is a scholar-activist based in Zimbabwe. He is interested in studying the dynamics of capitalism, social reproduction, land, and rural politics. He can be followed on Twitter at @toveratm. is a Korea Policy Institute board member. He is a contributor to the collection Sanctions as War: Anti-Imperialist Perspectives on American Geo-Economic Strategy (Haymarket Books). His website is gregoryelich.org, and he can be followed on Twitter at @GregoryElich.
Since the advent of British colonial occupation in the late nineteenth century, control of the land has been a contested issue in Zimbabwe. In what the British named Southern Rhodesia, they systematically stripped Indigenous peasants of land, cattle, and resources, crushing resistance with brutal violence.
The first act of the colonial government set off a mad rush in which white settlers seized ten thousand square miles of the most fertile land from its inhabitants. Colonial authorities depopulated the land to widen and solidify their control. In 1898, the Native Reserves Order in Council accelerated the pace of land alienation by establishing reserves on marginal quality land where much of the population was soon herded. The Land Apportionment Act of 1930 set aside a majority of the land exclusively for white ownership and pushed more of the Black population into the native reserves.
The forcible mass transfer of so many people into areas ill-suited to accommodate them, coupled with a lack of government support, resulted in a sharp decline in productivity for Black farmers, creating a growing army of exploitable labor. In addition, the hut tax in the native reserves drove further proletarianization. For many, the tax was unpayable without out-migration to take up wage labor at white farms, in mines, and in urban areas. The Industrial Conciliation Act of 1934 and the Native Registration Act two years later restricted native workers to unskilled, low-wage positions and created a pass system that controlled the movement of Africans in urban centers. Repressive measures continued in the following decades, escalating after Rhodesia declared independence from the United Kingdom in 1965, and an armed revolutionary struggle ensued.
The liberation movement compelled the apartheid government to negotiate a transition to an independent multiracial Zimbabwe. The British-brokered Lancaster House Conference produced an agreement signed near the end of 1979 that led to an electoral victory by the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) soon thereafter. However, British and Rhodesian negotiators saddled Zimbabwe with a constitution that barred the compulsory acquisition of land. Instead, land could only be redistributed on a “willing buyer, willing seller” basis.
Some progress on land reform was made in the initial years of independence, primarily in acquiring land abandoned by settlers who had left the country. There was an agreement on sharing the purchase cost between Zimbabwe, the United Kingdom, and the United States. However, Zimbabwe’s limited access to capital constrained land acquisition at the market prices demanded by sellers. The United Kingdom provided only £44 million in support, a sum that paled in comparison to the untold billions it had expropriated from the land and labor during the colonial era. For its part, the United States reneged on its pledge and contributed nothing.
Progress on redistribution soon slowed. Because landowners drove the process, the land offered for sale was often marginal in quality and tended to be widely dispersed, making resettlement an expensive and difficult-to-administer process. Once commercial farmers had disposed of unwanted land, the pace of farm sales withered. A new constitution in 1990 and legislation two years later reoriented Zimbabwe to compulsory land acquisition at either negotiated or administratively set prices.
The timing for a more assertive land redistribution program could hardly have been more inauspicious. Global capitalist pressures following the demise of the socialist states in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union ushered in a pervasive neoliberal era. Consequently, Zimbabwe was one of many nations that adopted an Economic Structural Adjustment Program according to IMF and World Bank prescriptions. The market-based economy favored large-scale commercial farms focused on export crops and brought hardship to the general population. In real terms, wages for farmworkers in the fifteen years ending in 1997 fell by more than half, while commercial farm owners profited from the casualization of labor.
Land reform was at the heart of the liberation struggle. The “willing seller, willing buyer” model had been primarily successful in preserving wealth and privilege. The Zimbabwean government wanted to revise the acquisition plan and identified 1,471 commercial farms for compulsory purchase, but negotiations with the British foundered and litigation by farm owners further stymied progress.
With the ascension of Tony Blair as prime minister in 1997, the United Kingdom changed course on land redistribution. In a sharply worded letter to Zimbabwe, UK Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short complained that Zimbabwe’s proposed plan would undermine “investor confidence” and added: “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.” Assistance, she emphasized, “is all in the past.”
By 2000, mounting frustration over the slow pace of land reform led to a surge in squatters. Occupations tended to be of short duration, but they put the issue of land redistribution back at center stage. Most of the richest land remained in the hands of 4,500 white commercial farm owners and multinational companies. At the same time, more than a million Black families led a precarious living on small farms in the communal areas—the land encompassing the former native reserves. Outside of the communal areas, over one million landless Black Zimbabweans and migrants labored on white commercial farms for low wages.
British disengagement meant that even the sluggish pace of neoliberal land redistribution was no longer sustainable. Land equity remained a largely unmet goal. Zimbabwe made the bold decision to launch the most ambitious land redistribution campaign of the post-Cold War period, the Fast Track Land Reform Program. The government was also terminating the Economic Structural Adjustment Program; neither development endeared it to Western powers.
Fast-track land reform radically transformed agrarian relations and created a process of repeasantization, as large-scale commercial farms were broken up into smaller units and allocated to Indigenous applicants. There was a shift from rural wage labor toward peasant-based farming, as new farms were established in two categories. Smallholder farms, classified as the A1 model, were distributed to 146,000 recipients by 2009. A new agrarian capitalist class was established by assigning medium- and large-scale farms, designated as the A2 model, to more than 23,000 beneficiaries. Farms in the latter model were expected to become more quickly productive than A1 farms.
As in any land reform program, newly settled farmers needed timely inputs, such as seeds, fertilizer, tools, irrigation, mechanization, and financing to get established. Unfortunately, the state’s ability to provide that support was hampered from the start after the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act was enacted in the United States. The law instructed U.S. members of international financial institutions to vote against “any loan, credit, or guarantee to the government of Zimbabwe.” Since the United States wields decisive influence in those organizations, the effect was to severely curtail Zimbabwe’s access to credit and foreign exchange, without which no modern economy can effectively function. Consequently, given the state’s limited fiscal capacity, not all needs could be met. Resources tended to be directed to A2 medium- and large-scale farms, while smallholders were largely left to manage on their own.
Land reform should be considered a long-term process rather than a time-delimited event. Despite obstacles, the program has brought real gains in equity and poverty alleviation, although the available land could not meet the needs of all. After an initial adjustment period, a growing number of peasant farmers have succeeded in making the necessary investments in their farms and local infrastructure to allow them to accumulate from below. Moreover, with the expanded pool of landowners, those who labored on large-scale capitalist farms now have more options for employment, thereby gaining a measure of bargaining power.
There have been setbacks, however. The region is susceptible to periodic drought, impacting productivity. And in a policy shift beginning in 2009, Zimbabwe was led for four years by a government of national unity, in which the opposition joined forces with ZANU-PF and implemented a return to neoliberal practices. This neoliberal tendency is now entrenched by the market-oriented government that came to power in 2017, prioritizing the needs of large capital. Although the overall impact of fast-track land reform significantly restructured agrarian property and social relations in a progressive direction, the expansion of the middle- to large-scale farm sector has created class contradictions that continue to play out, particularly given the unequal access to support and credit.
Land in Zimbabwe is still contested. This occurs in a more subtle manner now than colonial theft or fast-track land reform, but is no less real. Today, around two hundred white commercial farmers retain farms in downsized mode, and their familial capital accumulated over decades has enabled them to challenge and, to some extent, reverse the repeasantization process. The economic imbalance between commercial farms and proximate smallholder farms has created opportunities for the capitalist farmer to dispossess land in a virtual manner from the peasantry. Socioeconomic status and vulnerability within the peasantry vary, and the relationship with capitalist farms has increased precarity and differentiation among the peasantry and triggered land struggles.
To explore recent developments, in February of this year, I interviewed George T. Mudimu, a Zimbabwe-based agrarian specialist who has conducted field studies in one such contested area for several years. He published an in-depth analysis in the Journal of Peasant Studies, co-written with Ting Zuo of the China Agricultural University and Nkumbu Nalwimba, a senior agricultural officer for the Zambian Ministry of Agriculture. Our discussion centers on current agrarian contradictions and land struggles.
Gregory Elich: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. Your study addresses an important topic that has not received much attention, or in my part of the world, none at all. I want to touch upon some highlights from your study.
Two decades have passed since Zimbabwe launched the fast-track land reform program. In the Journal of Peasant Studies, you focus on three consolidated capitalist farms in Marondera District as a microcosm of processes taking place throughout the nation’s rural areas. Before we get into specifics, what are the general capitalist dynamics and contradictions inherent in an environment where broad repeasantization coexists with large-scale commercial farms in a neoliberal economic structure?
George T. Mudimu: Thank you so much for this opportunity. Indeed, two decades have passed. And the general impression out there is that the land reform has led to a successful and unwavering repeasantization process and outcome. The three cases we focus on are in Marondera, an agroecology area with a long history of high production. We see that the repeasantization process is heavily contested in situations where the peasant farmers are located near large-scale commercial farms, and more specifically, those which are remnants of the prior setup.
The challenges emanate from the fact that some of the peasants are resource-constrained. In contrast, the capitalist farms are resource-endowed and, of course, with an insatiable desire for accumulation and accumulation only as the dictates of capitalist production demand. So, what we then see is a serious and unabated desire for land reconcentration by the capitalist farmers. This land reconcentration is achieved on two fronts. First is direct land rental, which we term virtual dispossession. Second, are pseudo-joint ventures. Under these pseudo-joint ventures and the land rental arrangements, the peasant farmers are left with no land access and control. They retain just the paper title of the land ownership. In the end, a number of outcomes are realized: first is that some of the peasants are turned into a labor class on these capitalist farms. I was just in the field last week; some peasants are now working as security guards for capitalists. They were guarding some irrigation equipment; some were involved in tobacco reaping. Second, the once-off rental payments given to the peasants are hardly enough to sustain them throughout the year, so they are quickly immiserated.
All of these dynamics are sustained through a broader neoliberal framework. For example, the state advocates high production on resettled farms. It is this productionist trajectory that is encouraged by the state that provides the grounding for land reconcentration and consolidation by capitalist farmers. In addition, a law, Statutory Instrument 53 of 2014, permits and encourages these joint ventures.
In addition, the government has a “new” trajectory: “we are open for business.” This narrative supports the liberalizing of the economy on all fronts, including the agrarian land sector. The downside of this stance is that it reduces the state’s role and participation as a duty-bearer that is supposed to provide needed resources for agrarian transformation. The contradiction is that we are setting up the repeasantization process for a reversal, and this reversal is necessitated by enclaves from the previous landowning establishment.
GE: Ideally, any land reform program should provide land recipients with adequate inputs: financing, irrigation, technical assistance, and so on. Zimbabwe faced significant challenges in that regard due to Western economic sanctions. But policy decisions also prioritized Zimbabwe’s constrained resources being directed more to supporting A2 farms. In what ways did these and other factors contribute to the precarity of small-scale land recipients under land reform in the area you studied?
GTM: The process looks straightforward to the naked eye. If you are not using your land, rent it out. You either rent it out to other peasants with the means—but again, these usually do not pay enough in most cases; they would rather get the land on a sharecropping arrangement—or then, as the next stage, you can rent it out to an urban-based landless individual. Again, the rental amounts are very small and unpredictable, with many conflicts over nonpayment. The nonpayments are because the usual small-scale/rent tenants are also short of capital. Then the jackpot will be to assemble your land as a village or a group and rent it out to a capitalist farmer. Land rent nowadays is for an option of five years at an average of U.S. $500 per hectare per year. In essence, it is this form of land renting that constitutes a form of dispossession in situ, because the landowners do not have control over their land during the period of the land rental.
GE: What factors enabled those large-scale commercial farms, which had not been expropriated, to retain the economic power to exert influence over their neighbors? How did the land rental process lead to the proletarianization of neighboring farmers?
GTM: Historically, these large-scale farms constitute a landed property group. They amassed capital for maybe around seven decades or more. So, the shortage of support for the peasantry provided a golden opportunity for the capitalist farmer to quickly regroup and snatch up neighboring farms. In addition, the state provided the legal impetus for these arrangements to occur. The state promotes joint ventures, and these arrangements are made under the pseudo-joint venture umbrella. Also, the financial sector easily provides loans to capitalist farmers. These farmers operate companies that are usually funded against their strong asset bases.
The proletarianization of farmers was somehow clandestine from the start. Initially, the peasant farmers were just required to provide labor in some form as security guards on cultivated fields. That security was generally against livestock from pillaging the crops. Then over time, because the peasants no longer had land, they were idle. They then started to ask for part-time jobs from the capitalist farmer on their own land. Eventually, they joined the capitalist labor system and could be deployed anywhere on the rented land or the capitalists’ retained land.
GE: Let’s take a closer look at the dynamics of these joint venture projects. You mention the greater access that large-scale commercial farms (LSCF) have to financial support compared to the smaller peasant farms. There is also state support given to the process. What other factors entice peasants on neighboring farms to agree to form a joint venture with an LSCF?
GTM: Usually, the LSCF prefers a large piece of land that is good enough to justify the deployment of equipment and labor power. So, when a small group of peasant farmers approaches the LSCF, the capitalist tells them their land holding is too small, and others, forming a small group, will be enticed. In addition, the local leadership also uses both enticement and threats to trick those who do not partake in the project. Then, broadly, a shortage of resources is what necessitates some of the peasants to get into the project of their own will.
GE: A joint venture implies a certain degree of cooperation. Yet, the result you see in the field is more one of domination, as these projects tend to be a mechanism of capital accumulation for the large-scale farm owner and a means of transforming peasant farmers into a laboring class. Presumably, peasant farmers enter into these arrangements with different expectations. How does the process instead lead to, as your article puts it, the peasantry engaging “in self-exploitation not for household consumption, but for the LSCF’s accumulation”?
GTM: Agreed, a joint venture implies a degree of cooperation. And you rightly point out that these are joint ventures in word only and not in reality. What then happens is that some of the peasants who become wage laborers for the LSCF then subsidize the LSCF in a number of ways. For example, some of them will have smaller portions/gardens so that they can grow vegetables to feed themselves and their families. These gardens are established to cater for the shortfalls in the incomes/wages they are given by the capitalist farmers. Some can even take part-time wage jobs, such as house thatching, on their off days from the LSCF. All this they do so that they can be ready to perform work allocated to them by the LSCF. On the surface, this would appear like self-exploitation for their own survival, but in essence, this is one way that the capitalist has been able to survive and prosper by having the costs of social reproduction and production subsidized beyond the production site. There are other ways also whereby the peasants even cut down their meal volumes or frequency because they are unable to produce enough on their smaller pieces of land after large chunks of land are taken by the capitalist—or, in some cases, some peasants are left entirely without land for crop cultivation.
GE: The process of semiproletarianization for many peasants is well underway. Your statistics show that nearly half of the households in the enclave you studied are unemployed, some of which lack small plots for farming. A large-scale commercial farm benefits from technology that reduces the number of workers it needs. As a result, this creates a reserve army of labor that keeps wages abysmally low for peasants laboring on the LSCF. I wonder about the challenges for peasants who wish to end their relationship with the LSCF. How readily can peasants extricate themselves from that exploitative process? Your study mentioned one peasant who successfully resisted pressures from local elites to join others in ceding land to the LSCF and thereby became “a symbol of hope for other peasant farmers who are struggling to resist collectivization.” Still, following disagreements and the withdrawal of some households from rental agreements at Riverside Farms, the capitalist farmer removed irrigation equipment and other infrastructure and initiated new projects elsewhere. Did the immiseration of peasants under rental arrangements at Riverside Farms leave some ill-prepared financially to re-establish their farms?
GTM: The process of peasants extricating themselves from the exploitative relationship is complex, very tough, and associated with a long-term fall in living standards. It is very complex in the sense that one has to gather resources in the first place. One must have a game plan ahead of quitting the exploitative process. Some who managed to do this did not actually quit the renting process. My recent visits just last month reveal that they simply replaced the large-scale commercial with a smaller, urban-based tenant with whom they can negotiate better payment terms or embark on sharecropping arrangements. Some who are quitting the arrangements without resources in place are ending up as waged part-time workers for others. But in this way, they amass a few resources over time that they use to embark on autarkic production. Of course, to be well established independently, it would take time. But this is the most rewarding way for the peasants to go.
The ones who are likely to quit the exploitative relationship are the ones with the smaller plots because, at times, they have good yields in the smaller plots and see that gaining access to their larger land would be good for them. However, some see little hope outside this exploitative relationship due to the broader economic context we previously discussed.
The rents that peasants are paid are not enough for them to live a normal life, let alone amass savings to embark on independent crop production. Of course, creating eternal dependency on the capitalist is the soul of this arrangement. For example, they are paid U.S. $500 per hectare per year or even less at times. In addition, this rental payment is a once-off payment, which means they have to struggle for an extended period before getting the next payment. So this means their precarity is not reduced as their financial status is not improved from the land concentration process. In addition, those who become waged labor for the capitalist are also not in a better place, due to the below-poverty, datum-line wages paid to farm workers.
GE: You mentioned earlier the new “we are open for business” model. The government’s Vision 2030 document announces a private sector-led market economy as its goal. Agriculture is to be primarily funded by the private sector and commercial banks. According to the 2023 Budget Strategy Paper, the Grain Marketing Board will only procure grain for strategic reserves, with the private sector handling the rest. Currently, the state owns the land that peasants received under land reform, a lease arrangement that, as your article points out, “constrains full proletarianization of the peasantry.” However, the government plans this year to convert these to bankable leases “to enable farmers to secure funding from financial institutions.”
This would seem to indicate that when a farmer encounters financial difficulties due to adverse weather conditions or market prices and cannot meet the repayment schedule, there is a risk of the lease being transferred into the hands of the private lending institution or individual. Is it correct to assume that is what is meant by a bankable lease? In what ways could these and other announced plans promote the reversal of repeasantization? What impacts might peasants face in the near and long term?
GTM: Normally, yes. The banks would take away the land from the peasants if such land had been used as collateral. But in reality, this is not the case for several reasons. First, Zimbabwe did not start to push until recently to have the land used as collateral. This started close to a decade back when they began this program via the ninety-nine-year lease schemes given to A2 farmers. But banks saw these as insufficient collateral because, if we look at the concept of tenure security, it goes beyond having paper documents. So, in essence, the radical land reform process saw commercial farmers being expropriated from the land despite owning title deeds, laying the ground in Zimbabwe for a paper title being considered insufficient to establish full legal control of the land. In short, I am arguing that leases and whatever new forms of papers the state introduces will take time to be accepted as collateral by the banking sector.
With regard to the private sector becoming a major player in grain procurement, this has long been happening despite the state putting in place several statutory instruments to curtail such practice. In essence, the state’s aspirations are that the private sector will take a large role in grain procurement. But as you know, as our Malawian comrade Blessings Chinsinga argued, maize is a political crop, and the state will always have an oversight on the pricing and the movement of such crops. The state interest in this crop undermines and discourages the interests of the private sector. So, a big gap exists between the state’s aspirations and ground-level realities. However, this is not to downplay the role the private sector has in grain procurement. Through the Grain Millers Association of Zimbabwe, the private sector has been heavily involved, especially in grain importation, in addressing some shortages.
Theoretically, the penetration of capital through private grain players and hidden commodification of land (land as collateral) would undermine repeasantization. But as I point out, the likely chances of the peasants being physically and fully dispossessed of the land by financial institutions is low because evidence thus far points out that these financial institutions at the moment are more interested in selling the movable assets of the farmers as well as selling some of their property in urban areas on freehold. In one incident, a commercial bank took hold of the farm and tried to operate it to recover the lost loan advanced to the farmers. In essence, we see these and other unconventional actions by financial actors, which do not result in directly taking away land from the resettled peasants. Hence, this nonfungibility of the resettled land constrains the number of financial actors willing to take part in lending money to the peasants.
But in the long term, yes, there could be repossession of land from the peasants, especially if some commercial entities successfully seize and operate the land to recover loans advanced. But broadly, this is curtailed at present by the fact that resettled land ownership rests with the state. What the peasants have are usufruct rights and not the transfer rights that are required by financial entities.
In addition, over the long term, peasants are likely to be pauperized as they lose movable assets such as farm machinery and livestock if they default on loans. So, we are going to have a landed but destitute peasantry. That would, one way or another, lead to dispossession in situ as peasants rent out their land in struggling to earn a living.
- ↩ Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa (New York: Random House, 1991), 496.
- ↩ “Exploring Africa, Module Thirty/Activity Three: The Land Question,” African Studies Program, Michigan State University, exploringafrica.matrix.msu.edu.
- ↩ Giovanni Arrighi, “The Political Economy of Rhodesia,” New Left Review, 39 (September/October 1966): 35–65; J. L. Fisher, Pioneers, Settlers, Aliens, Exiles (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 2010), 3; Reginald Austin, Racism and Apartheid in Southern Africa: Rhodesia (Paris: UNESCO Press, 1975), 63–64.
- ↩ Report of the Constitutional Conference Held at Lancaster House (London: Stationery Office, 1979).
- ↩ Peter Rosset, Raj Patel, and Michael Courville, eds. Promised Land: Competing Visions of Agrarian Reform (Oakland: Food First Books, 2006), 46.
- ↩ Sam Moyo, “Reclaiming the Land: Land Reform and Agricultural Development in Zimbabwe,” interview by Gregory Elich, MR Online, January 2, 2009.
- ↩ Marie-France Baron Bonarjee, “3 Decades of Land Reform in Zimbabwe,” seminar paper, Bergen Resource Centre for International Development, Bergen, Norway, October 24, 2013.
- ↩ Sam Moyo, “Zimbabwe: IRIN Interview with Land Expert Sam Moyo,” New Humanitarian, August 14, 2001.
- ↩ Deborah Potts, “Structural Adjustment and Poverty: Perceptions from Zimbabwe,” Indicator South Africa 14, no. 3 (January 1997): 83–88; Sam Moyo, Land Reform under Structural Adjustment in Zimbabwe (Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 2000).
- ↩ Walter Chambati and Sam Moyo, “Land Reform and the Political Economy of Agricultural Labour in Zimbabwe,” Occasional Research Paper Series No. 4/2007, Sam Moyo African Institute of Agrarian Studies, 2007.
- ↩ Sam Moyo, “Zimbabwe: IRIN Interview with Land Expert Sam Moyo.”
- ↩ Clare Short, “The Spark,” letter, November 5, 1997, published in New African (2003).
- ↩ Sam Moyo, “The Land Occupations Movement and Democratisation: The Contradictions of the Neoliberal Agenda in Zimbabwe,” Millennium—Journal of International Studies 30, no. 2 (June 2001): 311–30.
- ↩ Sam Moyo, “Three Decades of Agrarian Reform in Zimbabwe,” Journal of Peasant Studies 38, no. 3 (July 2011).
- ↩ 494, Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001, 107th Congress (2001–2002).
- ↩ Walter Chambati, “The Political Economy of Agrarian Labour Relations in Zimbabwe after Redistributive Land Reform,” Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy 2, no. 2 (August 2013): 189–211.
- ↩ George T. Mudimu, Ting Zuo, and Nkumbu Nalwimba, “Inside an Enclave: The Dynamics of Capitalism and Rural Politics in a Post-Land Reform Context,” Journal of Peasant Studies 49, no. 1 (2020): 101–28.
- ↩ Republic of Zimbabwe, Vision 2030, section 161 (Harare: Government of Zimbabwe, 2018).
- ↩ Republic of Zimbabwe Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, “Budget Strategy Paper: 2023,” section 98 (Harare: Government of Zimbabwe, 2022).
- ↩ Republic of Zimbabwe Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, “Budget Strategy Paper: 2023,” section 102.