For Zimbabwe’s white commercial farmers still remaining on the land, it was news worth the wait. It wasn’t certainly the best, that is if they choose to nitpick about the difference between a 99-year lease and a title deed. But most got far better than they had bargained for.
President Mnangagwa’s administration this week ordered that all the remaining white commercial farmers be immediately issued with 99-year leases. This is a change from the previous position when they were required to renew their leases every five years.
We commend the new administration for this gesture, our hope being that the farmers will reciprocate the gesture through productivity and not look a “gift” horse in the mouth. What the Government is doing is to instil confidence in the economy to get farmers to commit themselves to their enterprises through investment.
Five-year lease renewals were definitely not conducive to long-term planning and investment, but Government could very easily have chosen to let the status quo ante continue while focusing on empowering the new black farmers.
But this is part of President Mnangagwa’s pledge to do things differently. Government embarked on the fast-track land reform programme to correct land ownership imbalances which favoured a minority race at the expense of the majority.
The land was the biggest motivating factor for all the Chimurenga wars. So there is no debating the merits or demerits of the programme. That is why the President himself has repeated that the land reform is irreversible, while at the same time appealing to the beneficiaries to use land maximally for both food self-sufficiency and as the anchor for economic development.
Implementation of the land reform programme had its challenges. Quite expected for such a mammoth undertaking which involved reclaiming millions of hectares of prime land held by a recalcitrant minority who literally refused to share with blacks who had been condemned to barren Tribal Trust Lands by successive colonial regimes.
In the midst of rising emotions among poor blacks against such white commercial farmers, Government still managed to accommodate those who were prepared to cooperate and work harmoniously with the authorities.
The result was that some white commercial farmers offered to downsize their land holdings and share with blacks. That way they were able to keep their farmhouses and a huge portion of the farm. Others who had more than one farm opted to surrender the excess to Government for resettlement of blacks. They then kept the one which they could use most productively.
There were also white commercial farmers who had invested in specialised enterprises such as horticulture, dairy farming and cattle breeding. Government was sensible enough to say these should be left to continue producing for the nation. We believe such are among the more than 200 farmers who remained and have now been rewarded with 99-year leases.
This has nothing to do with the new administration seeking to reverse the land reform programme, or a failure by blacks to farm as insinuated by cynics. The 99-year leases are obviously work in progress and ultimately the farmers will be given title if they can demonstrate commitment and that they are not keeping land for speculative purposes.
This applies equally to blacks. A Land Commission has been set up to ensure beneficiaries of the land reform programme put it to good use, that those who grabbed more than they can chew surrender part of it and that other Zimbabweans who have the interest and the means to farm do get land.
What the latest gesture by the new administration has done with the 99-year leases granted to the remaining white commercial farmers is simply to demonstrate that land reform was not about race. It was about equity and an imperative to restore, wherever possible, land to its black owners.
Our message to the new white beneficiaries is therefore that they get down to work, do the best they can for their country and in the words of the President, “let bygones be bygones”.