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Zimbabwe must consider compensating white farmers

By Addmore Zhou

“An evil remains an evil whether practiced by white against black or by black against white. Our majority rule could easily turn into inhuman rule if we oppressed, persecuted or harassed those who do not look or think like the majority of us”.

Farm invaders taunt white farmer
Farm invaders taunt white farmer

These were the words of Prime Minister elect Robert Mugabe on the eve of the country’s independence celebrations in 1980. Whilst the words remain stubbornly true and more relevant today, the man’s actions have since drifted away from them.

The independence celebrations were a culmination of a protracted war of liberation which was triggered by a cocktail of injustices perpetrated against blacks by the Rhodesian white minority regime. Chief among them was the issue of land which was grabbed from majority blacks and distributed among few white settlers of European decent particularly Britain.

Robert Mugabe’s speech was welcomed by all and sundry as it contained positive glimpses of the way the man was going to govern the new country. He came out as a benign leader who amorously espoused the principles of togetherness, racial integration and reconciliation.

Decades later, his handling of the land reform program revealed some worrying traits of malevolence, intolerance and racial hatred which contrasted sharply with his founding vision for the country.

Under his leadership, the country has degenerated into a vindictive and somewhat racist nation. There is no denying that the colonial regime was evil in both actions and purpose. There is also no denying that the land issue was central to the struggle and therefore needed to be addressed urgently.

But how was it addressed and was it the right way?

From independence in 1980 up until 2000, Zimbabwe was virtually a one party State with national politics dominated by ZANU PF which had a majority in parliament. The party had enough legislative powers to pass laws which could allow and enable the country to compulsorily acquire land.

Unfortunately, little was done on the land front with the exception of a handful of acquisitions which were not enough to solve the century long grievance. Instead the government waited for more than two decades until the situation deteriorated into anarchy and chaos.

There are some unsubstantiated claims to the effect that the Lancaster House agreement and constitution did not allow the government to acquire land for resettlement and that the moratorium was to be in effect until ten years after independence.

These arguments don’t seem to be supported by any clause within the Lancaster House document. To the contrary, the Lancaster House constitution allowed the government to acquire land from farmers and land owners.

An extract from the Lancaster House constitution reads:

“Every person will be protected from having his property compulsorily acquired except when the acquisition is in the interests of defence, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, town and country planning, the development or utilisation of that or other property in such a manner as to promote the public benefit or, in the case of under- utilised land, settlement of land for agricultural purposes. When property is wanted for one of these purposes, its acquisition will be lawful only on condition that the law provides for the prompt payment of adequate compensation”.

It is evident and clear that compulsory acquisition of land was allowed. It was up to the government to provide reasons behind acquisitions and also provides compensation for acquired land. In fact, the government of Zimbabwe passed the 1985 Land Acquisition Act which gave government the powers to acquire land under the willing buyer willing seller basis and the right to first refusal of any commercial land which was available for sale.

The world over, governments have powers to acquire land forcefully provided they compensate the landowners. Public interest has to be served through the use of compulsory purchase powers allowing land to be acquired for economic and social development.

Britain itself, which is Zimbabwe’s former colonial master, has the Land Compensation Act of 1961 and other subsequent legislation such as the Land Compensation Act of 1973 which allow the country to forcefully acquire land for national good.

The issue therefore is not about whether the Zimbabwean government had the right and powers to acquire land. Rather it is about whether it was the right thing to acquire land and property without compensation.

There are genuine arguments as to why and how a new and poor government was expected to raise funding to compensate white farmers especially when the land was grabbed from blacks for free in the first place. There are also those who argue that farmers were not willing to avail land under the willing buyer willing seller basis.

Today, other regional countries such as South Africa and Namibia are grappling with land shortages for resettling landless majority. They cite the principle of willing buyer willing seller basis as an impediment to land redistribution. Like the Zimbabwean government, they do not have a clear understanding of the meaning of willing buyer willing seller, hence they are stuck with a surprisingly easy problem.

Whilst at face value the doctrine of willing buyer willing seller may be interpreted to mean the landowner must be willing to sell to a willing buyer, it has a far deeper meaning when it comes to land acquisition issues. To put it simple, land can still be acquired under the principle without the seller’s willingness to sell. The next question is how could that be?

The principle is simply meant to create a platform for a market where the value of land for compensation purposes is determined by market conditions. It is merely an assumption premised on the context that the seller and the buyer are negotiating freely at arm’s length without either party arm-twisting the other hence the resultant price for compensation purposes is deemed fair.

If the seller is not willing to sit on the table and negotiate the price, his seat will be replaced with another symbolic seller who will act on his behalf under the same conditions. In other words, the transaction will go ahead in his absence and the compensation given to the seller will be fair based on the market values of similar properties or existing demand within the market. It is therefore a basis for determining the price to pay the landowner and not concerned about whether he is willing to sell or not.

As previously mentioned, the Zimbabwean land issue was not about whether white farmers were willing to sell the land or not because every government has the right to forcefully acquire land. The same applies to South Africa, Namibia and any other country facing the same problem. The issue for debate is what was the compensation supposed to cover.

Under normal compulsory acquisition laws, the landowner is compensated for the value of land taken and any collateral injurious affection arising from the acquisition. The value of land taken may include identifiable hereditaments and appurtenances commonly known as developments on the land.

Because of the history behind the land issue in Zimbabwe, it will be reasonable to argue that compensation must be limited to developments on the land and must exclude the land itself since it was not paid for in the first place.

Exceptions could be filtered in for landowners who prove that their ownerships were a result of normal purchases not linked to colonial allocations. The argument makes political, social and economic logic although it may not be fair to some farmers. On the other hand, it is completely unfair not to compensate for developments on the land.

When the country’s current black farmers were settled on the farms, they found infrastructure such as canals, irrigation pipes, houses, tanks and other machinery already existing on the farms. Such infrastructure was not available when colonial farmers first settled on the farms. The infrastructure has been useful to current black farmers and the country as a whole, hence the need to acknowledge its beneficence by compensating previous white farmers.

Compensation will also give finality to a very contentious issue which the country cannot afford to leave hanging. It will give current farmers security of tenure and be able to invest fully on the land knowing the ownership part is solved permanently. Uncertainties in land ownership have been hampering productivity on the farms as farmers could not fully commit their resources on land for which they have no secure titles.

On the other hand, agricultural funding has not been forthcoming as banks are not willing to accept unregistered land as collateral for financing purposes. The value of land as an economic asset has not been fully realised for more than a decade. As a result, very few markers of achievement have been witnessed since the program started.

Politically, the country cannot take chances by procrastinating and hoping that somehow the issue will die a silent death. There has been a lot of posturing and pandering by all parties within the inclusive government about the issue. ZANU PF has failed to realise that it has a duty to respect property rights regardless of the painful historical past associated with the Zimbabwe land question.

MDC formations and in particular MDC T have also lost an opportunity to address the issue. The strategic impetus and opportunity presented by their involvement in the coalition government was lost when MDC T insisted on choosing Roy Bennett, a former white farmer, as the designate Co-Minister of agriculture. They failed to realise that the issue was not about pleasing whites within their ranks but rather about solving the land issue for the benefit of all races and people of Zimbabwe.

The decision was ill-advised, not well thought after with no results in the end as President Mugabe refused to swear him as Minister. Even if he was sworn in, he was likely to make little progress since he is part of the previous group of farmers and his actions and plans were likely to be viewed as biased and therefore face resistance.

As a way forward the government must immediately engage previous farmers with the hope of finding a way of compensating them. Because of the time which has since passed since the program began, it is difficult to ascertain the accurate values of developments which were existing on the farms more than a decade ago. A compromise quantum amount is the only viable alternative.

Previous white farmers on the other hand must realise that the issue is socially and politically sensitive and should not expect to emerge as winners. All sides must be prepared to lose one way or the other if a lasting solution is to be found. The current situation where the government’s assets are being attached in different countries such as South Africa as a way of enforcing compensation is not sustainable and surely not good for the country.

Britain on the other hand must realise that it cannot simply walk away from the issue. The problem was created by its past colonial presence in the country. It benefited from the country’s resources whilst it was still under its empire, hence it has an obligation and responsibility to contribute resources towards solving the problem. Whilst it will be unreasonable to expect British taxpayers to pay for the program, Britain must provide interest free loans to the country for the purpose.

The Zimbabwe government must continue to engage the international community under various auspices such as the UNDP and other financiers such as the World Bank in order to mobilise resources needed for the program. There is need for the government to put in place a well-informed proposal outlining the strategic, sustainability and moral imperatives of the plan.

The government must be transparent with the program especially with regards to current ownership. The international community cannot be expected to partake in a process which is partisan in nature, benefiting certain groups or people of certain political persuasions at the expense of the country. Land is a national asset which must never be used by one political party for political purposes. It must remain a strategic national asset, which if used properly, will benefit the country as a whole.

The country cannot pass on the problem to future generations to solve. The President, the Prime Minister, Ministers of Finance and Agriculture must spearhead the compensation process and present a comprehensive proposal before parliament for debate. The government must seriously consider compensating white farmers because it is simply the right thing to do.

Addmore Zhou is a business and real estate consultant. He is a real estate graduate of Kingston University in London and an MBA Business Finance graduate of University of Liverpool Management School. His PhD research interest focuses on Real Estate Investment and Development in developing countries. He can be contacted on addmorez@yahoo.co.uk