When Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land was published earlier this year, it opened a debate that had been raging quietly in academia since 2010: Is it possible the results of the landgrabs of 2000 in Zimbabwe have not been all bad?
The answer, as the data and anecdotal evidence contained in this book make obvious, is that there is indeed a big upside to the story.
A decade after 170 000 black farmers occupied 4 000 white, mostly large-scale commercial farms, the new farmers had already started doing relatively well.
It appeared they were improving their lives and becoming increasingly productive, particularly after the US dollar became the local currency.
The new farmers, on their smaller parcels of land, solved many of their problems creatively and are now farming more of the land than was the case before.
The book also makes the argument that US and EU sanctions against Zimbabwe unintentionally hobble these 170 000 new landowners.
While they are mostly producing tobacco (the benefits of which are debatable), there are also encouraging examples of people who produce food, such as Fanuel Mutandiro, who had to make 70 trips to Mbare Market in Harare with a tractor and trailer full of tomatoes before he could afford a truck.
And Esther Makwara, the authors tell us, can produce 8 tons of maize per hectare, reportedly better than what the white farmers could do.
The humanity and the ingenuity of these black farmers deserve to be applauded. But the book has also faced criticism for not making clear that, although it is not all bad news, it is hard to argue with the fact that the overall effect of violent landgrabs and the more recent economic policies of Zanu-PF have still left Zimbabwe considerably worse off than it was in the 1990s.
While sanctions can, of course, be blamed for much of this, agricultural output remains below the levels it was during the years of commercial farming and food output is still critically low, with Zimbabwe continuing to be a net importer of food instead of the significant exporter that it used to be.
The book’s writers also tend to gloss over the fact that, while farm ownership has been transferred to 170 000 black farmers, the actual numbers of people employed in the farming sector has not grown substantially and output per worker is considerably less. On average, farm workers are also earning less than they used to.
All the same, this book has been a welcome antidote to the dominant paradigm that no good could possibly have come from Zimbabwe’s “farming revolution”.
A foundation has indeed been set to allow the black population to own most of the country’s land and it’s an experiment with far-reaching consequences, particularly uncomfortable ones for farmers in South Africa. But what is also clear is that a book like this, while refreshing in its open-mindedness to assessing the other side of the story, is far from comprehensive or conclusive.
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