Land reform and black empowerment in South Africa - lessons from Zimbabwe

Land reform and black empowerment in South Africa – lessons from Zimbabwe

The South African government can draw valuable lessons from the Zimbabwe predicament by engaging in a more cautious, yet speedy, land reform; which is essential for poverty alleviation and redistribution, without deterring foreign direct investment.

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By Phillip Nyasha Fungurai

Ever since the acquisition of independence by Zimbabwe and South Africa in 1980 and 1994, respectively, the issue of land reform and black empowerment has remained a topical issue. Soon after independence, both countries engaged in land acquisition programs employing the “willing seller, willing buyer” concept; much to the gratification of the Bretton Woods Institution and the then imperialists who forced the concept on the politically independent Southern African countries. This was a sad case, since the chimurenga war in Zimbabwe and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa were all stirred by the need for holistic land ownership. For both liberation movements, this was a case of winning the battle but losing the war. To date, the “willing seller, willing buyer” concept with its capacity short falls is still the governing model of land reform in South Africa.

Contrary to this, Zimbabwe in 1999/2000 engaged in historic fast track land reform that witnessed land redistribution from the white minority to the poverty stricken black majority. However the land reform fused a train of events that has resulted in international derogation of Zimbabwe, plus economic and political turmoil engineered through propaganda coupled with neo-liberal, regime change political projects. In this light, the South African government can draw valuable lessons from the Zimbabwe predicament by engaging in a more cautious, yet speedy, land reform, which is instrumental in poverty alleviation and transformation of the currently skewed land ownership and income per capita distribution, without deterring foreign direct investment. Though Zimbabwe drowns in the murky waters of economic turmoil, black Zimbabweans are empowered and enjoy ownership of arable tracts of land. The same cannot be said for South Africa, which has deep seated disequilibrium in land ownership and a mind boggling poverty gap between the poor households and the elite in a surprisingly upper middle income country.

Land reform in Zimbabwe

In the immediate aftermath of independence,the Zimbabwean government implemented the “willing seller, willing buyer” model of land reform, as per agreement with the British. In return, the government of Zimbabwe was promised subsidisation of half of the land reform costs by the United Kingdom (Palmer, 2000). Even though they had won independence, the black majority were still highly disempowered and there was a disequilibrium in resource distribution. Hence there was negative peace.

The final spark which fused the land conflict was the ascension of the Blair administration to power, which was reluctant to fulfill commitments made by the previous administration. The net effect was the seizure of land by war veterans, which ushered in the genesis of fast track land reform in Zimbabwe. This led to the international derogation of Zimbabwe by the international media and community, as well as the passing of sanctions against Zimbabwe through the 2001 Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act following alleged human rights abuses. Despite the international derogation, land reform in Zimbabwe saw over 400,000 indigenous families acquire fertile land. A once disempowered majority were now empowered. Contrary to popular propaganda, Zimbabwe land reform can be deemed an inspiration to the landless and poverty stricken in South Africa where hardly 10% of farm land has been redistributed.

The case of South Africa

In the immediate aftermath of apartheid in 1994, the South African government, similar to Zimbabwe, were ‘compelled’ to adopt the “willing seller, willing buyer” land reform policy. At this time, approximately 82m hectares of commercial farmland (86% of agricultural land) was in the hands of the white minority (10.9% of the population), (Levin and Weiner 1991: 92). On the other end, over 13m blacks remained poverty stricken and landless. A sad case in a newly independent country. Commenting on this, May (2000:2) asserts that South Africa has one of the most unequal distributions of income in the world and income coupled with quality of life which is strongly correlated with race and location.

Ever since their ascension to power in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC) promised the South African citizenry 30% of the 90% of farm land held by whites would be transferred by 2000 through the Restitution of Land rights (1994), coupled with the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). Years later, only 8% of the land has been redistributed. Along the passage of time, only political rants and promises have been delivered about economic transition and land reform. This is affirmed by President Zuma’s vow soon after his inauguration for his second term at the Union Building in Pretoria; “land reform will be better executed in the new term of government, economic transition will take centre stage during the new term of government…”

It is of paramount importance to take into cognisance the preeminent fact that the slow pace of economic transition and land reform springs from the fear to upset foreign investors. South Africa’s case is a case of black majority versus white minority, coupled with an indecisive African National Congress. The current situation in South Africa, exhibits the truth that, South Africa is not so African, only African geo-politically.

Lessons from Zimbabwe – recommendations for South Africa

  • Whilst in the process of implementing a historic land reform, the Zimbabwean government made a wrong turn and pushed away much-needed foreign direct investment. In this light, the South African government should engage in speedy land reform, but avoid going down the extremist avenue, engage the minority, white farm owners to create a win-win situation. The government should employ a carrot approach to diplomacy, as the stick approach cost Zimbabwe its positive international appeal, economic security, a Commonwealth seat and massive human insecurity. The South African government should not undermine the power of dialogue.
  • There is strong need for accelerated but cautious implementation of land reform and economic transition to alleviate poverty, latent social unrest and transform the negative peace plaguing the rainbow nation of South Africa. Land reform is the ultimate multi-panacea to a number of South Africa’s problems, ranging from unemployment, the youth bulge, crime, xenophobia, poverty and other social vices. This can be achieved by institutionalising land reform and economic transition, establishing a land reform committee that can monitor the process, adjust incompatible interests, conduct conflict mapping and lay a congenial platform for land reform, economic transition and nation building. This committee can consist of conflict transformation experts, civil society representative, and community as well as national focal persons. By not pursuing a speedy and fair land reform, the South African government is breeding violent conflict and postponing an explosive situation in an already tense environment.
  • There is an urgent and strong need for the South African government to improve and restructure the Black Economic Empowerment Programme. Currently the programme is plagued only by the African National Congress elite, yet it was meant to benefit the wider society.

Thus there is need to make the programme more inclusive, corruption-free, so that it can vigorously mainstream black South Africans into the economy through encouraging black ownership and entrepreneurship using a bottom-up approach taking into cognisance the 77% black youths in South Africa. If the South African government empowers the youth populace, it will avert a serious impasse, lest it becomes a living testimony of the relevance of the youth bulge theory.

Phillip Nyasha Fungurai is a passionate young researcher who holds a Bsc    Honours Degree in Peace and Governance. He is co founder and President of the Movement for Youth in Peace and Conflict transformation (Mypct) a youth association registered with the Zimbabwe Youth Council. He is also a Peace and Governance, Human rights and Democracy patron and specialist who works in cohorts with civil society organizations, think tanks and research institutes in Zimbabwe.


  • African National Congress, (1994), The Reconstruction and Development Programme: A policy framework. Africa National Congress, Johannesburg
  • Lahiff E, (2009), Redistributive land reform and poverty reduction in South Africa, Programme for land and Agrarian studies, University of Western Cape
  • Levin and Weiner D, (1991), The Agrarian Question and the emergence of the Conflicting Agricultural Strategies in South Africa, SAERT, Amsterdam
  • May J, (2000), Growth, Development, Poverty, and Inequality in Julian May (Ed) Poverty and inequality in South Africa: Meeting the Challenge, David Philip, Cape Town
  • Palmer R, (1990), Land reform in Zimbabwe 1980-1990, African Affairs, Vol 89, No. 355,

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6 Responses

  1. Prof

    But you forget to mention that Zimbabwe is now a poverty stricken wasteland with no food being growed on the lands invaded by the so-called ZanuPF veterans. That’s why all your people illegally migrate to us here in SA. Zimbabwe used to be africa’s bread basket, now there isn’t enough food to feed it’s own population. You failed to mention this as a consequence of aggressive land acquisition. Looks like your degree turned out to be useless. Try again moron.

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