Zimbabwe land lessons for SA

American sportsman Yogi Berra was known for his quirky turns of phrase.  One of his most famous was, "It's like déjà vu all over again."

When it comes to land expropriation in South Africa, you can’t help but think, it’s déjà vu all over again. How things went in Zimbabwe, when President Mugabe desperately resorted to a similar policy, is an important warning to consider.

One similarity is there was no shortage of land for the Zimbabwean government to purchase voluntarily for its policy. Upon taking power, though, Mugabe told the world, “While land is abundantly available, no funds are available for purchasing it.” 

There were plenty of funds to pay for Mugabe’s shopping trips to Harrods in London, to build luxury homes for himself, his family and top supporters, but, when it came to land, Zimbabwe was suddenly broke. 

Mugabe cajoled Western nations into giving him massive amounts of aid. At the start of the process, there were 6,700 white farmers who owned about one-third of agricultural land, though the Zimbabwean government routinely exaggerated how much land these farmers actually owned. 

Vast amounts of money to purchase land were handed to the regime by England, the United States, Sweden and other nations, and the number of white farmers shrank by some 3,000. Yet, for some reason, the land crisis was no closer to being solved. If anything, it got worse.

Of course, in politics, a solution to a crisis is never as politically valuable as the crisis itself. As long as the crisis exists, politicians can drum up support. If a political disaster strikes—and the crisis is resolved—the first thing a good politician must do is discover a new crisis. If that doesn’t work, then inventing one is the only option.

In The dilemmas of land policy in Zimbabwe, Jeffrey Herbst said land targets were just sucked out of thin air. They had no actual plan in place. The government never considered whether the new farmers would have the skills to manage a farm. No thought was given to how they would finance the operation of their farms; land was distributed without any consideration as to whether water was available for farming.

Herbst wrote that resettlement officials were “bemoaning the fact that some peasants had essentially been dumped on newly acquired land while geophysical surveys were still being conducted to search for necessary water resources that might, or might not, be there.” 

The new peasant farmers were left with the land, but they didn’t have tools, they didn’t have financing, they didn’t have water. For those reasons, the land was worthless to them, so they did the only rational thing left to do—they stripped properties of items of value.

Lacking the resources necessary to create a productive farm, the new owners sold everything of value before going back to their former homes. As the once productive farms were decimated, food production declined, and the land crisis worsened. 

Each wave of land reform increased joblessness and decreased food production. Farm workers lost their jobs while once productive farms produced nothing. It was one of those endless government “solutions” that is worse than the problem it is meant to solve.

Mugabe and his cronies never gave any thought as to how things would proceed after land was redistributed. To simply hand land over is like telling someone they can be a surgeon and handing them a scalpel. It takes more than land to be a farmer—yet peasant farmers were left entirely to fend for themselves.

A government that doesn’t have the money to purchase land from willing sellers is a government that doesn’t have the money necessary to back new owners in their endeavours. The likely result is they will fail and productive land will lose its value, jobs will decline, national productivity will decline, both old and new owners will be worse off, and the nation will be no closer to solving its real problems. If anything, a real solution will be even further away than ever.

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute and author of several books including Exploding Population Myths and The Liberal Tide.
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