Land Issue from Another Perspective: Zimbabwe

Tobacco Farmer in Zimbabwe

A group of white Zimbabwean farmers is suing to stop the removal of sanctions against the Mugabe regime. They argue that the men who are on the sanctions list are responsible for their loss of property which in the case is the land seized under the land reform initiative. The history of land and agriculture in Zimbabwe has been very complicated. This article seeks to highlight some issues

Denis Norman was the Agriculture minister in post colonial Zimbabwe. Agriculture was the foundation of the Zimbabwean economy. By appointing Mr. Norman, Mugabe showed he was willing to compromise for the sake of the economy and reconciliation. At the same time it really signaled that the status quo would not change and that things would stay the same which was reassuring for the whites in post colonial Zimbabwe.

When Norman left Zimbabwe he sold his 7 farms and went back to England. Norman like a lot of other former government officials had amassed a lot of land in a country where agriculture was the backbone of the economy. The British colonialist always saw Zimbabwe as fertile land good for agriculture and with little minerals so the ones who came to Zimbabwe came to farm. Even with a mining industry focused on gold, platinum, emeralds, asbestos etc, agriculture was still the most important.

Denis Norman told Trevor Grundy in an interview in 2007
“People are obsessed with the ownership of land. Well, I’ve always thought ownership is important but what’s more important is productivity. How do you make the land more productive? You can’t produce any more land, so you have to produce more from the existing land.”

This presents a problem for investors who want ownership and the ability to develop and set up infrastructure without the threat that it will be taken away. Who is willing to invest in agriculture and one day their farm is taken away by a government official. Ownership is the basis of capitalism and in a global environment this is what most have come to expect when they invest.
This statement also expresses how out of touch that a Zimbabwean government official such as Norman are out of touch with ordinary Zimbabweans. As students of history we know that the reason that Zimbabweans wanted independence was for the land. Land ownership is everything is everything in Zimbabwe it the core of the beliefs of the people of that land so it cannot be dismissed as being about productivity. Pre-colonial times showed that the peasant farmer was self-sufficient and productive on his land so the idea that ordinary peasants cannot be productive and that it takes a commercial farmer is a fallacy. After all it was the farm workers who were involved in the execution the real planting and harvesting on these commercial farms.

Farmer working

“All land in Zimbabwe should be held by a Land Tribunal that should then distribute it on a leasehold basis to those who really wanted to be farmers, he said.”

“Not everyone can be a farmer. It requires dedication, skills, training. I always used to say the worst farmers were generals and retired clergymen because they haven’t got the knowledge or the feel for it.”

This is an interesting assessment since Zimbabweans have traditionally been farmers there has been a consensus that farming is in the blood and requires little or no skill, the idea that anyone can do it which is disastrous. Norman is right that buying the land is the easy part; it is the distribution which is the beast. The real problem is that there are some people with no land and others with 7 or 15 farms. Norman is not the only former government minister with huge tracks of land. Kumbirai Kangai another former Minister of Agriculture is one of Zimbabwe’s wealthiest land owners with numerous farms. In the same interview with Trevor Norman states

I’d talk to him (Mugabe),” says Norman. “Of course I’d talk to him. I would certainly like to trade my ideas and listen to ideas he might have. He’s the man in charge. You’ve got to talk to the person driving the bus and he happens to be driving the bus.”
Norman shows us the human side of Mugabe. He is honest of how he had preconceived notions about Mugabe but as he began to work with Mugabe changed his mind and gave Mugabe a chance. Perhaps we begin to understand that Mugabe was upset with the whites after the 1985 elections not because they were white but because they voted against him and were beginning to be a threat to his reign. Mugabe dealt with the commercial farmers the same way that he dealt with the Ndebele and all other opposition parties within Zimbabwe. If you are not on his side then he will eliminate you.

The land issue in Zimbabwe continues to be contentious, however there is a glimmer of hope as more and more small-scale farmers begin to show positive growth. Recent successes give Zimbabwe the hope that after all is said and done the issue of land redistribution will no longer be met with hostility but jubilation from all parties.


  1. an interesting history that is not easy to unserstand and the land ? as it is known in zim is not easy to solve. mugabe has every right to do as he pleases until the indians of america get back their land the whites in zim have no claim to theirs. tit 4 tat

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