Thabiso Scotch Mufambi
The land issue in Southern Africa returned to centre stage last week when Zimbabwe’s government and white ex-commercial farmers signed an agreement that will see the Southern African nation shelling out a staggering US$3,5 billion in compensation for lost farms.
Technically, the 2,800 farmers will get an average of US$1,25 million each over the next five years – half of it due within 12 months – as compensation for improvements made to the farms.
The farms were repossessed by the government from the year 2000 and were subdivided and reallocated to more than 200,000 black families as part of the state’s efforts to democratise land tenure following nearly 100 years of colonial marginalisation.
However, those land reforms triggered a standoff with Western countries, some which imposed economic sanctions on Zimbabwe.
Now, President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government is pursuing a raft of reforms, which include paying compensation for improvements made on the farms but not for the land itself.
“This momentous event is historic in many respects, it brings both closure and a new beginning in the history of the land discourse in Zimbabwe,” he said at the signing ceremony at in Harare last week.
Foreign Affairs and International Trade Minister Dr Sibusiso Moyo tweeted: “Two decades of foreign sanctions on Zimbabwe have come as a direct result from the conflict on land. The agreement reached for compensation in terms of the constitution is in the national interest to aid the removal of these sanctions.”
While the government is patting itself on the back, and the white ex-farmers are smiling all the way to the bank, a section of Zimbabweans is arguing that Zimbabwe should not be paying any compensation.
More worrying for some observers is where Zimbabwe will get the money.
Finance Minister Professor Mthuli Ncube has committed that: “In this regard, the Republic of Zimbabwe is expected to borrow by issuing a long-term debt instrument of 30 years maturity in international capital markets in compliance with the country’s debt management strategy and consistent with its key debt sustainability indicators.”
Zimbabwe has been unable to meaningfully access international capital markets for around 20 years due to a combination of failing behind in arrears payments and being locked out by economic sanctions.
According to government figures, the country is saddled with an external debt of just over US$8 billion. Overall, Zimbabwe debt is estimated at US$11 billion.
As such, securing another US$3,5 billion liability is not only a highly difficult task, outside of mortgaging the country, but also has huge implications for taxpayers in an underperforming economy.
The consensus is that President Mnangagwa’s government is pursuing an appeasement policy in a bid to thaw relations with the West so as to attract both investment and development aid.
After all, according to the 1979 Lancaster House Agreement, which paved the way for Zimbabwe’s independence, former colonial power Britain should have financially contributed significantly to land reforms.
Skewed land ownership was a casus belli when the black majority took up arms against the colonial regime, and correcting this was a major talking point at the independence negotiations.
However, on November 5, 1997, the then British Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short wrote to the government of Zimbabwe and renounced all financial responsibility for land reforms.
“I should make it clear that we do not accept that Britain has a special responsibility to meet the costs of land purchase in Zimbabwe. We are a new government from diverse backgrounds without links to former colonial interests, my own origins are Irish, as you are aware we were colonised not colonisers,” Short said.
In short, Short told Zimbabwe to go hang, and things went downhill from there.
This has raised the question why Zimbabwe is undertaking to pay billions it does not have when Britain has refused to pay billions that it had and was legally and morally constrained to pay?
This, observers say, is no different to France making Haiti pay the modern equivalent of US$20 billion in 1825 for its independence.
Apartheid’s Original Sin
The troubles Zimbabwe has had to endure because of its land reforms appear to have made South Africa proceed hesitantly as regards its own historical tenure imbalances.
Regarded the world’s most unequal society according to the World Bank’s Gini coefficient, South Africa has struggled to deal with the vestiges of apartheid since independence in 1994.
Although plans to redistribute land to the black majority have been repeatedly announced, including intentions to make constitutional changes that would make it easier for the ANC government to take land without compensation, little has been done in terms of implementation.
“Land reform is an essential part of inclusive growth,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a speech to lawmakers in February this year.
This was a few days after the United States issued a thinly veiled threat on the government’s plans to correct “apartheid’s original sin”.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, speaking in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia criticised the South African government’s plans to expropriate land without compensation.
“Centralised planning has not worked – look at the failed socialist experiments of years past in Zimbabwe, in Tanzania and right here in Ethiopia. Even now, as we stand here today, South Africa is debating an amendment to permit the expropriation of private property without compensation.
That would be disastrous for that economy and most importantly for the South African people,” Pompeo said.
From Zimbabwe’s experience, it does seem disastrous to take land from a racially privileged minority and giving it to a historically disadvantaged majority.
In essence, South Africa is being told that it should brace for an economic and political onslaught from the West if it is serious about meaningful land reforms.
And with organisations like AfriForum and individuals like Kallie Kriel being willing and embedded tools for the continued marginalisation of the majority, South Africa has its work cut out for it in trying to create a more equal society.