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Economic Isolation is Hindering Zimbabwe’s Transformation
Lifting sanctions and increasing international investment will speed land and security sector reform—and enhance the protection of human rights.
Since the election of a new government for Zimbabwe one year ago, the administration of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, in which I serve, has begun reforming our land policies, changing laws, and commencing a new compensation initiative to address the injustices of the recent past. Some commentators, such as Tonderayi Mukeredzi in Foreign Policy, have legitimately questioned whether this goes far enough.
The new land reform program is a work in progress. Where we stand today is not the end, only the beginning—and the destination will evolve as we learn lessons en route.
Immediately, there is the pressing question of compensation for white farmers whose land was taken. By law, the government was obligated to compensate farmers for improvements and infrastructure on the land—not the land itself. In reality, the payments were delayed and piecemeal.
At present, 53 million Zimbawean Real Time Gross Settlement (RTGS) dollars ($4.8 million at today’s exchange rate) have been set aside in the 2019 budget to begin a comprehensive payment process covering the 4,500 farmers whose land was acquired under the fast-track land reform program. This is already being disbursed to the most vulnerable among the farmers, in close consultation with their representative organization, the Commercial Farmers Union.
In parallel, the government is completing a nationwide evaluation exercise in order to arrive at an overall compensation figure. The farmers have already computed their own figure. What remains, therefore, is for the government and the farmers to conclude ongoing negotiations to reach a final, agreed compensation figure and payment mechanism. I am confident, given existing goodwill and the desire of all parties to resolve the issue of compensation, that we will soon be in a position to go public with an agreement.
The issue of the land itself has been agreed and settled. For farms obtained under bilateral investment treaties, reimbursement shall be for both land and improvements to land. However, domestic deeds must be seen in a wider historical arc, one laden with colonial dispossession and racial subjugation. A select few held the finest farmland in Zimbabwe to the detriment of our society. Then wrong begot wrong under the policy of President Mnangagwa’s predecessor, Robert Mugabe.
Dredging up these emotive memories of reciprocal dispossession is no way forward. We must solve this land question for all groups—and solve it permanently. If we do not, Zimbabwe will remain caught in its past.
While land reform is about righting historical wrongs, it is also about reclaiming Zimbabwe’s mantle as the breadbasket of Africa. Racist laws have been changed to be color blind and ensure that only the best, most qualified farmers tend the land: White farmers can now obtain 99-year leases on the land, rather than the previous limit of five (all the agricultural lands of Zimbabwe are held in trust by the nation), and leases can now be sublet to white farmers, where once it was often blocked.
Nevertheless, Mukeredzi is correct to identify two obstacles in boosting production, both of which the government recognizes: first, whether a 99-year lease (in their current legal form) can be used as collateral to raise capital for reinvestment into the farm, and, second, the vast fertile tracts that lie fallow across the country.
It is not a question of whether the current policies go far enough, but the speed of travel. For instance, tenancies are not bankable, because they are not transferable in the event of a default. To rectify this, a revised leasehold has been agreed in principle with government and the Bankers Association of Zimbabwe. Now this must be ratified into law. At the same time, property rights are being strengthened through their enforcement, with a clampdown on illegal farm seizures.
The government also knows there is too much fallow land. We know we cannot allow those unable to farm control land in place of those who can—any more than we can allow a person with no driver’s license to drive a taxi. Yet we don’t currently know how much fallow land there is.
Good policy begins with measurement. The land audit carried out last year was just the first phase of a comprehensive nationwide survey. A series of issues must be examined: multiple ownership of the same land, oversized farms, uncertain or contentious boundaries, and grazing allocations. A judgement can then be made as to whether the right mix of incentives are in place to encourage the owner to sell or sublet—or whether a more vigorous policy is required.
The preparations for the second audit began at the end of May. Yet as the chair of the Zimbabwe Land Commission has said, a comprehensive audit that tackled all issues would be swifter if not for a limited budget. Across multiple branches of the government’s reform agenda, this is a root problem that slows our progress: We are constrained not by political will but economic reality.
Coping with the human and economic costs of one of the region’s worst-ever cyclones followed by the most severe drought in four decades has not been easy. The fiscal inheritance handed to us by the past president (which we have now turned to a primary budgetary surplus through austerity measures) as well as shortages of foreign exchange reserves that drive inflation have left government resources thin.
Lifting the Mugabe-era U.S. economic sanctions that prevent full international engagement would remedy this problem. Free to enjoy the full benefits afforded by global engagement, Zimbabwe—with its rich mineral resources and land, a highly educated workforce, and solid infrastructure—would thrive. And with it would come a bigger budget to expedite land reform.
This reengagement, Mukeredzi argues, is hampered by the perception of the record on human rights. We in government know we have more work to do, as with much of our reform agenda. Some tragic and lamentable incidents have taken place since this administration came to power. Yet those incidents should not be read as government intent nor obscure the country’s progress. We cannot change the past, only our future.
The six deaths that followed post-election clashes between security forces and protesters is one such event. Immediately, the government instituted an international commission of inquiry headed by former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe and the international human rights lawyer Rodney Dixon.
Before the commission began its work, the president agreed—in an unprecedented move in Zimbabwe—to implement its recommendations. Hearings took place in public and were broadcast on state television. Nobody was protected from subpoena. And the full report of findings and recommendations were made public after being delivered to the president last December.
The fact that nobody has yet been prosecuted does not mean that the recommendations have been dismissed. To be absolutely clear, those responsible will be held accountable. Meanwhile, other changes are in motion.
First, compensation is currently being paid to the families of victims and will be completed by the end of the year. Second, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act has been repealed and is being replaced by three bills to further promote freedom of expression. Third, the Public Order and Security Act—criticized for impinging on freedom of assembly—is being superseded by the Maintenance of Peace and Order Act, which shall bring security forces entirely under the democratic control of the government. And finally, essential reforms have begun in the police and military units: The Codes of Conduct have been rewritten, and retraining—particularly in relation to human rights in policing and service to citizens in law enforcement—is under way.
These reforms could be accelerated with engagement. Not only would a stronger economy mean more resources for these programs; it would also help bring in critical international expertise to aid the retraining of the country’s security services. Lifting sanctions would not signal the exoneration of the government on human rights; rather, it would strengthen protection of those rights and prevent future abuses.
A week may be a long time in politics, but a year in reform is not. The voiding of sanctions would unleash economic growth and speed Zimbabwe’s rehabilitation and renewal.