Clement Chipenda, PhD
Clement Chipenda, PhD
An interview with our Fellow Clement Chipenda about the social impact of the land reform in Zimbabwe, the consequences of the pandemic-related lockdown and his current research with our colleague Alex Veit.

About 20 years ago Zimbabwe has started the so-called fast-track land reform programme, redistributing about 7 million hectares of land. For a start, let’s recall what the motives for this programme had been.

Officially, the motive behind it was to reverse the legacy of colonialism. When colonialism ended in 1980, the number of white commercial farmers was about 6000. They owned 15 million hectares of prime agricultural land. At the same time almost a million black households were confined to communal areas, i.e. areas or former native reserves that were set aside during colonialism. The motive for the reform was officially, to try to redistribute the land equally. There had been attempts to do so in the decades after independence, but the area having been redistributed was very limited. Around the year 2000, when the fast track land reform programme began, only 75000 families have been resettled. In 1982 the target had been to resettle 182 000 families.

As you mention, the former attempts to redistribute the land had more or less failed: Why did the government in 2000 decide to push for this definite cut with the post-colonial system and pushed for the full implementation of the land reform?

The ruling party was facing increasing political opposition at that time. And there was also disgruntlement because veterans that had fought in the war, ordinary citizens and peasants were also demanding land - it remained the unfinished business of the liberation war. The process of the land reform started with farm occupations. The government initially enforced the law and was trying to evict the people occupying the farms. But in the end the pressure became too high so that the government also came on board and began to spearhead the land reform. These were the motives, but it was politically motivated and different people give different interpretations of the reform.

How is your take on the outcomes, 20 years later?

Usually people are analysing it in terms of its impact on the economy and the agricultural output, the analysis is always production oriented. The pressure to do so is made even worse because agriculture is key to the country's economy. But there are many bottlenecks and challenges in place. In terms of production you find that some people are not being as productive as they had been expected to be, but this is because of different challenges, e.g. expertise, lack of access to finance and markets and this is combined with other factors like droughts, climate change effects, obsolete infrastructure which make people conclude that the outcomes are bad. There are however other outcomes which are 20 years later can be seen as being positive, people now have access to a productive resource the land and associated access to natural resources which they never had before, they now have shelter and other numerous social reproduction and protection outcomes which have in different ways transformed people’s lives. Unfortunately, 20 years after the reforms, Zimbabwe has a serious food deficit, and at the moment 60% of the population needs support in terms of food. It’s a consequence of a combination of different factors but in such a situation the reforms are blamed. That's why you see different government initiatives to cover some of these production and food deficit gaps. But it is always a challenging situation.

In what respect has the new government’s policy changed?

The new government has a different approach to dealing with the land reform. The former administration was looking at the political context – for them the land had to be returned to the indigenous people as a final phase in the decolonization process.

The new government identified agriculture as the main driver for the economic development of Zimbabwe as a whole. Its approach is more or less along neo-liberal lines. They want to make agriculture profitable; the land should be productive. For the past year, we have read media reports on senior government officials’ threats that if resettled farmers are not productive, the land could be taken away from them. You need to understand that the land is owned by government, not by the individual who only has usufruct rights over it so the owner which is the government can withdraw those rights at any time. The government has also been encouraging peasants to find investors interested in assisting financially, so there is a huge difference between the old and news administrations when it comes to policy.

Do you see international investors coming into Zimbabwe already?

I don’t think the environment at the moment is conducive for investors, there are too many uncertainties, economic instability, bad publicity, political polarisation and sometimes policy inconsistency. These are the conditions which the country needs to get corrected if investors are to come and investors always look for a stable environment and I don’t think our country offers that at the moment. There is the question of tenure security. Reports of evictions, farm invasions, lack of respect of court orders and the rule of law make investors shy away from investing on the land as they see that there is no tenure security. People only invest, if they know that their investment is guaranteed, an unstable economy does not provide such guarantees. I think, as a country we still have a long way before those guarantees of investment security are made, the general situation in Zimbabwe is not yet stable enough for international investors. They are many who are interested but I think they are waiting by the side-lines and will move when the situation stabilises, for now I think the country is attractive to investors who just want to make a quick profit but leave no long term development.

You have studied the land reform intensively during your PhD. What was your focus?

I looked at the land reform as a social policy. My thesis was framed around the question how the land reform had affected people's livelihoods fifteen years after. I was trying to move away from the old debates that were solely focusing on the production questions, human rights violations and how the land reform processes were supposed to have been undertaken. My focus was to try and see if it is possible to look at land reform as a social policy instrument that is comparable to other social policies like pensions, social grants, education and other social welfare interventions. In this context, I was saying that giving people land, which is a productive a resource or currency, can be compared with for example social grants. My basic logic was thus, land as a redistributed resource should have outcomes that improve the welfare and livelihoods of people. If you look at any social policy it should have social protection outcomes, it should contribute to redistribution of resources and social cohesion and I felt that land, if redistributed, can have these outcomes. My focus was thus on individual households as I felt that at this level the outcomes were more evident. That's why I was looking at the household instead of the entire agricultural sector. I then proceeded to explore the idea that if land reform is a social policy, to what extent has it improved peoples’ livelihoods? What are the challenges? What are the small things that it has contributed to peoples’ lives? This was within the broader context of looking at how it had enhanced the welfare and wellbeing of peasant households.

It is probably hard to generalize the outcomes in this respect. But if you try to sum it up: What are the effects of the land reform on the household level?

I cannot generalize it for the whole country but only for the area that I was studying which is a district called Goromonzi in Mashonaland East Province of Zimbabwe. Even the area that I was studying has its own dynamics - for example it has fertile soils, favourable climatic conditions and is one of the best regions in the country so if you compare it with other areas even those nearby land reform outcomes differ. These factors contribute to how the landform has impacted on households. I was doing a comparison with people that live in the former reserve areas. In terms of production, the beneficiaries had slightly higher returns, because their counterparts live in poor areas with poor soils and lower rainfall. They also have better access to inputs, extension services and irrigation infrastructure so returns are higher.

In terms of marketing the beneficiaries of the land reform were better off because they have developed their own unique agricultural marketing networks and have support from the government and private companies some of whom they have contract farming arrangements, so this has contributed to improved incomes. And in terms of social protection, the land had actually become an asset that they could better use to protect themselves from risks and shocks compared to those who have smaller pieces of land or who did not have any land at all.

And there were also social and cultural dimensions to the reform. By having land, they actually have a place to stay, and I like to refer to it as a rural home. Members of the family who are facing challenges, even if they live in urban areas, have a place to go to in case of crisis like unemployment and poverty. Another dynamic that I was observing: People are practicing their traditional rituals at their places; they are having places for burials of their loved ones. These are aspects that are being ignored in the general narrative of the land reform but for African people traditions, culture and the linkage between the people and the land is something that is of much importance. The approach that I used in my thesis was not something conventional hence there were a lot of questions, but I think the logic was acceptable and was awarded the PhD. Since the award in 2019, I think the idea of land reform as a social policy instrument is becoming acceptable, I have even published some articles on it.

Let's look at the very recent situation - how does Covid-19 affect the rural population, especially with respect to food security?

Due to Covid-19, a lean 2019-2020 agricultural season and drought in Zimbabwe it is estimated that about 8 million people will be in need of food aid this year. The pandemic has disrupted agricultural production, planning for this season and the markets. Farmers and rural residents cannot go about their normal businesses and routines because Zimbabwe has been in lockdown since April, initially for two weeks but now the lockdown is indefinite. Movement is restricted, agricultural markets were initially closed but now partially opened. In many ways everyday life is disrupted. It's made worse because many people are employed in the informal sector - so when cities are shut down, it impacts a lot on people's livelihoods, it is difficult to generate income and it disrupts value chains at all levels. In terms of food security there are challenges as people cannot produce or purchase food. Some inputs are not accessible, some imported products have become very expensive, productive activities if not restricted are limited so this impacts in many ways on the food systems. For Zimbabwe, this is in a context where there is high unemployment with many families relying on remittances from other countries, especially from South Africa. When the country faced its own Covid-19 pandemic and closed down, this affected those working and sending remittances here and made sending and receiving money complicated, so Covid-19 had been a challenge.

How do the people deal with this situation in their everyday lives?

Farming was declared an essential service, so that the agricultural production wouldn't be disrupted, but it does not operate in a vacuum so what has been happening in other sectors of the economy has also affected the farming and rural communities. They have had to find different ways of coping. But overally, I think the pandemic has negatively affected a lot of people especially those in the informal sector and people living in the urban areas. They have their water bills to pay, they need to pay rent, they need to buy food, some have extended families to look after - how do they manage if they are not able to work? This becomes a challenge and even for those who work, working hours are restricted, customers are forced to stay at home and some trade in imported goods which are not coming as the borders are closed and even when they come the freight charges are exorbitant so it is a big challenge. In this situation people are just trying to make a living but under challenging conditions, it is interesting to note that people are slowly adapting to the ‘new normal’. This challenging situation is made worse because the support system put in place by the government, I feel is opaque and not sufficient. An example is social assistance during Covid-19. Most of the support for social protection from the government is channelled through the social welfare ministry. It has been reported that it will be using its database trying to identify potential beneficiaries. That leaves many people behind as some who are in need now due to the effects of Covid-19 may not even be in that database, making a lot of people fall into the cracks. The amount of money pledged for assistance to vulnerable households by the government has been very little and it is rendered useless by the hyperinflationary environment in the country and currency fluctuations.

Zimbabwe is in lockdown for many months now. Is the population still accepting the restrictions or is there some unrest?

There are mixed feelings indeed. People are tired now, they want to move on with their lives, they want to go out and work, and provide for their families. People want the economy to be opened, especially when they see countries like South Africa systematically lifting restrictions, the feeling is that we need to relax restrictions especially since confirmed positive cases have been low. But people cannot openly express themselves or demonstrate even if they strongly feel that the whole issue is not being handled properly. Interestingly even though people feel that the stringent restrictions should be loosened, there is a fear of Covid -19 hitting the country hard like in other countries so there is always that caution.

Let’s talk briefly about your research project with Alex Veit from the CRC’s project B09, focusing on food security policies in South Africa during the last 100 years. What exactly are you looking at?

Over the past hundred years different schemes were put in place to provide food-related assistance, targeting different demographic populations in the country. During this time, South Africa has undergone political and ideological transitions. We are asking: What has been the trajectory of food security policies in the country over the past century? We then go on to explore the different food security policies that were put in place by successive administrations in order to deal with poverty induced hunger and malnutrition. Of importance is to understand the role played by different actors and to provide an argument using the South African case that food security, which is an overlooked form of public welfare provision, can provide important insight into public welfare as a central aspect of state-society relations.

Our research has interesting cases like the school feeding scheme which we look at in the pre apartheid and apartheid era, which benefitted different demographic groups but was subjected to much racialised and at times shocking narratives. The interwoven interests and agendas of politicians, industrial and agrarian capitalists, philanthropists, religious leaders, African nationalists, trade unions, women’s organisations and other interest groups are looked at in our research which also touches on the food subsidy system. The dynamics of the food subsidy system which played an important role in maintaining the apartheid regimes socio-economic and political cohesiveness, while excluding the African majority, are some of the key issues which we touch in our research. It is an interesting historical research which people should look out for.

I can imagine, the longer you go back in time, the harder it gets to analyse who influenced the political process …

That was indeed one of our challenges. There is not much literature on the specific issues that we were looking for, so are heavily reliant on materials from the archives and media reports. Newspapers were particularly useful in giving up-to-date information on what was occurring at a particular time and what was said by a person even in direct quotes for example in Parliament. We have found this to be very valuable information that has filled important gaps in our research. Searching in archives to try to understand the situation at that time has been very useful and informative. From the 1950s onwards, the material is not that difficult to find. It is the post-First World War period that is a bit challenging. The other factor is that the apartheid government at some point had restrictions on research in areas concerning food and nutrition in African communities - there is a noticeable gap in information. This explains the reason why much literature on some aspects during some historical periods is not readily available. That made our research both difficult and enlightening at the same time and using historical material has made us to understand and appreciate a lot of dynamics that occurred historically in South Africa. Our work is in an advanced stage now, but we are refining some points. We are continuously going back and forth to the archives to make clarifications, follow up on some points. Luckily the archives are digitalised so travel restrictions have not impacted too negatively on this critical aspect of our research.

Clement Chipenda