Land Reform Sparks Controversy in Zimbabwe

In 2000, Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe proposed a referendum to his nation’s constitution that would allow the government to seize land without compensation to landowners.

Summary of Event

Zimbabwe was once a British colony known as Rhodesia. Although the country gained its independence, the effects of colonialism still remain. In order to reap the full benefits of its colony, Britain redistributed the arable farmland in Zimbabwe and allotted the land to a small group of elite citizens of British descent. As a result of this redistribution, the majority of the Zimbabwean population was left landless and in poverty. The colonial landowners continued to possess the majority of productive land into the twenty-first century. Zimbabwe;land reform
[kw]Land Reform Sparks Controversy in Zimbabwe (Feb., 2000)
[kw]Reform Sparks Controversy in Zimbabwe, Land (Feb., 2000)
[kw]Controversy in Zimbabwe, Land Reform Sparks (Feb., 2000)
[kw]Zimbabwe, Land Reform Sparks Controversy in (Feb., 2000)
Zimbabwe;land reform
[g]Africa;Feb., 2000: Land Reform Sparks Controversy in Zimbabwe[10600]
[g]Zimbabwe;Feb., 2000: Land Reform Sparks Controversy in Zimbabwe[10600]
[c]Agriculture;Feb., 2000: Land Reform Sparks Controversy in Zimbabwe[10600]
[c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Feb., 2000: Land Reform Sparks Controversy in Zimbabwe[10600]
Mugabe, Robert
Short, Clare
Kangai, Kumbirai
Foulkes, George

Despite Zimbabwean independence, the elite white landowners continued to rule the nation. Disagreements among these landowning groups eventually escalated into a civil war. The British government was forced to oversee peace negotiations that culminated in the elections of 1980. Robert Mugabe, the head of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) party, was elected almost unanimously.

Mugabe’s ideology was parallel to African liberationists of the 1960’s. He was strong and ruthless, heavily anti-Western, suspicious of capitalism, and deeply intolerant of dissent and opposition. His appeal was anchored by the fact that he was a native of Zimbabwe—not of British descent—and a proponent of major land reform. Mugabe insisted that in order to alleviate the extreme poverty of the majority of Zimbabweans, arable land had to be removed from the hands of the few and redistributed among the masses. His promise to improve the economic situation of Zimbabwe made him a popular leader, but his reign was not without controversy. The nation still required billions of dollars in aid from Britain for economic survival, and there were reports of mass genocide and disappearances of Mugabe’s opponents.

As early as 1985, Mugabe’s government tried to implement land redistribution policies. In 1985, the Land Acquisition Act allowed the government to purchase farmland from willing owners to be redistributed among the poor. In 1992, the act was changed to allow the government to purchase land without consent, with farmers receiving a certain degree of compensation. Despite the new policy, very few of Zimbabwe’s peasants were actually given land. Mugabe was accused of giving the newly acquired farmland to his supporters instead. This accusation was economically detrimental because it caused the British, fearing its financial aid was used incorrectly, to cut down on its level of assistance.

Even with the 1985 Land Acquisition Act Land Acquisition Act (Zimbabwe, 1985) in place, many landowners refused to cooperate. Frustrated with the inability to redistribute Zimbabwe’s land in its entirety and at a fast enough pace, Mugabe’s administration proposed that the country’s constitution be rewritten. The new constitution would contain a land redistribution policy that elite landowners would be unable to avoid or slow down. This policy required landowners to give up portions of their land at the government’s request without any form of compensation. The new constitutional policy appeared on a referendum in February of 2000.

The Movement for Democratic Change Movement for Democratic Change (Zimbabwe) (MDC), which was composed of landowners and others in opposition to the referendum, defeated Mugabe’s proposal. The MDC, along with Western governments that disagreed with Mugabe’s land-reform policies, insisted that Mugabe’s economic solutions—namely, the seizure of property—worked in the short term but did not create a more sustainable economy for the long term. It seemed that Mugabe’s long struggle to redistribute land had been defeated for good. However, a few weeks after the referendum was defeated, members of the ZANU party and other Mugabe supporters began forcibly taking over land that belonged to the elite landowners without support of the law. Beginning in 2000, thousands of white farmers had their land confiscated by Mugabe supporters.

In an attempt to force peasants into rural farming areas, Mugabe instituted a relocation policy known as Operation Murambatsvina, or Operation Restore Order. Operation Murambatsvina
Operation Restore Order The purpose of this operation was to bulldoze shantytowns in order to force peasants out of cities and onto farms in rural areas. Hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless due to Operation Murambatsvina. Critics claim that Mugabe instituted this policy to punish people who voted against him in the past. This exemplifies why foreign and domestic critics referred to Mugabe as a dictator and an ineffective, power-hungry leader who was unconcerned about the well-being of his people.

Zimbabwe’s struggle for land reform was a pervasive sub-Saharan African dilemma: Many countries throughout the region continued to suffer from similar postcolonial struggles. Global organizations and world leaders agreed that in order to help African countries rise out of poverty, resources and wealth had to be redistributed more equally. However, instead of economically elevating the lower class, fast-paced policies like Mugabe’s seemed to bring more poverty.


The seizure of white landowners’ property caused an economic collapse, as white landowners began fleeing Zimbabwe in large numbers. Out of fear for their safety, landowners cut their losses and took their investments elsewhere. The drop in income that the emigration produced left Zimbabwe—once a huge agricultural producer in Africa—incredibly impoverished. The lack of agricultural production increased extreme poverty and created a society threatened continually by ever-present starvation. Mugabe responded to criticism by claiming that foreign governments—namely, the United Kingdom and the United States—sabotaged the Zimbabwean economy as punishment for his strict land-reform policies. Zimbabwe;land reform

Further Reading

  • Chigara, Ben. Land Reform Policy: The Challenge of Human Rights Law. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 2004. Discusses the problem of postcolonial land rights and distribution.
  • Goebel, Allison. Gender and Land Reform: The Zimbabwe Experience. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005. Describes the issue of land reform in Zimbabwe and how the unequal land distribution has affected the women of the country.
  • Kangai, Hon Kumbirai. “Zimbabwe: The Spark.” New African 415 (February, 2003): 52-54. Contains a letter from the British international development minister to Zimbabwe’s minister of agriculture focusing on the role of the British government in resolving issues of land reform in Zimbabwe.
  • Moyo, Sam. Land Reform Under Structural Adjustment in Zimbabwe: Land Use Change in the Machonaland Provinces. Somerset, N.J.: Transaction, 2000. Studies the issues of land usage, redistribution, and allocation in Zimbabwe.

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