The Fast Track Land Reform Program (FTLRP) in Zimbabwe, which seized and redistributed land from white farm and estate owners, is highly contested and debated. The program has brought about marked change to the relationship between traditional authorities and the state.
Problems and Purpose
Historically, unpromising circumstances have undercut traditional authorities’ efforts for land restitution; unequal distribution of land, a result of colonial rule, has sparked land disputes but also protests leading up to the FTLRP. The Rhodesian colonial state dating back to the 19th century distorted, demoted, elevated, and relocated traditional leaders, which in return exacerbated boundary conflict lines (Dande & Mujere, 2019, p. 89). These actions by colonial administration created competing versions of history among chiefs and their people, making the issue of land restitution significantly complex. The ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front) government’s unwillingness to address restitutive land reform only exacerbated the situation and led to traditional leaders and their people asserting land claims by occupying their ancestral lands (p. 91).
The rise of participatory action, precisely protests, by traditional authorities and their people represented a key shift in how land was governed in the country. A key example is Chief Svosve and his people occupying ancestral lands as a form of protest in response to the government’s disregard toward land disputes. Not all political action was peaceful. In some cases, violence erupted, worsening land disputes between chieftaincies and making agreements and resettlement less probable. This is exemplified in the land disputes between two chieftaincies in Masvingo Province, a conflict that dates back to the early 20th century (Dande & Mujere, 2019, p. 93). Therefore, the restitution of ancestral lands in Zimbabwe is entangled with matters of colonial legacy, factional politics, and resistance by the ruling party to create a viable policy program and has given rise to a wide range of political participation.
Background History and Context
Traditional authorities in Zimbabwe have endured distortion and denial through various phases of institutional reform during both colonial and post-colonial eras, however such changes have been unsuccessful in uprooting them (Chigwata, 2015, p. 441). Since the late 19th century, the British South Africa Company (BSAC) occupied land now known as Zimbabwe. During this time, the BSAC undermined, dismantled, and delegitimized pre-existing authorities. British colonial rule encouraged European settlement in those lands and replaced systems of governance of chiefs with national and local institutions that appointed traditional leaders as colonial government officials responsible for their communities (Chigwata, 2015, p. 447).
The year 1923 marked the end of BSAC rule and the territory was declared a British colony with self-government; albeit, the sentiment toward traditional authorities remained unfavorable (Chigwata, 2015, p. 447). Following the collapse of the Federation of Rhodesia–Nyasaland, the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) of 1965 created a new set of policies, which, to the detriment of traditional authorities, created colonial reserves and damaged native culture, traditions and customs (Chigwata, 2015, pp. 446-447).
Thus, the deeply rooted colonial legacy of Zimbabwe presents burdensome challenges of claiming ancestral lands lost under the colonial rule. After gaining independence in 1980, “[…] the ZANU-PF government had embarked on a deliberate policy to weaken the institution of traditional leadership” (Chigwata, 2015, p.448). This propensity has endured, and can be observed throughout the Fast Track Land Reform Program (FTLRP), as the government continuously undermined or, in some cases, ignored requests to create a program to address restitutive land claims.
As the ZANU-PF ruling party deliberately and repeatedly refused to consider land claims, chieftaincies protested (Dande & Mujere, 2019, p. 89). The actions of Chief Enoch Zenda Svosve of the Mashonaland East Province exemplify this citizen action; the chief and his people “[…] occupied Duskop and Chipesa Farms in 1997, justifying their actions on the basis that these were their ancestral lands […]” (Dande & Mujere, 2019, p. 90). The protests carried out by Chief Svosve led to important change, whereby many land restitution claims cropped up in the public domain spurring discussions of restitutive land reform (Dande & Mujere, 2019, p. 90).
The Fast Track Land Reform Program (FTLRP) is thus the keystone of structural shifts in Zimbabwe; historical and political disputes shaped much of the country’s discourse concerning land claims and traditional authorities. The legacy of colonial rule—deliberate elimination of culture, history, language and tradition—continues to be the fundamental root cause for efforts for decentralization, whereby distorted versions of history are contested among traditional leaders and government authorities.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Stakeholder engagement and public commitment through strengthening opposition marked a shift in the government’s response to various policy measures. Driven by the same motivations, a host of actors and organized groups, namely chieftaincies, sparked confrontations over land claims and as a result caused a wave of protest across the country. Consequently, political will and institutional change were crucial factors for Zimbabwe’s Fast Track Land Reform Program (FTLRP) to expedite land restitution claims and resettlements. However, the adjustments made by the ZANU-PF government were not coincidental.
Initially, the launch of land reforms did not bring significant changes to traditional authorities seeking to return land lost during the colonial period because of racially discriminatory laws and practices. The subsequent protests of dissatisfaction with the ZANU-PF government, alongside deliberate land occupations, affected the government’s obstinate stance on land restitution, leading to constructive changes.
As land reform and redistribution came into effect following the FTLRP, traditional leaders and their people did not receive the recognition nor the aid they had hoped from the state. Dande & Mujere (2019) argue that traditional authorities, through continuous and determined action, were able to pressure the government to progressively eliminate laws that would prevent or toughen land claims based on restitution (p. 90).
Mobilization and persistence of chieftaincies was essential for better land restitution outcomes in Zimbabwe; the political and institutional stance on the issue of land restitution was reactive rather than proactive. Chieftaincies had to take the issue upon themselves and promote action to foment a response from the government.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Traditional authorities in Zimbabwe present unique characteristics that served key roles during the land reform process. Historical implications have constituted the distortion and incessant erosion of power and self-governance. Notwithstanding, traditional authorities receive a great deal of respect and authority by surrounding rural communities. They are appointed from the pertinent community in abidance with traditional norms of succession. Traditional leaders hold office for life unless removed for misconduct and village heads are appointed by the Minister responsible for traditional affairs (Chigwata, 2016, p. 73). Increasingly, more women have been appointed to hold office and social customs have been moderately progressing in traditional leadership systems (Chigwata, 2016, p. 73).
Traditional authorities and their people, citizens, and government authorities contributed toward the evolution of the land reform program and its future trajectory in Zimbabwe. Since the late 1990s, fragmentation and mobilization of certain groups, including rival groups between chieftaincies, led to broader and consequential impacts. Chiefs and their followers, by occupying ancestral lands, generated an essential dispute mechanism in the country. The example of Chief Svosve and his followers forcefully occupying land explains why many new land claims erupted swiftly and government response shifted from formidable to a more flexible, or rather receptive approach. Hence, the FTLRP and land claims based on restitution can be interpreted as a quintessential example of citizen participation—transformative, empowering and displaying inclusion of many chieftaincies and their aims of fairness and justice.
Methods and Tools Used
Redistribution and decentralization are the fundamental principles of the Fast Track Land Reform Program (FTLRP) in Zimbabwe (Mkodzongi & Lawrence, 2019, p. 1). The Traditional Leaders Act of 1990 positioned chiefs at the center of rural politics; the ‘resurgence’ of traditional authorities came along due to the severe impacts of failed government initiatives, including neoliberal macro-economic policies led by the World Bank (Mkodzongi, 2016, p. 102). The international community widely supported the land reform process by providing funding for resettlement projects. However, only a small percentage of this was used for land resettlement by the central government (Irigoyen, 2017). Redistribution enabled Zimbabweans to gain access to land and resettlement initiatives restored land rights for communities dispossessed during the colonial era. A majority of the richest land remained in the hands of white commercial farmers, leaving rural communities in poverty and stripped of land (Irigoyen, 2017).
Local politics, deployment of ancestral autochthony to claim authority over newly settled areas were strategic tactics of customary authorities to gain leverage over the state (Mkodzongi, 2016, p. 102). Decentralization, through deliberate citizen action, occurred from the bottom-up where chieftaincies transgressed strict lines of the established standard of behavior by the ZANU-PF government. Per contra, factional politics within the ruling party alongside powerful political figures played a crucial role in advancing new rounds of chiefly boundary disputes (Dande & Mujere, 2016, pp. 95-96).
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Decentralization holds the power of widening opportunities for citizen participation at local levels, enforcing vertical ‘checks and balances’ that keep central and regional/local governments in check (Chigwata, 2015, p. 443). Since declaring independence in 1980, the ZANU-PF issued a series of directives intended to encourage decentralization and democratic participation, however such measures did not bear consideration on traditional authorities or their recognition (Chigwata, 2015, p. 449). Zimbabwe’s land reform program presents significant obstacles and challenges that citizens collectively, through clanship and factionalism, had to overcome. At the core of ancestral land restitution and resettlement disputes is the dismantlement of highly concentrated and consolidated power. Zimbabwe’s Fast Track Land Reform Program (FTLRP) stimulated a movement toward engaged and steadfast citizen action, pressuring government involvement and response.
In March 1999, Chief Mbaimbai Chiduku, based on the Traditional Leaders Act, claimed that the vast area of the Makoni District were his ancestral lands and thus started appointing his village heads in that area (Dande & Mujere, 2019, p. 91). Chiefs Makoni, Chipunza, Tandi and Chikore were not satisfied and considered the actions as an encroachment into their territory, causing an internal territorial boundary dispute (Dande & Mujere, 2019, p. 91). Numerous chiefs started assigning headmen to the same areas as counter-claims: both Chief Makoni and Chief Chiduku had their headmen residing in the same areas, which prompted Chief Chiduku to file a report to government officials stating his area of jurisdiction was impinged (Dande & Mujere, 2019, p. 91).
Disputes among traditional leaders prove to be a complex and deep-seated matter, and cannot be understood ahistorically. As mentioned above, colonial rule constructed competing forms of land title, a reality that intensified conflict amongst traditional leaders. Dande & Mujere (2019) discuss that the case study of Makoni District exemplifies how traditional leaders were active in resettling their people, filing petitions to government authorities and occupying lands in order to assert their land claims (p. 91). Participation and interaction of customary authorities, government institutions and local citizens further reinstate that the Fast Track Land Reform Program (FTLRP) was a wide-ranging initiative that involved a multitude of stakeholders.
The use and deployment of oral traditions, archives, histographies and narratives to strengthen lands claims is a fundamental element of traditional authorities’ tactics. Chief Enoch Zenda Svosve’s of the Mashonaland East Province occupation of the Duskop and Chipesa Farms in 1997 sparked the movement toward chieftaincies utilizing moral geographies to fill the gaps in literature of claiming ancestral lands, and more so it transformed the relationship between traditional leaders and the ZANU-PF government during and post-FTLRP (Dande & Mujere, 2019, p. 87).
Such communication and wide-spread public engagement led to drastic changes, whereby provincial and district administrators, planning officers had to act as intermediaries in traditional boundary disputes during the Fast Track Land Reform Program (Dande & Mujere, 2019, p. 94).Dating back to 1982, the disputes between Chief Chikwanda and Chief Makore in Masvingo Province prove that political and bureaucratic interests complicated land restitution claims, and the government’s new case-by-case approach meant that Zimbabwe’s High Court would be making final decisions on various cases (Dande & Mujere, 2019, pp. 94-95).
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The Fast Track Land Reform Program (FTLRP) produced far-reaching political and social reforms that significantly impacted Zimbabwe’s ancestral land claims discourse. Disruptive in its nature, traditional authorities and their people sprang into the public domain through active and participatory citizenship by rejecting the institutional and governmental structure of manipulation and diminishment. President Mugabe and the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) received harsh criticism for using the land issue as a political tool to advance their position and fend off concerns of MDC’s (Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai) growing influence (Mlambo, 2005, p. 17).
The Fast Track Land Reform Program has been accused of abusing human rights, inciting violence and political favoritism many times over. According to Irigoyen (2017), the FTLRP led to significant rates of violence, for the most part by the ZANU-PF militias, and even army involvement. Occupiers, who redistributed land under the FTLRP, manipulated bureaucratic legal procedures and resorted to the courts to gain access to land. Consequentially, customary authorities laid out versions of history through oral tradition, histories, and archival files to claim control of the resettled territories (Mlambo, 2005, p. 9). The institutional, organizational, and societal change following the FTLRP implies that citizen involvement played a key role in addressing Zimbabwe’s fundamental issues predating the post-colonial period.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
There are three fundamental phases of Zimbabwe’s government attitude toward traditional authorities claiming ancestral lands lost during colonial rule. According to Dande & Mujere (2019), those periods include: between 1980 and 1997 when the ruling party strongly opposed land restitution; from 1997 to 2008, the government supported select restitution claims; and from 2014 until 2017, three distinct chieftaincies were restored (pp. 97-98). Over the span of 37 years, it is evident that the government was disinclined to draft a nation-wide, comprehensive land reform policy to address and facilitate ancestral land claims.
Amongst the many changes that occurred post-FTLRP, the adoption of a new Constitution in 2013 helps understand the transformative nature of decentralization. Zimbabwe’s new Constitution provided a unitary state with three levels of government (national, provincial/metropolitan, and local). Rural areas are administered by local authorities and, crucially, institutions comprised of customary leaders and chiefs (Chigwata, 2015, p. 442).
Approximately 272 chiefs, 452 headmen and 25,000 village heads administer several villages in Zimbabwe’s rural areas (Chigwata, 2015, p. 442). Transformative change in Zimbabwe’s rural governance through the adoption of a new Constitution explains the underpinning principle of active and participatory citizenship. As Nyamnjoh (2007) discusses, one can observe an upsurge of rights claims, politics of recognition, and representation by small-scale groups claiming autochthony (pp. 73-74).
President Mugabe received severe criticism for alleged human rights violations and a lack of transparency concerning the FTLRP. In 2000, citizens rejected a constitutional referendum on allowing the government to implement the FTLRP based on compulsory land acquisitions (Shay, 2012, p. 139). Despite the outcome of the referendum, President Mugabe passed constitutional Amendments 16A and 16B that permitted the government to acquire land without safeguards; such course of action by the ZANU-PF ruling party has been accused of violating due process and standards recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (Shay, 2012, pp. 139-156).
The critical assessment of Zimbabwe’s FTLRP proves to be based on reasonable concern; the land reform program’s judicial and constitutional aspect, and its deployment explains how the state’s central authority was able to grasp power and enact legal frameworks, leaving large questions marks looming in the shadows. Hence, the collective action by traditional authorities and their followers, farmers, peasants jointly constitute a remarkable rejection of institutional power that is not held accountable.
Evidently, the Fast Track Land Reform Program was a structural and institutional policy that implemented measures to completely reshape Zimbabwe’s land resettlement. The deconstruction of colonial rule legacy, abolition of white owned farms and estates was executed through a highly centralized, government-controlled, process. Customary leaders and their followers received little support or encouragement by the state to pursue land claims based on restitution, and in some cases restoration of chieftaincies occurred due to political expediency.
Above all, the continuous engagement of customary authorities and their efforts to use oral histographies in claiming ancestral lands led to major breakthroughs in restoring chieftaincies previously eliminated by colonial powers. Thus, dismantling exclusion and underrepresentation of citizens by the state takes a mobilized, strategic, and dynamic approach—such as that used by many chieftaincies across Zimbabwe. While it’s the case that two political aims of decentralization and land distribution have been most important in achieving change, the conflicting nature and weak alignment of the FTLRP resulted in highly politicized, violent outcomes not based on equality and justice.
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The initial version of the case was produced and submitted by an undergraduate student at the Centre for Critical Development Studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough with the support of UofT graduate students, Kieran Way, Reem Sheikh-Khalil, and Nyanquoi Suah.