calls from the black community for the ‘de-racialization of commercial farming’ resulted in a few black middle-class actors, especially political elites, being allowed to buy commercial farms in what were previously designated as ‘white only’ areas.

The early 1980s land reforms led to the resettlement of about 75,000 families out of a targeted 162,000 families, consisting mostly of those displaced by the liberation war. The government needed 8.3 million hectares of land for the resettlement, but only acquired
2.6 million hectares. In the first five to ten years of independence, the government’s land reform policy was narrowly conceived to address landlessness, displacement,and overcrowding among peasants. For the poor, landless black farmers the slow pace in land redistribution became the basis for disgruntlement, culminating in the seizures of white-owned land twenty years later.

It should be noted that the biggest challenge in the government’s efforts to redistribute land under the willing seller-willing buyer approach was the white commercial farmers’
unwillingness to sell some portions of their large farms at reasonable prices to government so that the crowded black community in reserves could be resettled. White land owners began asking for far more than what the land was worth leading to inflated land values, and making it virtually impossible for the government to sustain funding. This imposed
onerous fiscal demands on an already financially constrained state. The slow progress in substantive resettlement in the 1980s meant that the birth of independent Zimbabwe rested on a weak foundation. The communal areas still remained congested with people,
overstocked and overgrazed by cattle.

2. Compulsory Government Acquisitions of Land

In the 1990s, the Zimbabwe government assumed greater control over land allocation through the controversial 1992 Land Acquisition Act. The Act allowed for compulsory
acquisition of land with “little compensation and limited rights of appeal to the courts.” However, the Act resettled less than 600 families.

Sabotage by white commercial farmers, through their refusal to cooperate with government in facilitating land redistribution, ensured that the process remained slow, cumbersome and expensive.

Furthermore, the land redistribution effort received no donor support. The British government, for example, declined to offer aid, alleging prior corruption and the misuse of donor funds to award land to black political elites rather than to the intended beneficiaries—the rural poor.

3. Inception of violent land occupations.

By the late 1990s, many Zimbabweans were fed up with government promises to resettle
them through meaningful land reform programs. A small number of villagers and war veterans of the second liberation war (1960s-1980) began to invade nearby white-owned
commercial farms.

At first, the government used force to restrain the occupiers. However, by mid-2000, the self-organized veterans took matters into their own hands, intensifying their land seizures as they gained more public support.

The restless villagers’ patience with government on land reform had run out. In light of the war veterans’ huge following, the government decided to allow the takeovers. This
phase of land reform policy nurtured critical shifts in economic policy and performance as well as changes in the electoral political circumstances. President Mugabe and his ruling party capitalized on the land issue to regain political support, which was fading due to hard economic conditions prevailing in the country.

Some scholars considered the land occupations unwarranted, allegedly because they were ‘chaotic and often violent’, ‘racially motivated land seizure’ and ‘politically vindictive land
grab’, which violated the legitimate land rights of white farmers. Others considered the land occupations to be disastrous as agricultural land was transformed into ‘dead capital.’
Authors like Patrick Bond argue that the land occupations benefited President Mugabe’s cronies and destroyed agriculture. On the contrary, authors like Ian Scoones argue that
Zimbabwe’s production did not go down with the land occupations, but rather the level of production was boosted and many people were empowered and benefitted, especially
those who lived in the reserves. Still others saw it as the only and last resort to end white minority racism and reluctance to promote equitable distribution of land in the country.

A remarkable development, which many believe signaled the onset of the Fast Track Land Reform Program (FT LRP), occurred in July 2000. President Mugabe publicly declared his support for war veterans and stated that no judicial decision would be allowed to stop the takeover of white farms through land invasions. He also openly ignored the advice of both his Home Affairs Minister and the Judiciary to stop the land invasions. He even went further, telling the nation that the war veterans were doing exactly what the blacks had fought for during the liberation war. He argued that the only way to correct past colonial wrongs, especially the unequal land distribution, was to suspend the rule of law, given the intransigence of the white commercial farmers and their backing from Britain. Besides these public statements, there were no official documents gazetted or a state of emergency declared to legalize the land takeovers. To him, the white farmers were hiding under the guise of property and human rights in their bid to frustrate land redistribution.

The president’s support of the land takeovers became the law and the way forward regarding land redistribution in the country. Accordingly, the last quarter of 2000
witnessed a breakdown in the rule of law as both the members of the Zimbabwean police and army failed to take action against the perpetrators of violent crimes on white farms,
and in some cases they actively assisted illegal actions. Commercial white farmers who went to court to contest the seizure of their farms were not entertained, as members
of the Judiciary who went against the president’s stance on land were purged. Police sided with the land invaders and defied court orders that sought to reverse the land invasions,
and the Chief Justice, Anthony Gubbay, was forced to resign.

4. Fast Track Land Reform Program (FTLRP).

The government, through inception of the FT LRP in July 2000, legalized what began as isolated illegal land seizures by war veterans and villagers in the late 1990s. The ruling party, taking advantage of its majority in parliament, quickly passed the Rural Land Occupiers (Prevention from Eviction) Act (2001), which protected land occupiers from
eviction from land they occupied.

As a result of this new legislation, since 2000 the government has largely nullified the property rights of white commercial farmers. This was later reinforced by the 2013 Constitution, which states the inviolability of the post-2000 land reforms.


Despite, the chaos and violence that characterized the FT LRP, the exercise seemed to move the land reform agenda further than the previous phases. Table 2 shows the government statistics on different phases of land resettlement in post-independent Zimbabwe (up to 2008, the most recent year for which data is available).

The FT LRP had more beneficiaries than the previous land resettlement phases. It increased access to farm infrastructures and natural resources for the black majority, which were previously dominated by a racial white minority. In some cases, black farmers gained access to dams and irrigation that had previously been owned and controlled by a white minority.

Rural black farmers and some black elites also gained greater access to dip tanks for cattle, tractors and other farming equipment, whose ownership changed because of the FT LRP. Despite some gains made for the poor under the FT LRP, the criteria for selection to own land and farm equipment left much to be desired as it was influenced by partisanship, corruption and other patron-client relationships. No efforts were made to
ensure that those who had the necessary agricultural skills and capital were allocated large farms to ensure continued farm production in commercial areas.

It was often people without the requisite skills and resources who received farmland, and they still struggle to meet production levels expected of their large farms. For instance, civil servants like teachers got huge tracks of land but had no capital to farm.

The FT LRP led to sharp falls in production that precipitated the collapse of the agriculture-based economy. Both external and internal factors were responsible for the collapse.

The international community reacted negatively to Zimbabwe’s quest for mobilizing finance for agricultural recovery and for attracting external investment to stabilize its economy. The new black farmers were unskilled and had no capital to maintain the previous levels of production reached by white commercial farmers. Consequently, the country endured rampant inflation and critical food and fuel shortages.

According to University of Zimbabwe economist, Tony Hawkins, “in 2000, Zimbabwe farms produced 3.7 million tonnes of output (excluding estate grown sugar). In 2012, the Ministry of Finance estimated output at less than half that (1.7 million tonnes). In 2013,
the government estimated a further 20 percent fall in plantings for the season that translated into lower output.”

The Zimbabwean economy has been subjected to economic sanctions since 1998, the IMF and World Bank suspended lending to the country in 1999, and all donor development assistance (except humanitarian aid) ceased after the 2001 enactment of the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZIDER A) by the US government. ZIDER A imposed US economic sanctions on Zimbabwe, and members of Mugabe’s ruling elite were subject to travel bans to the US and had their assets frozen until they restored the rule of law and respect for property rights. Nonetheless, the FT LRP process reconstituted Zimbabwe’s agrarian structure and altered the nature of property rights and labor relations based on new forms of access to resources and markets.

Lessons Learned

The FT LRP confirms the notion that a poorly designed land reform program brings with it heavy economic and developmental costs. Distributing land to the poor without a viable support system, including a credible credit system, is suicidal. If the new FT LRP farmers are to contribute to local livelihoods, national food security and broader economic development, they unquestionably require investment and support.

Under the FT LRP, production has been subservient to politics, as land policies have not ensured full use of land to assure food production. Most of the people that acquired land have no capital to work on the land; neither can they use the land as collateral to get loans to boast production on the farms. Ensuring security of tenure and rule of law through legislation and social mobilization and education seem to be part of the way out of the current chaotic scenario.

The market approach to land reform as discussed in this paper failed to settle the land question in a harmonious way. The problem was not the market approach itself, but issues of racism and reluctance by white farmers to make it work. Zimbabwe’s FT LRP, despite
its shortcomings, altered existing social relations of ownership, access, and utilization of land by reallocating land to people from diverse areas and backgrounds. The FT LRP also reflects the government’s unwillingness to clarify land ownership in the new resettlement areas.

Much of the land acquired through FT LRP, especially in the former white commercial areas and in communal areas, remains in the trusteeship of the government, with
local institutions retaining management and administrative rights over the land and people. These tenure arrangements have been a source of insecurity among FT LRP beneficiaries and have created grounds for conflicts that have impacted agricultural production adversely.

A lesson from the FT LRP is that the selection and targeting of land beneficiaries need to be carefully considered. The FT LRP was a haphazard program, poorly designed from the
start and one would not expect better performance and production in its implementation stage. As a result, many poorly resourced and opportunistic people seem to have acquired farms without the ability to proceed with productivity.


Both Zimbabwe’s colonial and postindependence land policies and laws have failed to resolve the national questions of broad-based development, social inclusion and national integration, including substantive democratization.

The continued land seizures and attacks on white farmers today have made it virtually impossible to get former white farmers working together with the new black farmers to boast agricultural production. Suspicion and hatred still hinder efforts for reconciliation.

What is needed is the political will to turn things around and to re-engage with both stakeholders and the international community. Land reforms have the potential to promote both equity and efficiency in Zimbabwe’s economic growth and sustainable development.

It is important that land and property rights are observed and the rule of law is enforced within the country as a way of revitalizing the agricultural sector, which is the backbone of the economy.


i Zimstats Population Census 2012, Government printers, Harare


iii M oyo, S., 1995, THE LAND QUESTION IN ZIMBABWE , Harare: SAPES Books

iv R ukuni, M. and Eicher C.K, ZIMBABWE’S AGRICULTURAL REVOLUTION . 17 (1994)

v N komo, M.J., 2001, THE STORY OF MY LIFE , Harare: Sapes Books

vi M oyo. S and Yeros. P, Land Occupations and Land Reform in Zimbabwe: Towards the National Democratic Revolution. RE CLAIMIN G THE LAND : THE RES URGEN CE OF RURAL

vii S achikonye. M. Lyold, Land reform in Namibia and Zimbabwe: A comparative perspective. WHO SHOULD OWN THE LAND ? ANALYSIS AND VIEWS ON LAND REFORM AND THE LAND QUESTION IN NAMIBIA AND SOUTHERN AFRICA, 64 (J Hunter (ed), 2004)

viii Harold Green, South Africa and Zimbabwe: A Tale of Two Land Reforms. BLACK AGENDA REPORT (17 December 2013)

ix S arah E. Hager, Zimbabwe: Why the United Nations, State, and Non-State Actors Failed to Effectively Regulate Mugabe’s Policy of Internal Displacement, 37 CAL. W. INT ’L L.J. 221, 253-54 (2007).

x R aftopoulos, B., 2003, ‘The State in Crisis: Authoritarian Nationalism, Selective Citizenship and Distortions of Democracy in Zimbabwe’, in A. Hammar, Raftopoulos, B. Jensen, S.,eds, ZIM BABWE ’S UNFINIS HED BUSINESS : RET HIN KIN G LAND , ST ATE AND NATION IN THE CONTE XT OF CRISIS , Harare: Weaver Press

xi W illems, W, 2005. Peaceful demonstrators, violent invaders: Representations of the land question in the Zimbabwean press. WORLD DEVELOPMENT Vol 32, No. 10. Pp 1767-1783.
xii M hishi, M.L., 2007, ‘A general overview of the legal aspects of leasehold tenure, conveyancing and land transfer’, Unpublished paper prepared for the AIAS Land Tenure Policy Review Dialogue, Harare.

xiii Bond, P., 2005, ‘Zimbabwe’s Hide and Seek with the IMF ’, REVIEW OF AFRICAN POLITICAL ECONOMY , Vol. 106, pp. 609-19

xiv S coones, Ian et al, ZIMBABWE’S LAND REFORM : MYTHS AND REALITIES : A SUMMARY . 2 (2010).

xv W its, Honorary Degree Citation: Anthony Gubbay.

xvi Kinsley. B, Ten Years of ‘War against Poverty’: What Have We Learned since 2000 and What Should We Do 2010-2020? 2 (2010).

xvii D e Villiers B, Land Reform: Issues And Challenges. A Comparative Overview Of Experiences In Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa And Australia. A KONRAD ADENAUER FOUNDATION MONO GRAPH. 13 (2003)

xviii Human Rights Watch, FAST TRACK LAND REFORM IN ZIMBABWE 14 (1), 2(March 2002).

xix D ouglas Rogers, The Truth about Mugabe’s Land Reform, July 31, 2013. about-mugabes-land-reform/ (Accessed on 16 November 2014)

xx M oyo, S. and Yeros, P., 2007b, ‘The Zimbabwe Question and the Two Lefts’, HISTORICAL MATERIALISM , Vol. 15, No. 4, pp. 171-204

xxi Bernstein, H., 2003: Land Reform in Southern Africa in World Historical Perspective, REVIEW OF AFRICAN POLITICAL ECONOMY , 96, 213-220

xxii Raftpolous.B, and Mlambo. A, BECOMIN G ZIM BABWE : A HISTORY FROM THE PRE -COLONIAL PERIOD TO 2008. 6 (2009)

xxiii M unyuki-Hungwe.M, and P. Matondi, The Evolution of Agricultural Policy, 1990–2004. ZIM BABWE ’S AGRICULTURAL REVOLUTION REVISITED (R. Mandivamba. R et al (Eds), 2006).

The views presented in this brief do not necessarily represent those of any FOLA partners, but rather reflect the views of individual authors.



Charles Mutasa

Charles Mutasa is an international development policy consultant who focuses on issues related to socio-economic development, governance, land, health and human rights.


Use the dropdown above to translate this page into one of 70 languages!

Angalia tovuti hii kwa Kiswahili

Voir ce site en français

Veja este site em Português

Diese Seite in Deutsch


Download and read this brief: A Brief History of Land in Zimbabwe:1890-Today