In Context

Located in southern Africa, Zimbabwe was originally a British colony named Rhodesia. In 1980, the country won its independence and Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party rose to prominence. Mugabe sought to address the historical inequity of land ownership among blacks, but by 2000, amid weakening support, corruption and cronyism, he had begun a campaign of involuntary land seizures.

Located in southern Africa, Zimbabwe is a land-locked nation of 13 million people. The population is approximately 98 percent black African and 1 percent white.

Prior to independence in 1980, the nation was known as Rhodesia and was controlled by the British. Attempts to overthrow white rule, including ongoing guerilla attacks, began in the 1960s. These attacks, along with United Nations sanctions, ultimately led to elections in 1979 and full independence (including the renaming of the country) in 1980.

During this period of war, Robert Mugabe rose to prominence as the leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union -- Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and became the nation's first prime minister. The Mugabe government preached reconciliation and unity, both between rival parties and between blacks and whites. However, Mugabe increasingly consolidated power; in 1987, the position of prime minister was abolished and he became president. In 2000, with his party threatened by the new opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Mugabe initiated a wave of land invasions with help from a war veterans' association. Since then, he and his party have mobilized violence and rigged elections to guarantee their own victory.

General elections held in March 2008 reflected foundering support for Mugabe's ZANU-PF-led government, with the opposition winning a majority of seats in parliament. MDC opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai won majority votes in the presidential polls, but not enough to win outright. The subsequent run-off election was marred by violence, intimidation and fraud. As a result, Tsvangirai withdrew, and the process was condemned internationally.

To ensure a degree of international and domestic legitimacy, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) -- led by Thabo Mbeki, then president of South Africa -- brokered a power-sharing agreement that left Mugabe as president and installed Tsvangirai as prime minister. However, conflicts have continued. Mugabe, now in his eighties, has publicly called for early elections soon, but there is yet to be a new constitution, which was a requirement of the power-sharing agreement. Even though no election date has been set, most observers already fear a repeat of the extensive violence that followed the 2008 elections.

Land and Economic Reforms

Under British colonial rule and the white minority ruled Rhodesian government, it was commonplace for whites to seize for themselves the best tracts of farmable land, leaving black peasant farmers to work the remaining swaths and any tribal reserves. By 1980, when Zimbabwe declared independence, approximately 6,000 white commercial farmers owned 15.5 million hectares (or 47 percent) of the country's agricultural land; 8,000 black small-scale farmers owned or leased 1.4 million hectares; and 700,000 peasant farmers occupied 16.4 million communal hectares.

In the first two decades of Mugabe's rule, Mugabe addressed this historical inequity gradually, so as not to disrupt essential agricultural production completely. Through lawful redistribution, the amount of white-owned land was reduced by one quarter as blacks bought up farms and the government purchased and redistributed approximately 3.6 million hectares of land to 70,000 peasant households.

By 2000, however, Mugabe's popularity was waning, as were his government's financial resources. Legal redistribution had been weakened by corruption and cronyism, and Mugabe found it more and more difficult to keep political promises to increase black land ownership. To boost his poll numbers, Mugabe intensified his anti-white rhetoric and began a campaign of involuntary land seizures. Part of this campaign was known as the "fast track" process: Landless black applicants living in communal areas were invited officially to apply for land of their own. They filled out forms made available through government or civil institutions. The forms were then reviewed to establish eligibility and priority level, and the applicants were matched up with farms that had been selected for resettlement.

The farms to be resettled were to be selected according to a convoluted process that would identify a reason that a particular property had been targeted. Aggrieved landowners who believed that their land had been chosen arbitrarily could appeal to provincial authorities, though once farms were selected, they could be taken by force no matter what the landowner did to appeal the decision. In 2001, Mugabe retroactively amended the process so that ownership of any selected land was transferred immediately, without even the possibility for appeal. Owners had 90 days to vacate. Blacks applying to receive farms often submitted their applications not to civic structures, but to the war veterans' militias occupying the relevant farms.

This new aggressive land redistribution policy was rife with corruption from the start, with farms given to party insiders with no experience in tending fields. Even when peasant farmers were the recipients of farms, they often failed to receive proper training. About 20 percent of Zimbabwe's total land area was redistributed, sparking an exodus of white (experienced) farmers, crippling the economy and ushering in widespread shortages of basic commodities.

Several subsequent actions weakened the economy even further, including a costly intervention in the Second Congo War (1998-2003), a 2005 "urban renewal" program resulting in the destruction of the homes and businesses of 700,000 (mostly poor) supporters of the opposition and, in 2007, the institution of price controls on all basic commodities that led to panic buying and empty store shelves for months at a time. The central bank continued to print money to pay war veterans and foreign debts, leading to hyperinflation, which in turn led to a severe economic crisis that was only averted by the dollarization of the economy under the coalition government in 2009. Zimbabwe's economic instability continues today.

Photo Caption: Farm worker on the Campbell farm;
Credit: Arturi Films Limited

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