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History of Zimbabwe's land reform


2000: 4,000 whites own 70% of prime land

1890-1980: Black peasants were moved to less fertile areas during the colonial area

March 2000: "War veterans" occupy white-owned farms

2000-2002: Several white farmers and black workers killed during violence

9 August 2002: 3,000 white farmers must leave their homes

Before the Settlers

When the first whites arrived in 1890, the land between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers was populated by the Shona and the Ndebele people, who claimed sovereignty.
It is thought the Shona had been there for about 1,000 years. The Ndebele arrived in the 1830s, having migrated north from Natal after falling out with the Zulu King.

In 1889, the imperialist Cecil Rhodes, who had made a fortune in diamond mining in the Cape, set up the British South Africa Company to explore north of the Limpopo.

He had already obtained exclusive mining rights from the Ndebele king, Lobengula, in return for £100 a month, 1,000 rifles, 10,000 rounds of ammunition, and a riverboat. As far as Lobengula was concerned he had not conferred land rights.

The first 200 settlers were each promised a 3,000-acre farm and gold claims in return for carving a path through Mashonaland.

The Shona were too fragmented to resist and the British flag was raised at Fort Salisbury on 13 September 1890. The name Rhodesia was adopted in 1895. It became the British colony of Southern Rhodesia in 1923.


Three years after the pioneers arrived in Mashonaland, they conquered King Lobengula and his people in neighbouring Matabeleland.
Each volunteer in the war was granted 6,000 acres of captured land. Within a year 10,000 square miles around Lobengula’s capital Bulawayo had been marked out.

Ndebele villagers who returned were treated as tenants. Most of their cattle were seized and they were forced to work on the white farms.

In Mashonaland, the settlers imposed a ‘hut tax’ of 10 shillings (50p). Those who could not pay were told to work to earn the money. When the Ndebele and Shona rebelled in 1896, they were put down and their leaders hanged.

As the settlers developed commercial farming, some lands were reserved for African occupation amid fears total dispossession could lead to uprisings.

But the Land Apportionment Act of 1930 barred African land ownership outside the reserves, except in a special freehold purchase area. Africans not needed for labour on white farms were removed to the reserves, which became increasingly congested.

Bush War

In 1965, the far-right prime minister Ian Smith unilaterally declared independence after Britain refused to let Rhodesia decolonise as a white supremacist state.
Two major liberation organisations emerged. Zanu, under Robert Mugabe, and Zapu, under Joshua Nkomo. Black nationalist opposition began its armed resistance in 1966.

When international economic sanctions were imposed against Smith’s regime, white commercial agriculture was heavily subsidised, making it even harder for African peasants to compete.

The "land question" was a major cause of the guerrilla war, which was fought with increasing ferocity during the 1970s with both sides intimidating and torturing recruits in rural areas.

In 1979, renewed negotiations in London led to the Lancaster House Agreement which paved the way for independence in April 1980. Mugabe, who won a landslide victory in the first free election, promised to resettle blacks on white land.


Independence saw the transfer of power from whites to blacks, but not land. Thousands of settlers opted for Zimbabwean nationality after independence.

Britain gave the new government £44m for resettlement projects. But the UK says much of the land ended up in the hands of Mr Mugabe’s associates rather than the poor. Other international donors have stopped funding government land reform for similar reasons.

Under the Lancaster House constitution the Zimbabwe Government could only buy white land from “willing sellers”. When this expired after 10 years the government passed a law empowering it to make compulsory purchases.

But there have been few transfers in the last decade, with the government failing to budget for serious reform.

In 1997 ago Mugabe announced a hit list of 1,500 farms set for compulsory acquisition. He said Britain should foot the bill for compensating the white farmers because Rhodesian colonists had stolen the land from blacks in the first place.

The Situation Today

Since March 2000, groups of government supporters led by war veterans have occupied many white-owned farms. In the ensuing violence, several white farmers and their black workers have been killed.

Agricultural production has plummeted. Donors say this is one reason why up to six million people could face starvation unless food aid arrives quickly.

Almost all of Zimbabwe’s 4,000 white farmers have had their farms listed for acquisition. Under a new law, they must leave their land and homes before receiving compensation. Courts have ruled several times that the bureaucratic process of acquiring land has been breached but the government is determined to press ahead.

About 500 white farmers have decided not to lodge legal appeals and some of these have been paid by the state – albeit in devalued Zimbabwe dollars. Lists of those who will be allocated land have been widely publicised in the state media – but many have not taken up the offer.

Many rural Zimbabweans desperately want more land but they also need aid to buy seeds and fertiliser, which the state does not have the money to provide. Some farms have been allocated to ministers and senior officials in the ruling Zanu-PF party and the army. In urban areas, most people want jobs, rather than land.

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Land reform to take centre-stage at summit
History of Zimbabwe's land reform

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