Are Zimbabwe's new farmers winning, 10 years on?

Two boys and a man ploughing a field with two oxen How are the beneficiaries of Zimbabwe's controversial land reform faring now?

In 2000, President Robert Mugabe launched Zimbabwe's controversial fast-track land reforms, seizing the majority of the 4,500 farms held by mostly white commercial farmers. More than a decade on, while some of the new farmers are doing well, others have found that if they cross the ruling party, they face losing their new land.

Shadrack Rwafa stands outside the home he has built.

He is one of Zimbabwe's 170,000 new farmers, the proud owner of Land Hunger Farm.

A short, muscular man, he has worked hard to grow crops on this dry, unforgiving soil, which used to be a cattle ranch.

Shadrack Rwafa holding a baby Shadrack Rwafa grows several crops and says his life has improved dramatically

It took two months just to dig the well, and he is proud of the clean, fresh water it produces.

"It's like milk," he tells the BBC.

Mr Rwafa is no ordinary farmer.

He is a war veteran who fought against the white minority rule which ended in 1980, when Robert Mugabe replaced Ian Smith as the country's leader.

In the intervening years he has been a sculptor, painter and miner.

But after Mr Mugabe inaugurated the Fast Track Land Reform Programme in 2000, Mr Rwafa saw his chance.

'Life-long dream'

He joined the invasion of a white-owned farm in the area in the south-east of the country.

Many of the commercial farms were seized violently, but Mr Rwafa says his case was different.

Graph showing who gained the land in Zimbabwe's Masvingo province

"We didn't just come without talking to the then farm owner.

"We asked 'can we share the land' and that's how we came here," says Mr Rwafa.

"He accepted and there was no violence at this place.

"We even helped him to put his sheep on the truck and he left us some fertilizers and we parted nicely."

The farm is the fulfilment of his life-long dream.

Today he grows peanuts, beans and maize and says his life has improved dramatically.

A ranch that once raised cattle has been split into 252 separate units, each farmed by a family growing a range of crops as well as raising some cattle.

Mr Rwafa says it is far more productive than it was when it was commercially farmed.

The farm's former owner was not available for comment.

The progress of Mr Rwafa and his fellow new farmers in Masvingo Province has been recorded by a 10-year research project, conducted by the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University, which followed 400 new farmers.

How are they doing now?

Sign saying 'Landhunger plot number 4' on rudimentary gate
  • Around 10% of the new farmers have abandoned the land altogether
  • 33% have kept the land, but are only involved in limited production
  • A further 21% are supplementing their income from other sources, like teaching, gold panning or from remittances from relatives
  • Only 35% are really making a go of farming and beginning to accumulate some wealth

Source: Institute of Development Studies

It is one of a number of studies which challenge popular perceptions that Zimbabwe's land reform programme has been an unmitigated disaster.

The Sussex University study does, however, accept that the process has had setbacks.

Only just over a third of the new farmers are doing well, about a fifth are supplementing their income by other means, and the rest are struggling, are not using the land for active production, or have given up altogether.

Even this sober view is challenged.

Economic consultant John Robertson suggests that agricultural output is only around 50% of the level it was before the land invasions began in 2000.

"Most of the new people involved who are farming the land that was confiscated from the large-scale farmers are producing enough for themselves and not much more," says Mr Robertson.

Land invasions have not ended.

Just as we were visiting new farmers like Mr Rwafa, a white farmer lost the land he was born on.

Political patronage

He did not want his name to be mentioned - the whole issue is too politically sensitive - but he seemed almost resigned to what had taken place.

Start Quote

If you display your loyalty to the ruling party, you will get a free piece of land. If you show any disloyalty to the party... you'll lose it”

End Quote John Robertson Zimbabwean economist

"You didn't have to be a genius to work out that we weren't going to be there for the rest of our lives.

"One supposes they could stop it now, but I think they do not want to see a white on the land, and don't need to see any whites left," he says, more in sorrow than anger.

Mr Robertson believes the entire land redistribution exercise was meant to create a system of patronage, through a pool of voters who were dependent on the ruling Zanu-PF party.

"If you display your loyalty to the ruling party, you will get a free piece of land. If you show any disloyalty to the party, guess what… you'll lose it," he says.

Not even high-ranking Zanu-PF members are necessarily secure.

Tracy Mutinhiri was deputy minister of labour and social welfare until the middle of this year. She was also a beneficiary of land reform, with one of the biggest farms in the country.

Then she began to get too close to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the former opposition, which is now in an uneasy government of national unity with President Mugabe's party.

"When we got into the inclusive government, I wanted to work with everybody. That's how it started: building up and building up, and then one day they decided to come and invade my farm," says Ms Mutinhiri.

"If it could happen to me, it could happen to anybody else," she adds.

Find out more

Women selling their produce at market

Crossing Continents is on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 1 December at 11:00 GMT and Monday 5 December at 20:30 GMT

But the real losers in this process have been the 500,000 workers who were once employed on the commercial farms.

Many were seen as potential MDC supporters, and were therefore not allocated any of the redistributed land.

I spoke to some of these workers who were too fearful to be named.

"Sometimes we are getting by on just $10 (£6.40) a month," says one woman, a former farm worker, now living in a disused tobacco barn.

The farm workers' official minimum wage is $44 (£28.80) per month.

"We are really suffering, and we don't know how we're going to live.

"This land reform must be reversed, and maybe our life can change."

President Mugabe's land reforms have had a mixed outcome, with at least as many farm workers losing their livelihoods as there are new farmers working their own land.

The country is also now a net food importer where it once exported grain to the region.

The United Nations World Food Programme is appealing for $42m (£27m) to help more than one million Zimbabweans get through to the harvest early next year.

Crossing Continents is on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 1 December at 11:00 GMT and Monday 5 December at 20:30 GMT. Listen via the Radio 4 website or download the podcast.

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