Challenging Western Distortions about Zimbabwe's Land Reform

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It can never be stressed enough that Zimbabwe inherited a highly unequal land ownership pattern from apartheid Rhodesia. By 2002, 70 percent of the richest farmland still remained in the hands of just 4,500 white commercial farmers, focused mainly on producing crops for export.

[Global: Zimbabwe]

For years, Western journalists have castigated Zimbabwe's land reform program. From afar, they pronounced land reform a failure for having brought about the total collapse of agriculture and plunging the nation into chronic food insecurity.

Redistributed land, we are continually told, went to cronies with political connections, while ordinary people were almost entirely excluded from the process. Farmland went to ruin because of the incompetence of the new owners. These were simple messages, drilled into the minds of the Western public through repetition. For Western reporters, certain that they owned the truth, emotion substituted for evidence. Those of a more curious frame of mind, however, were left to wonder what conditions were like in the field, where no reporter bothered to venture.

Now this gaping lacuna has been filled by two recent studies. In a report issued just over a year ago, the African Institute for Agrarian Studies (AIAS) details the results of its extensive field investigations conducted in six districts from 2005 to 2006.(1) The other field study was done in Masvingo Province beginning in 2006 by the Livelihoods after Land Reform project, with multinational assistance, including that of the Great Britain-based Institute of Development Studies (IDS). (2)

What both studies found was that the facts on the ground were at variance with popular Western perceptions. As the IDS study noted, "Those of us exposed regularly to the international, especially British, media found it hard to match what we heard on the TV and radio and read in the newspapers with what we were finding on the ground." There were a number of misperceptions, which in large part the team felt were due to  "a simple lack of solid, field-level data." (3) Although it is true that there has been such a lack, this factor alone does not account for the inaccuracy of Western news reports. The ideological factor is paramount, as always. For that reason, even though concrete information is now available, the tone of Western reports is unlikely to change.

It can never be stressed enough that Zimbabwe inherited a highly unequal land ownership pattern from apartheid Rhodesia. By 2002, 70 percent of the richest farmland still remained in the hands of just 4,500 white commercial farmers, focused mainly on producing crops for export. Meanwhile, one million indigenous families eked out a bare existence, crowded into an arid region of limited suitability for agriculture, known as the 'communal' areas. Fast-track land reform redistributed much of the commercial farmland to some 170,000 families. Whatever its faults in execution, the process has undeniably created a significantly more equitable distribution of land than what prevailed before.


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