The Lancaster House Agreement depended on money from the UK to purchase white settler farms so that productive land could be returned to Native Africans. That deal was broken when the UK decided not to provide the money as promised. Mugabe responded by taking the land and then the UK/USA/EU imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe which destroyed the economy. They also acted to destabilize the country by supporting Mugabe’s enemies and agents sent to undermine Mugabe’s government so Mugabe was forced to defend himself against this international effort. White farmers long renowned for their racism were kicked off the land that had been stolen from Africans within living memory. Zimbabwe was deliberately attacked in this way as it offered a negative model to South Africans and helped persuade the ANC to adopt a more conciliatory position.
As a young boy, Mugabe saw the passing of the Land Apportionment Act of 1930, which divided land into legal holdings by race. More than 50% of the land was reserved for the European settlers, who constituted less than 5% of the total population. This land tended to arable, with good soil quality and access to water resources. Most of the native Shona and Ndebele population lived in the crowded Native Reserves, where soil was of poor quality.
This set the stage for Mugabe’s childhood, the Second Chimurenga, and I would argue the core of many of the problems Zimbabwe faces today.
Although it was a huge obstacle, the problems with the LHA went beyond funding. Under the LHA, the government of newly independent Zimbabwe could only acquire land on a “willing seller, willing buyer” basis for the first ten years of independence.
We probably do not need statistics to tell us that most white farmers were not willing to part with the land they farmed during the first decade of independence. Only about 50,000 households were resettled during this period, on about 3 million hectares. Many within Zimbabwe criticized the slow pace of reform, citing British funding, in addition to ZANU-PF mismanagement and corruption.
By the late 1980s, would be opposition members accused Mugabe of awarding tracts of land to government ministers and others loyal to ZANU-PF. Women’s groups argued that the land reform process dispossessed women of their traditional usufruct rights to land. Years later, compulsory acquisition resonated with the land hungry in rural areas especially, even if corruption crept into distribution processes.
As I reflect on Mugabe’s life and legacy, I realize that his early words of reconciliation, and his promise of economic and human development, remain as important today as they were in 1980. As we have seen throughout the country, rural populations thrive when they are given training and investment that supports the production of food and cash crops.
This is at the heart of Mugabe’s almost 40 year old promise.
Beverly L. Peters
Director and Assistant Professor Measurement & Evaluation School of Professional and Extended Studies, American University