Rich girl, poor girl: Contradictions of Zimbabwe’s land reform

  • Over 70% of Zimbabweans are based in rural areas, primarily dependent on female farmers, owning small hectares of land.
  • One decade after Fast Track Land Reform begins, just 12%-16% of women are beneficiaries
  • Discrimination or invisibilisation in national laws, such as Land Reform and Resettlement Implementation Plan, elide gender.
  • Political connectivity to ZANU-PF determines which ’kinds’ of women receive land


BULAWAYO — Tabeth Dube has always wanted a piece of land to call her own. Zimbabwe’s fast track land reform programme, constructed around the platform of land redistribution - from large white commercial farmers to dispossessed and marginalised black Zimbabweans, appeared to present that opportunity.

For Zimbabweans, land - an intrinsic part of identity and belonging, remains a heavily politicised issue, the open wound that has not healed. In Zimbabwe, more than 70% of arable land in Zimbabwe was controlled or owned by white farmers who made up less than 1% of the population - the inherited legacy of colonialism.

But did redistribution from rich white to poor black, help facilitate a measure of justice?

For Dube, a 45 year-old widow, and subsistence farmer in Insiza, some 77 kilometres from Bulawayo, this was not the case. One decade after the country embarked on large scale repossession of land from white commercial famers, nothing has changed.

“It’s been tough for widows like me to get land,” Dube told FAIR, from her homestead where she tills a small piece of land left to her by her husband, also shared by another of his wives.

“He died in 2002 before benefitting from the land, like some of his colleagues,” she explained. “Being widowed, all trips I made to the local headman to ask if I could also get land were ignored.”

The ’colleagues’ to which Dube referred are fellow war veterans - the vanguards of land takeovers, insider sources explained.

Veterans of the 1970s ’War of Liberation’, like Duba’s husband, are known as staunch supporters of Zanu-PF, the party that underwrote the land seizures characterised by violence.

But as FAIR investigations revealed, ordinary women - traditional ’tillers of the land’, particularly widows of these war veterans, were ignored.

Those who were ’recognised’ as legitimate beneficiaries largely depended on politicial connectivity: within Zanu PF, the Minister of Small to Medium Enterprises and Cooperatives, Sithembiso Nyoni, took over the 3,100 hectare Fountain farm, in Insiza, a small cattle ranching rural district about 77km from Bulawayo.

This information, listed in court records disclosed from the Justice for Agriculture programme, fueled the claims of white farmers who challenged the expropriations.

The situation appeared to fare worse for worse activists of political parties whose allegiance lay elsewhere.

Samukeliso Ndlovu, an active campaigner in Insiza for the Movement for Democratic Change led by former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, for instance, did not bother:

“It was going to be a waste of time,” she said referring to any attempts at lining up for land at the local District Land Committee offices.

“We were told without any qualms that we were not going to get land,” claimed Ndlovu, echoing the sentiment propagated by some Zanu PF radicals, that the MDC sought to reverse the land reform exercise.

Inside The Fast Track

The Land Reform and Resettlement Implementation Plan did not specifically call for gender equality as land recipients. However, at the start of the Fast Track Land Reform exercise, President Mugabe, identified that women would be the recipients of at least one-fifth of all land expropriated.

Initially lobbying for 35% by critical advocacy groups such as Women and Land in Zimbabwe, a figure of 20% was decided upon, ’top down’. However, one decade after the violent takeovers, and just 12%-16% of women are estimated as recipients.

But the political dynamics evidences a further question: which women were eligible?

Sadly, those with political ’currency’ in the patronage system, including women, allocated themselves large swathes of land.

Southern Zimbabwe two provinces, Matabeleland North and South, women received just 16% and 13% of land. But investigate the gender box a little further and we learn that not all women are equal: both provinces are governed by women who have become land barons in their own right, continuing to expand claims to new farm land.

In Matebeleland South, governor Angelina Masuku, a ZANU-PF stalwart, owns more than 3,000 hectares of land; operates Crocodile and Longridge farms, and according to employees on the ground, her children also own and operate farms expropriated, as part of redistribution.

In Matabeleland North, governor Thokozile Mathuthu, owns the 2,600 hectare Dete Valley farm in Dete, some 475 km south-west of Bulawayo; the Anthonia Extension farm which measures up to 6,500 hectares in Umguza district.

"Land redistribution was extremely important, for the people, for justice," said one senior Parliamentarian from ZANU-PF, to FAIR. "But when you use the right words for the wrong reasons, eating everything, you devour not just this or that piece of land, but the whole movement because now they can say, land redistribution doesn’t work."

The Set-Up

The Report of the ’Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Lands, Agriculture, Water Development, Rural Resources and Resettlement’ listed four key recommendations to the government including facilitating

•    ’Blacks who have resources to acquire farms on their own to free up resources for the acquisition of land for those with few resources;

•    Legislates the one-household-one farm policy and applies it across the board to obviate concentrating ownership of land in a few blacks with resources;

•    Gives autonomy to provincial leadership to conclusively negotiate with farmers for land to avoid confusion and limit farm contestations stalling the programme currently.’

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Land allocation by Province

To date, court cases have been tried far and wide, including the case of Mike Campbell, heard by the SADC Tribunal, who challenged the Zimbabwe government over the expropriation of land based on race.

Yet these attempts at land audits were largely seen in monochrome: white farmers were perceived as still grabbing the unjustly acquired land of innocent peoples; and critics called investigations corrupted or weakened when senior politicians, fingered as multiple farm owners resisted the exercise.

According to government statistics, though 70 % of rural farmers are women, the predominant producers of subsistence agriculture, only 12 % received land under the reform exercise.

A Tale of Two Models

Zimbabwe’s land reform exercise was implemented around two models: the A1 and A2.

A1 are small tracts of land parceled out to smallholders or rural households for subsistence farming; A2 farms were allocated for large scale commercial farming, claimed by everyone, including senior Zanu PF politicians.

A1 farms average 40 hectares, a far cry from the large properties owned by female politicians in Matabeleland.

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Matebeleland North land allocation
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Matebeleland South land allocation

While District Land Committees were expected to vet who received land, powerful figures simply pointed at what were seen as choice farms and claimed them as their own.

Due to the militant nature of the land occupations, few women took part in the exercise that claimed the lives of white farmers, effectively watching from the sidelines as even Government’s own offer letters were not extended to them.

“What I am aware of is that women did not particularly feature in many discussions about land allocations as it was one of those unsaid things that their husbands would get the land,” one District Land Committee official said, asking his name to be withheld.

“We are aware senior female politicians allocated themselves land but what could we do?" he asked. "That is just how it was done all over the country."

Rich girl, Poor girl

It is public record, for example, that the First Lady, Grace Mugabe, took over thriving dairy farms and has made no attempts to deny claims that she owns multiple farms, some of which are allegedly under proxies - names of others, concealing beneficial ownership. President Mugabe owns more than 40 farms, excluding proxies.

One female Zanu PF politician, stated that unless women were “visible” in party operations at local level, it was always going to be difficult for them to get land.

“It’s something that was talked about but never pursued,” she said. "It’s a problem that we have seen in Matabeleland, where people came from other provinces to take land."

“I got land because I did not sit, and wait, for anyone to think maybe I want the land, ” said the ZANU official.

Certainly. But as we learned, it is largely those women rich in politicial connectivity, playing within masculinised power politics, that get what they want. The system was not created to for the ’poor girl’, but those already enriched.