Britain’s Colonial Obligations and Land Reform in Zimbabwe
by Malvern Mupandawana
In a complete about turn, Minister Short informed the Zimbabwean government that the election of a Labour government “without links to former colonial interests” meant Britain no longer had any “special responsibility to meet the cost of land purchases”. By the stroke of a pen, the Minister reneged on the British government’s commitment to address land imbalances they created a century ago.
Much has been written about land reform in Zimbabwe, but little has been written about the role Britain and ‘New Labour’ played in fomenting the anger that started off the seizure of white farms. The bulk of the blame has squarely been put on Robert Mugabe’s government, even though Britain’s Labour party’s arrogance might have played a big part in the hostile takeover of British-settler owned farms by landless black Zimbabweans. This essay looks at the history of how the British colonized Zimbabwe and what led to the fallout between the British Government and Mugabe’s, and the land invasions that ensued.
History of the Land Question
The land imbalances that existed in Zimbabwe pre-2000 are not ancient history. Black Zimbabweans where dispossessed of their land at least in the lifetime of the memories of some who are still alive. The British entered the Matabeleland region of what is now Zimbabwe in the 1880s from South Africa under the auspices of British South Africa Police Company (BSAP). They named the country Rhodesia, after the company’s leader Cecil John Rhodes. This initial colonization was backed by the Royal Charter from Queen Victoria following the Berlin Conference. The Berlin Conference in 1885, initiated by Germany’s Chancellor Bismark, set out guidelines for the colonization of Africa. Rhodes, the founder of the world largest diamond company De-beers, was a staunch believer in colonialism. He wanted to expand the British Empire because he believed that the Anglo-Saxon race was destined for greatness. His dream was to consolidate the British Empire in Africa by building a railway from ‘Cape to Cairo’.
When the BSAP moved into what is now Zimbabwe their initial aim was to mine gold but most of them became farmers because gold deposits were on a smaller scale compared to South Africa. The white settlers went on to annex land from the black Zimbabweans and later formalized this by promulgating laws that excluded the blacks from owning land in agro-ecological regions ideal for agriculture. The Land Apportionment Act legalized the taking over of most fertile land from the blacks and giving it to white farmers, who were of mostly British origin. Blacks were forced into wage labour and areas that were agro-ecologically unfit for agricultural production. The white population that constituted 3% of the population parceled out 80% of the arable land among themselves. The disenfranchised native Zimbabweans became engaged in a protracted armed struggle fighting to get their land and country back that would only finally end with ceasefire talks in London in what is commonly referred to as the Lancaster House Conference.
Lancaster House Conference
The British government invited Methodist Bishop Muzorewa and the leaders of the Patriotic Front to participate in a Constitutional Conference at Lancaster House following the Meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) held in Lusaka , Zambia in 1979. The Patriotic Front was a coalition that was formed by Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo’s parties to fight Ian Smith’s regime. The purpose of the Conference was to discuss and reach agreement on the terms of an Independence Constitution. Central to these talks was the burning issue of land. The Patriotic Front wanted their grievance on land to be addressed adequately by the new constitution. On the other hand, Ian Smith’s representatives wanted to maintain the status quo on land and the talks almost collapsed because the Patriotic Front would not accept a deal that did not address the issue of land imbalance that was heavily skewed in favour of the British settlers.
With the intervention of the then head of the Commonwealth, Sonny Ramphal, the warring parties agreed for land to be redistributed on a ‘willing buyer, willing seller basis’. The new constitution had an additional clause that protected the private property rights of white farmers for the first 10 years. The Margaret Thatcher led government agreed to provide the resources that would be required to purchase the land for redistribution. At the request of the British government, America’s Carter government also chipped in. Sir Shridath Ramphal recalled: ‘’..(The US government) would support the establishment of an agricultural development fund and they would make a substantial contribution to it; that they would recognise the right of the government after the elections to use this fund to help to defray any compensation that had to be paid under the constitution; that the fund would be a responsibility they would accept, providing it was matched by the British government and had an international character”. The Patriotic Front took the British and Americans word and a conference that had dragged for 3 months ended, marking the creation of a new non-racial Zimbabwe. The Lancaster House Agreement in 1979 was the late Thatcher’s first international achievement right at the beginning of her first term in office.
Post-Independence Land Reform Stagnation
Independence saw the transfer of power from the minority whites to the black majority. There was however only a minimal transfer of land to the black masses. Land still belonged to the descendants of the British settlers. At the expiry of the 10 year moratorium on land the government started reviewing land reform, or rather lack of it, as the white farmers had not been forthcoming in relinquishing land under the ‘willing buyer willing seller’ clause of the Lancaster House Constitution. Funds that had been promised by the British had not been provided either. Only £44 million had come through against a budget of $US 2 billion. Whilst the Conservative government was not that forthcoming with resources, they were at least willing to engage in discussions. That was soon to change when the Labour Party took office at number 10 Downing Street in 1997.
Failed Diplomacy by the Labour Party
At the CHOGM meeting held in Edinburgh in 1997, Tony Blair outlined a new blueprint on bilateral relations. Essentially the Labour government set new rules for engaging with developing countries. The new blueprint at best did not acknowledge its colonial past and that agitated the government of Zimbabwe. Mugabe’s delegation at the summit approached Blair to discuss Britain’s obligations as outlined in the Lancaster House Agreement, but he refused to even have a meeting with them. Clare Short, the British International Development Minister, later responded to the Zimbabwean government by repudiating British responsibility for colonial wrongs in Zimbabwe. In a complete about turn, Minister Short informed the Zimbabwean government that the election of a Labour government “without links to former colonial interests” meant Britain no longer had any “special responsibility to meet the cost of land purchases”. By the stroke of a pen, the Minister reneged on the British government’s commitment to address land imbalances they created a century ago.
The insensitive and arrogant position the Labour Party took marked a beginning of the deterioration in relations between the Government of Zimbabwe and Britain. With growing discontent by black Zimbabweans over the delay in reforms and elections looming in 2000, the need to address the land issue became even more paramount. A donor’s conference was convened in 1998 in Harare to address land reform, but that conference ended up being just a ‘talk shop’ that yielded nothing of value. Mugabe’s government subsequently listed 1,500 farms for compulsory acquisition in 1999. He insisted the British would have to foot the bill as they had promised because compensation was going to pay their kith and kin. The British refused, and the war veterans aligned to Mugabe’s party retaliated by leading mass occupation of white owned farms. To date almost all the 4,500 farms have been taken over by about 170,000 black Zimbabweans. The shock caused by structural changes in land ownership coupled with sanctions resulted in a free fall of the Zimbabwe economy. Indeed the land issue would have been addressed in a less disruptive way were it not for Britain’s Labour Party’s diplomatic guile.
The economy has rebounded in the last few years. Inflation at less than 3% is one of the lowest in developing countries. The people of Zimbabwe have risen from the depths of socioeconomic malaise without much help from their former colonisers. There is still work to be done but the issue of land reform is now on the back burner; that process is irreversible. The challenge for the new farm owners is to feed the country and restore Zimbabwe as the breadbasket of the continent.
Malvern Mupandawana is a doctoral candidate at Exeter Business School, working on Advance Pricing and its Impact on Customer Value. He holds an MSc in Economics from University of Kentucky. Apart from my graduate work on pricing and value, he has a keen interest in economics of development, especially as it relates to countries in Africa