Since its independence from Britain in 1980, Zimbabwe has had four different land reform phases aimed at addressing land injustices and inequality inherited from the colonial era.[1]

Country Overview

The population of Zimbabwe is estimated to be 13.06 million—52% being female—and is largely dependent on agriculture. The country is landlocked and situated in southern Africa over a total land area of 390,757 square kilometers.[1].The land issue has been the epicenter of Zimbabwe’s socio-political and economic struggles since colonial times.


As with other African countries, land ranked high among the grievances that motivated the indigenous black majority to form a nationalist movement and launch liberation wars to free their country from colonial oppression. Given its emotive nature, the land issue threatened to derail the 1979 Lancaster House negotiations for Zimbabwe‘s independence between liberation movements and the white minority Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith. The derailment was centered on land owned by the white colonialists that was to be shared equally with the black majority in the country after independence.

Twenty years into Zimbabwe’s independence, the government’s Fast Track Land Reform Program (FT LRP), initiated in July 2000, radically transformed the agrarian sector in a manner that had farreaching socio-political consequences.

Historical Overview

Colonial era

The period of formal colonization in Zimbabwe lasted 90 years, from September 1890 to independence in April 1980, and was marked by European settler occupation of Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), and the dispossession of millions of black farmers of their land. A series of land policies deprived the majority their land rights while granting rights to a few privileged white elites. The black population was deliberately marginalized by a system of state managed repression, segregation and violence.[1]

Beginning in 1890, the settlers’ colonial government, initially led by Cecil John RhodesBritish South Africa Company (BSAC), was characterized by a systematic dispossession realized largely through violence, war and legislative enactments which resulted in racially skewed land distribution and ownership patterns. By letting the BSAC—a private company—take charge of a colony, the British had inadvertently set up a particularly unjust colonial administration system.

By 1914, white settlers, numbering just 23,730, owned slightly more than 19 million acres of land while an estimated 752,000 Africans occupied a total of 21,390,080 acres of land


The first liberation wars began in the late 1800s but the African Majority were subdued by the settlers’ superior firepower. As the decades passed, land dispossession, extra-economic regulation (e.g., blacks required a travel pass to be in urban areas; certain jobs were reserved for whites) and taxes turned Zimbabwe into a labor reserve economy reliant on cheap domestic and foreign migrant labor to work on farms, roads/rail and urban factories. As black Africans lost their lands through wholesale evictions and forced removals, their agricultural economy was reduced to subsistence levels by the late 1930s. Most black communities were forcibly moved to areas designated as native reserves/communal lands with poor, infertile soils and located in the inhospitable and tsetse-ridden areas of the country, such as Gokwe and Muzarabani.

The Land Apportionment Act of 1930

The Land Apportionment Act of 1930, which institutionalized the racial division of all land in the country. The LAA 1930 divided the country into the Reserves land exclusively for occupation by Africans; Alienated Land land exclusively for White occupation, on which Africans could live only as employees; and Native Purchase Areas land where African yeoman farmers could gain limited ownership of farms]. This Act was not implemented on a large scale during the 1930s. Under the LAA 1930 a large, exclusively European area was declared which consisted of 49 million acres and comprised over half the total farming land in the country. As a sort of compensation, Africans were given the right to freehold tenure on the newly created Native Purchase Areas, which were located adjacent to the Reserves. Under the LAA 1930, the NPAs covered 7,5 million acres, although some 4 million were of little use because they lay in remote areas of the country and were unsuitable for farming. The Reserves totaled 21,6 million acres. For a contextual history of land politics in colonial Zimbabwe and the various pieces of land legislation.[2]

Native Purchase Areas

Native Purchase Areas was an area where African farmers had limited ownership of farms.In addition to all the support given to white farmers, there were legislations to benefit the settler farmer during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

This process forced a large number of rural residents to leave their farms in search of work on large farms or in urban areas. Efforts to address racial discrimination and land inequality suffered a significant setback when, in 1965, the white minority Rhodesian government of Ian Smith declared itself independent from British control and vowed that there would be no black majority rule in the country for a thousand years. As part of the effort to resist colonial segregation and land acquisitions, nationalist movements launched a guerrilla war campaign in the 1960s.

Liberation Struggle

The guerilla war campaign intensified in the 1970s but had no clear winner. This resulted in a negotiated peace settlement, through a 1979 ceasefire agreement brokered by the British government. The ceasefire was followed by negotiations for a new independent Zimbabwe held at the Lancaster House in Britain. The resulting Lancaster House Agreement set a framework for key outcomes, including a roadmap to elections through a universal plebiscite, a Constitution, and steps to achieve equitable land reform. Land reform involved the targeted resettlement of the black majority from unproductive native reserves to land designated for resettlement, which was to be purchased by government from the white commercial farmers who had large tracts of underutilized land.

The Lancaster House Agreement and the 1979 Zimbabwe Constitution made land redistribution to the majority of blacks impossible in that the law protected the minority interest of the white commercial farmers.

The Constitution circumscribed the compulsory acquisition of any property, including land, for a period of ten years after the date of independence, 18th April 1980. Any Constitutional amendments during this ten-year period needed a 100 percent majority approval in Parliament, something that was impossible given that the Constitution also reserved 20 Parliamentary seats for whites for the next seven years.

Land Reform's four Phases since 1980

market-based system

This system used a “willing seller–willing buyer approach,” which could not be altered within the first decade of independence.

Between 1980 and 1990, Zimbabwe’s land redistribution approach was marketbased but state-managed, with the sole stated purpose of targeting the landlessness and overcrowding among rural and urban poor. The approach established a willing seller-willing buyer system of land exchange, in which the government purchased land from commercial white farmers who wished to sell it. It was an international effort including some European countries, Kuwait, and the largest contributor, the British government, matching ‘pound for pound’ contributions from Zimbabwe’s government.

Government-acquired farms consisted of small plots of a hectare or less, to resettle the poor and marginalized black families from the congested native reserves. During this period, increased calls from the black community for the ‘de-racialization of commercial farming’ resulted in a few black middle-class actors, especially political elites, being allowed to buy commercial farms in what were previously designated as ‘white only’ areas.

The early 1980s land reforms led to the resettlement of about 75,000 families out of a targeted 162,000 families, consisting mostly of those displaced by the liberation war. The government needed 8.3 million hectares of land for the resettlement, but only acquired 2.6 million hectares. In the first five to ten years of independence, the government’s land reform policy was narrowly conceived to address landlessness, displacement,and overcrowding among peasants. For the poor, landless black farmers the slow pace in land redistribution became the basis for disgruntlement, culminating in the seizures of white-owned land twenty years later.

The biggest challenge in the government’s efforts to redistribute land under the willing seller-willing buyer approach was the white commercial farmers’ unwillingness to sell some portions of their large farms at reasonable prices to government so that the crowded black community in reserves could be resettled. White land owners began asking for far more than what the land was worth leading to inflated land values, and making it virtually impossible for the government to sustain funding. This imposed onerous fiscal demands on an already financially constrained state. The slow progress in substantive resettlement in the 1980s meant that the birth of independent Zimbabwe rested on a weak foundation. The communal areas still remained congested with people,overstocked and overgrazed by cattle.

compulsory acquisitions of land by government for public use (1992-2000)

This was based on gazetted compensation fees.

In the 1990s, the Zimbabwe government assumed greater control over land allocation through the controversial 1992 Land Acquisition Act. The Act allowed for compulsory acquisition of land with “little compensation and limited rights of appeal to the courts.” However, the Act resettled less than 600 families.

Sabotage by white commercial farmers, through their refusal to cooperate with government in facilitating land redistribution, ensured that the process remained slow, cumbersome and expensive.

Furthermore, the land redistribution effort received no donor support. The British government, for example, declined to offer aid, alleging prior corruption and the misuse of donor funds to award land to black political elites rather than to the intended beneficiaries—the rural poor.

War Veterans Invasions-1998-2000

This was the period of increasing violent, extrajudicial land occupations by war veterans and villagers.

By the late 1990s, many Zimbabweans were fed up with government promises to resettle them through meaningful land reform programs. A small number of villagers and war veterans of the second liberation war (1960s-1980) began to invade nearby white-owned commercial farms.

At first, the government used force to restrain the occupiers. However, by mid-2000, the self-organized veterans took matters into their own hands, intensifying their land seizures as they gained more public support.

The restless villagers’ patience with government on land reform had run out. In light of the war veterans’ huge following, the government decided to allow the takeovers. This phase of land reform policy nurtured critical shifts in economic policy and performance as well as changes in the electoral political circumstances. President Mugabe and his ruling party capitalized on the land issue to regain political support, which was fading due to hard economic conditions prevailing in the country.

Some scholars considered the land occupations unwarranted, allegedly because they were ‘chaotic and often violent’, ‘racially motivated land seizure’ and ‘politically vindictive land grab’, which violated the legitimate land rights of white farmers. Others considered the land occupations to be disastrous as agricultural land was transformed into ‘dead capital.’ Authors like Patrick Bond argue that the land occupations benefited President Mugabe’s cronies and destroyed agriculture. [3]

On the contrary, authors like Ian Scoones argue that Zimbabwe’s production did not go down with the land occupations, but rather the level of production was boosted and many people were empowered and benefited, especially those who lived in the reserves.[4].Still others saw it as the only and last resort to end white minority racism and reluctance to promote equitable distribution of land in the country.

A remarkable development, which many believe signaled the onset of the Fast Track Land Reform Program (FT LRP), occurred in July 2000. President Mugabe publicly declared his support for war veterans and stated that no judicial decision would be allowed to stop the takeover of white farms through land invasions. He also openly ignored the advice of both his Home Affairs Minister and the Judiciary to stop the land invasions. He even went further, telling the nation that the war veterans were doing exactly what the blacks had fought for during the liberation war. He argued that the only way to correct past colonial wrongs, especially the unequal land distribution, was to suspend the rule of law, given the intransigence of the white commercial farmers and their backing from Britain. Besides these public statements, there were no official documents gazetted or a state of emergency declared to legalize the land takeovers. To him, the white farmers were hiding under the guise of property and human rights in their bid to frustrate land redistribution.

The president’s support of the land takeovers became the law and the way forward regarding land redistribution in the country. Accordingly, the last quarter of 2000 witnessed a breakdown in the rule of law as both the members of the Zimbabwean police and army failed to take action against the perpetrators of violent crimes on white farms, and in some cases they actively assisted illegal actions. Commercial white farmers who went to court to contest the seizure of their farms were not entertained, as members of the Judiciary who went against the president’s stance on land were purged. Police sided with the land invaders and defied court orders that sought to reverse the land invasions, and the Chief Justice, Anthony Gubbay, was forced to resign

Fast Track Land Reform Program (FTLRP)

It began in 2000, and was an appropriation of land from white farmers without resort to courts for compensation. This phase was sometimes used by top political elites from the ruling party as a way of punishing white farmers who opposed their rule or who openly supported opposition politics.

The government, through inception of the FTLRP in July 2000, legalized what began as isolated illegal land seizures by war veterans and villagers in the late 1990s. The ruling party, taking advantage of its majority in parliament, quickly passed the Rural Land Occupiers (Prevention from Eviction) Act (2001), which protected land occupiers from eviction from land they occupied.

As a result of this new legislation, since 2000 the government has largely nullified the property rights of white commercial farmers. This was later reinforced by the 2013 Constitution, which states the inviolability of the post-2000 land reforms.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 [1], Focus on Land Reform in Africa, Date Retrieved: 5 Feb 2018
  2. . Land and Racial Domination in Rhodesia,, London, 1977 .
  3. Bond, P,Zimbabwe’s Hide and Seek with the IMF ’, REVIEW OF AFRICAN POLITICAL ECONOMY , Vol. 106,. 609-19:2005