Thanks, readers, for lots of great (and sometimes tough) questions. As I expected, this article has prompted a lot of interesting and lively debate. Land ownership is one of the bedrocks of any society, and it doesn’t surprise me that this is a deeply emotional issue. Some readers felt it was a refreshing new take on a news story that has been out of the headlines lately, and welcomed the end of colonial-era land ownership patterns, which allocated vast swaths of prime farmland to white settlers and small barren patches to black Zimbabweans.
Others felt that the article argued that the end – land redistribution – justified the means – violence and terror. For this article I interviewed several white farmers who lost their land, many of whom purchased it legally after independence, the loss of livelihood was devastating. Hundreds of thousands of farm workers also lost their jobs on commercial farms. Zimbabwe has been through a lot, and some readers felt any effort to look for a silver lining was suspect.
Several people asked about the fate of the workers on white commercial farms, who were mentioned briefly in the article. How have they fared?
Before 2000, about 350,000 people worked on commercial farms in Zimbabwe, 150,000 of them permanent and the rest seasonal or day laborers. One white farmer whose fruit plantation was seized told me that 1,200 people worked on his farm, and most of them had struggled to find new work. They were targets of violence amid the farm seizures and punished for any sign of loyalty to their white employers. Anecdotal evidence suggests they are underrepresented in the ranks of farmers resettled on former commercial farms. Many have migrated to neighboring countries, especially South Africa, to find work. Some workers continue to work for white-owned commercial farms, of which a relative handful remain.
The wages and working conditions of black workers on white-owned farms before 2000 varied widely. Ian Scoones, a development expert at the University of Sussex who has studied land reform in Zimbabwe closely, wrote that in the late 1990s in Masvingo Province, where he did much of his research, an unskilled farmworker made about $10 a month, while a driver or skilled worker earned about $25 per month. Wages were no doubt higher in other areas where lucrative cash crops were grown.
Matthew Kustenbauder, a Ph.D. student in History at Harvard University, wrote a multipart critique of the article, raising several interesting questions. Among them was whether the article, by focusing on tobacco, obscured plummeting yields in other crops.
One of the biggest misconceptions about the nature of agriculture in Zimbabwe pre-2000 is that white commercial farmers were feeding Zimbabwe. This was not strictly true, according to experts on farming in Zimbabwe like Sam Moyo of the African Institute of Agrarian Studies, who has been very closely tracking these patterns.
The majority of the maize, which is the staple food crop in Zimbabwe, was grown on so-called communal land, which is owned collectively by villagers. Commercial farms played a crucial role in both supporting local production through employment and creating an economic environment in which inputs for farmers were less expensive. They also grew a limited amount of maize.
But white farmers were not literally feeding Zimbabwe. Most focused on high-value cash crops like tobacco, fruit, nuts, avocados and coffee. Some grew wheat, and wheat production has indeed pretty much collapsed because it is an irrigation-intensive crop that requires infrastructure that small-scale farmers cannot afford. As a result, wheat production has gone from 230,000 metric tons in 1999-2000 to a tenth of that last year.
But let’s look at maize, which is what most Zimbabweans eat. Production was 1.6 million metric tons in 1999/2000, the season before land seizures began. As the crisis grew, production plummeted. It bottomed out in 2007-08 at 575,000 metric tons, a cataclysmically small harvest. Starvation loomed, and Zimbabwe needed huge amounts of food aid. It was also the peak of the country’s economic and political crisis. But by 2010-11, the maize crop had rebounded to nearly 1.5 million metric tons. This year’s harvest is likely to be smaller because of drought. But there is no question that the capacity of Zimbabwean farmers to produce maize at pre-2000 levels is getting much stronger.
There have been other bright spots. Cotton, which was mostly grown on communal land, is already above the 1999-2000 production levels. Barley and small grains production has increased. Zimbabwe is growing twice as many beans as it did a decade ago. Prices are high in Zimbabwe, because the general collapse of the economy brought on by the land seizures has made it a very risky place for anyone to invest. So local production has become prohibitive. Imports have a built-in premium, since importing to an unstable country like Zimbabwe is risky.
Make no mistake: There is still a great deal of economic pain in Zimbabwe. Unemployment remains a huge problem. Many Zimbabweans have fled to South Africa to look for jobs. Switching to the United States dollar halted inflation, but economic growth remains sluggish. An uncertain political future contributes to the malaise. Indeed, one reason why tobacco has rebounded is that the government simply isn’t involved. Farmers sell their tobacco at auction to buyers for hard currency. And tobacco companies have been giving small-scale farmers loans, which are repaid with auction sale proceeds. This kind of contract farming has helped revive the industry much more quickly. Having access to seeds, fertilizer and equipment makes all the difference.
This is a great question, and one that faces many post-colonial societies and Zimbabwe’s wealthy neighbor, South Africa, in particular. Like Zimbabwe, South Africa has serious imbalances in wealth and land ownership along racial lines. Speaking at the African National Congress policy conference last month, South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, decried the fact that “the economic power relations of the apartheid era have in the main remained intact. The ownership of the economy is still primarily in the hands of white males, as it has always been.”
Much of the conference was taken up with discussing ways to move wealth more quickly into a broader set of hands. Some factions with South Africa’s governing party prefer the current, go-slow approach to issues like affirmative action in business and land reform. Others are pushing for a more radical approach that would allow for seizures of land without compensation as well as nationalization of the country’s gold, platinum and diamond mines.
Beginning in the 1980s, Zimbabwe had a voluntary land reform program financed by the British government that had notched some success in integrating more black Zimbabweans into commercial farming. Because it was voluntary and expensive, it moved slowly. Complaints about corruption and cronyism in that program were widespread. The so-called “fast track” land reforms that began in 2000 were as much about shoring up Robert G. Mugabe’s fading popularity amid a fiscal crisis as they were about promoting equality.
The ZANU-PF government has been ruthless in its efforts to cling to power, and has used the land issue to whip up support. But it hasn’t necessarily been an effective vote getter: Mr. Mugabe won fewer votes than the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in a bloody election campaign in 2008, and the two ultimately entered an uneasy power-sharing agreement that hobbles along to this day. Doubtless the wreckage of one of Africa’s strongest economies played a major role Mr. Mugabe’s defeat.
Tendai Murisa, a Zimbabwean sociologist who has studied the impact of the land redistribution in tobacco growing areas says that he found unexpected attitudes toward democracy and accountability among those allotted land. People in resettled areas on former white-owned farms were more likely to have elected, rather than hereditary, local leaders. The creation of a land-holding peasantry with a deep stake in the country’s prosperity is likely to remake the dynamics of Zimbabwean politics in the years ahead, he argues, in ways that are likely to demand more, not less, democracy and better governance. Major changes in the structure of an economy are always hard to achieve by non-disruptive means. Inequality in developing countries is particularly hard to overcome. But no one I know of is recommending that any nation follow Zimbabwe’s painful path.
The relationship is actually more varied and complex than you might think. Many white farmers who have remained and grow tobacco are now contracting with tobacco companies to shed some of the risk involved with farming. That way if their farms get seized just before it is time to reap, as happened to one white farmer I met, the loss goes on the tobacco company’s balance sheet, not the farmer’s. This is the same arrangement many of the new black farmers use, so it does create a kind of symmetry.
There are also a fair number of white former tobacco farmers who are now working in the tobacco industry in Zimbabwe, not as growers but as consultants who work on behalf of tobacco companies with small-scale farmers. In the interactions between these former farmers and new farmers I saw a good deal of professionalism and collegiality. White farmers who are still on their land (usually a small fraction of their original holdings) have found ways to live with their new neighbors.
There is a perception that white farmers stole the land from blacks, but in many cases farmers actually purchased their land, some of them after 1980, when Zimbabwe won its independence. I spent an afternoon with one such farmer, who was quoted in the article (his name was withheld because he feared losing more of his land). While his family’s losses have been devastating, he showed no bitterness, simply a resolve to keep going. Many white farmers have left to safer havens in Zambia, Mozambique, Nigeria and South Africa, but those who remain have a dogged determination to hold on in the nation of their birth.
In Zimbabwe the small farms are definitely less efficient. I don’t have a way to control the data for skills or investment, but the raw numbers tell a stark story. In 2000 76,000 hectares of tobacco fields produced 2,487 kilograms per hectare. Last year the number of hectares doubled but the country as a whole produced less tobacco – indeed the yield per hectare was less than half the 2000 level.