Two decades after seizing land from white commercial farmers for redistribution to black Zimbabwean squatters under controversial agriculture reforms, the government is now taking back sizeable chunks of it from the beneficiaries for redistribution.
Ironically, it appears the first victims are the family of the late president Robert Mugabe, the initiator of the reforms. President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government says it is downsizing commercial farms to ensure maximum utilisation of land, but those targeted say the agrarian reforms are once again being used to punish the ruling party’s critics.
The often-violent land reform programme pushed by Mugabe between the years 2000 and 2017, often violently, displaced nearly 5,000 white commercial farmers and led to condemnation and isolation of Zimbabwe by the international community.
Mugabe, who was toppled in a military coup in 2017, had accused the white farmers of sponsoring the opposition in a bid to topple him at the turn of the millennium.
He argued that the land reforms were righting historical imbalances where the minority white population controlled Zimbabwe’s arable land while the black communities were crowded in semi-arid areas.
President Mnangagwa’s government last year agreed to pay the affected white farmers $3.5 billion in compensation to settle the dispute and revive the country’s agriculture industry.
This week, the government made its first compensation payment as part of the $3.5 billion deal to settle the long-running dispute with white commercial farmers over their seized properties.
The government said Kuvimba Mining House, a state-linked gold producer, transferred $1 million to the farmers after delays caused by the outbreak of Covid-19 last year and the subsequent economic upheavals.
“Government asked the payments be spread out,” CFU president Andrew Pascoe told the media. “This represents the first money we have received.”
Finance minister Mthuli Ncube said Kuvimba was partly owned by special purpose vehicle that was created for farmers whose land was seized.
Besides giving the white farmers money, the government said it will allow former farm owners that still wanted to resume farming “to regain possession” of their land.
The government said it will revoke offers made to black farmers currently occupying the farms and “offer them alternative land elsewhere.”
This has sparked criticism that President Mnangagwa was reversing the land reforms and undoing Mugabe’s legacy.
The new manoeuvres to downsize the redistributed farms and to throw out some of the beneficiaries, have ignited a fresh war over land with disgruntled farmers heading to the courts to fight the compulsory parcelling out of their farms.
Some of the most prominent disgruntled beneficiaries are Mr Mugabe’s daughter Bona and her husband Simbarashe Mutsahuni, who have gone to court to block the government from redistributing part of their vast farm.
The couple accuses the government of unilaterally seizing vast tracts of land from the farm they were allocated in 2017 without considering their investment into the property and utilisation.
Their property, which measures 1,804 hectares, is in the prime farming district of Mazowe where Mugabe and his wife Grace are believed to have grabbed several farms from white commercial farmers at the height of his rule.
They argue in court that the move to subdivide their farm is a violation of the constitution.
“It is the applicant’s submission that once the minister has issued any farmer with an offer letter over a specific piece of land with a specific size beyond that, which the law prescribes, it is arbitrary for it to subsequently legislate in retrospect to negatively reduce the size of such land without regard to whether or not the concerned farmer is effectively utilising the farm and the extent of investment made by such farmer,” reads part of the couple’s High Court application seeking to stop the subdivision of the farm.
They want the new regulations empowering the government to reduce farm sizes declared unconstitutional as they violate “the right to property and equal protection and benefit of the law.”
Since his ouster from the presidency, Mugabe’s family has been battling to retain farms they grabbed from white farmers during the land reforms amid attempts to invade them.
In 2018, hundreds of illegal gold prospectors invaded parts of a farm owned by Mugabe’s widow Grace, 40 kilometres north of the capital Harare and started panning for gold.
Once guarded by armed national police, the farm became a centre of a gold rush and an environmental disaster as the invaders left uncovered pits. The government refused to intervene.
At the time, Bona Mugabe told police that she was touring the farm when she was “shocked to find approximately 400 men illegally panning for gold.”
Two gold diggers, who said they owned gold claims at the same farm filed court applications against Ms Mugabe to stop her from interfering with mining operations at the property and the courts ruled in their favour.
She appealed the ruling and the matter is yet to be heard. Mr Mugabe’s family believes it’s part of President Mnangagwa’s strategy to push them out of the property, an accusation the government denies.
Last year, armed ruling party youths invaded a peri-urban farm owned by Ms Mugabe in Harare and the government did not intervene.
The government says farms on most arable land would be restricted to 250 hectares to allow ownership of land by more people in order to improve productivity and output.
Targeted beneficiaries of Mugabe’s land grab who include exiled Mugabe loyalists Saviour Kasukuwere, a former commissar of the ruling Zanu PF, insist that the measures are meant to punish those who don’t support President Mnangagwa’s government.
Another prominent victim of the new regulations is Sipho Malunga, director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), and his three business partners.
Mr Malunga, a vocal critic of President Mnangagwa’s government, said last week that they were informed by a government official that their farm had been repossessed and was now being parcelled out to new beneficiaries.
They are also heading to court to fight the compulsory acquisition.
“This is not about land reform and we will fight it in every way,” Mr Malunga said.
“The farm is wholly privately owned by three individuals and we only got to see the government Gazette and acquisition notice issued on December 18 (2020) for the first time today,’’ he said this week.
Last year the government introduced a law that stipulates that foreign farmers covered by the Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreements and indigenous black farmers must be compensated for land taken over for resettlement in the past 20 years.
The law says black Zimbabwean farmers can apply to the government “for restoration of title to the piece of agricultural land that was compulsorily acquired from them for resettlement.”
Then Lands minister, the late Perrance Shiri, said the seizure of black owned farms was a historical mistake.
At least 440 black-owned farmers had lost their land during the land reform programme.
Activists say the seizure of Mr Malunga’s farm was an infringement on property rights.
“The farm is wholly owned by black indigenous Zimbabwean professionals,” the Matabeleland Forum, a civic group said. “This land was legally procured in accordance with the law,” the group added. “This clearly militates against the government’s thrust of black economic empowerment.”
Richard Moyo, a provincial affairs minister, claimed the disputed farm never belonged to the three businessmen.
He said the farm was compulsorily acquired during the land reforms programme, but the property was never parcelled out to intended beneficiaries.
“The farm in question belonged to white farmers by the name of Swindells,” Mr Moyo said.
“When government compulsorily acquired the land in the 2000s, we did not immediately resettle people because there was a black man by the name Eddie Warambwa, who claimed to have bought the farm from the white farmers.”
He added: “It was only after his death that we realised that he was a front of the white men and measures were taken to repossess the land, there is no victimisation here.
“We are in the process of allocating the land and those, who were on the farm will benefit just as any other Zimbabwean if they do not have another piece of land.”
The Commercial Farmers Union (CFU), which draws its membership from white farmers, said its members had not been spared from the farm seizures.
CFU said the continued disturbances on the farms would make it difficult to revive Zimbabwe’s agriculture industry.
“The only way to instil maximum investment in the commercial agricultural sector is to resolve these ongoing issues as soon as possible,” CFU said.
“If not speedily and satisfactorily resolved, this would instead instil massive disinvestment in the near future.
“Unfortunately, this is showing in a very bad light in as far as the necessary confidence boosting measures are concerned.”
A government audit of the land reform programme carried out last year exposed huge irregularities in the allocation of farms, which were parcelled out to ruling party cronies and in some instances to children as young as 10.
Auditors discovered that most of the prime land went to high-ranking political elite, who got more than one farm.
In 2019, President Mnangagwa said Mrs Mugabe was one of the people that were found by land auditors to have acquired multiple farms during the agrarian reforms.
He said Mrs Mugabe owned 16 farms in violation of the country’s land policy, which allowed ownership of one farm per family.
An estate of the late president Mugabe registered by daughter Bona after his death, however, said Zimbabwe’s long-time ruler only owned one commercial farm. The listing said his estate included $10 million held in a local bank, four houses in the capital Harare, 10 cars, a farm, his rural home and an orchard.
At one of the farms that he seized from a white commercial farmer, Mr Mugabe established a diary enterprise known as Gushungo Holdings.
The company has since collapsed following his death. Many farms that were seized during the Mugabe era are either idle or underutilised, a situation that has been blamed for the country’s perennial food insecurity.
The compensation of the white farmers is key in ending Zimbabwe’s international isolation as the United States and the European Union, which imposed sanctions on the country nearly two decades ago, insist on the restoration of property rights for relations to be normalised.
Zimbabwe’s economy started tanking after the land seizures as the country experienced massive investment flight and hyperinflation. They also spawned massive food shortages with aid agencies feeding more than half of the country’s population for the past two years.