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Slow-Motion Land Reform In Southern Africa

Land acquisition represents a still-smoldering issue in the transition from white rule in Southern Africa - particularly in Zimbabwe where whites, representing 2 percent of the population, control 70 percent of the land. Recent reports from the capital, Harare, tell of efforts to resolve the issue - both by direct action and by law.

Several hundred black subsistence farmers reportedly moved in on three white-owned farms in June in the Morondera region in the north of the country. Complaining that government land reform programs were moving too slowly, they said they were returning to ancestral land seized 120 years ago by the British. At the same time, a New York Times report noted that these squatters, showing a degree of restraint, were careful not to invade cultivated areas and declared they wished to share with, not displace, the white farmer.

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The sensitivity of the issue was recognized when majority rule and independence for the former Rhodesia were negotiated in 1979. The new nation's Constitution prohibited the compulsory acquisition of land without adequate notice and compensation.

Political leadership has since been torn between the recognition of the need to maintain stable land ownership and agricultural production and the pressures to satisfy black demands, especially from veterans of the war for independence. Population growth and recent droughts have aggravated the situation.

The temptation to exploit the demand for land is always present. In 1993, President Robert Mugabe was quoted as posing the issue as a contest between "greedy landlords and the majority of land hungry peasants." The Times article reported that the Government of Zimbabwe had in 1997 published a list of 1,500 farms to be seized without compensation. A UN Development report issued this year, however, said that Zimbabwe authorities have backed away from this earlier threat.

Restraint is necessary to avoid major disorder. The resolution of land problems involves many questions. Who will manage the process - the market or the government? Who will get land - middle-class blacks who can purchase or subsistence farmers who will need to be subsidized? Which lands - marginal, underutilized, fully cultivated? What will be their use - agriculture, tourism, industry, housing? What would full land reform cost? One official estimate puts the figure at $2 billion.

TWO papers by Sam Moyo, a Zimbabwe land specialist, lay out the progress and the possibilities for land reform. Economic Nationalism and Land Reform in Zimbabwe, published in 1994 points out that land distribution during the 1980s was largely market driven and favored the growing black middle class over any broad distribution to the poor. To regularize the land reform process and meet criticisms of past practices, a new Land Act was adopted in 1992, "to enable the Government to plan for and target the type, location and scale of land it requires for a new land reform programme."

The new act recognizes that parts of many large white-owned farms are underutilized; the Moyo report puts the estimate at "up to 50 percent of the prime lands held by large white farmers." The act gives the government authority to "designate" lands to be available for acquisition. Landowners are given 30 days to object; where objections are sustained, the land is "undesignated." Compensation for land to be acquired is established through regular, specified evaluation procedures.

Mr. Moyo believes that, at best, land reform in Zimbabwe will be an extended process. He estimates that "to achieve the targeted transfer of 5 million hectares ... unless land purchase and personnel budgets are substantially increased, the Government will need close to 20 years to complete the designation process."

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After the unilateral declaration of independence by a white minority government in Salisbury (now Harare) in 1965 the future of Rhodesia was seen as a major test in the resolution of the problem of white-minority rule in southern Africa. But as current efforts to deal with the land question demonstrate, the resolution of the political dimension was but one part of the decolonization process. The other part - a fair distribution of the country's rich lands - is a work still in progress.

* David D. Newsom, a former ambassador and undersecretary of state for the Near East, is now living in Charlottesville, Va.

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