'Land redistribution is not robbery, but a necessity'

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Wednesday April 19, 2000
Guardian UK

Edited commentary from the government-owned Zimbabwe Herald newspaper

South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki had sober words for those hoping for a fall-out between his country and Zimbabwe over the issue of the farm invasions.

Questioned by journalists in Cuba this week, he instead urged dialogue, saying there is need for Zimbabwe and Britain to get together, back to the understanding reached when the independence of Zimbabwe was negotiated in 1979 and to solve the problem that way.

He rightly noted that Britain and the US had at the time committed themselves to funding the purchase of white-owned land.

President Mbeki's responses were to the obvious chagrin of those who misguidedly thought that Zimbabwe's powerful neighbour would bring pressure to bear on the government of Zimbabwe for the benefit of the status quo on land.

The land problem, which Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change would rather contemptuously treat as a periphery issue, was the major stumbling block at the Lancaster House conference in London in 1979. It remains the stumbling block to peace and security in Zimbabwe.

The constitutional agreement, signed on December 21 that year, placed restrictions on the first majority rule government's ability to redistribute land forcibly taken away from the blacks over some 90 years of colonial rule.

Election or no election, the land needs to be redistributed, and fast too, to correct the imbalance and bring the majority of the indigenous people out of subsistence farming in the virtually barren communal areas.

And these communal farmers are not where they are today through choice.

In the very early days of colonialism in the late 1890s, the first "reserves" created for the blacks were deliberately on land so poor and hostile that the colonials themselves did not want it.

And, for example, 38% of the black population of Matabeleland had been forced into such areas by 1898.

By 1931 a handful of whites had some 50m acres of prime land while vast numbers of blacks were herded onto just 21m acres.

This policy of keeping the black farmers poor and, therefore, subservient to the colonial masters, was to be carried further by successive colonial regimes, with the Land Apportionment Act of 1930 and the Land Tenure Act of 1969, in particular.

In Havana last week, President Mugabe was emphatic about the government's determination to acquire land from the white farmers, who own up to 75% of the best farmland, for redistribution to the disadvantaged black population. He stressed that the government would not allow any resistance to this. But, as he has done previously, he also assured that no farmer would be left without land.

As with past appeals long before the farm invasions by liberation war veterans, if the farmers want to have a secure future in this country they would be well advised to treat land redistribution not as "robbery" as they prefer to view it, but a virtual necessity. It is vitally important, for future peace and prosperity, that the farmers accept that a situation where they sit on vast acres of prime land - the result of colonial brutal actions on the blacks - is untenable.

Zimbabwe's economy is agriculture-based and a major advantage of putting more people on productive land will be a rise in output, with the resultant benefits to the economy.

The time should have long since passed when some of these farmers treat their farms as "little Rhodesias" where they, and only they, rule supreme, to the extent of disparaging anyone black, including the president and the government.

The passing of the constitutional amendment on land returns the responsibility to Britain of paying for land acquired from white commercial farmers as agreed at Lancaster in 1979.

The present distribution of land in this African country is untenable, with just a minute number of "European" farmers - up to 4,500 - owning upwards of 70% of the most fertile land.

Rather than hoping to cling on to it by sponsoring a political party they imagine can stem the tide, the white community would be best advised to work with the government for a permanent distribution that will bring prosperity through the land to the greater majority, and not just the few as at present.

It is foolish for any ethnic minority to throw all its eggs into one leaky basket by taking the extremist position of supporting to the hilt the opposition against a government, in a manner that absolutely has nothing to do with democracy.

What will the minority do when the opposition loses?

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