Zimbabwe Land Reform & Corrective Justice

Zimbabwe Land Reform & Corrective Justice

Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right

By Professor Margaret Moore (Queen’s University)

September 13, 2016           Picture: HB/AA (Reuters).

This article is part of The Critique’s September/October 2016 Issue “The Bright Continent: Illuminating The Challenges, Opportunities & Promises Of A Rising Africa”.

Land reform in former colonies is a serious political issue, and nowhere more so than in the southern part of Africa. Like Zimbabwe prior to the 1990s, both South Africa and Namibia are victims of an historic legacy of colonialism and racism, which has left a disproportionate area of land in the hands of a small white population.[i] This essay examines the process in Zimbabwe, which is instructive both for the importance of land reform for the attainment of justice and future prosperity; and because it points to policies and practices to avoid. I argue in this essay that the basic terms in which this debate has been conducted – solely in terms of property rights – is insufficient, because it fails to capture the full nature of the wrongs done in colonialism, and because there are even more constraints on an acceptable remedy than is typically thought.

It is probably unnecessary to rehearse the basic facts about land reform in Zimbabwe, for they are familiar to many of us. When whites began settling in the 1890s, they seized land that had previously been occupied by blacks and forced blacks to live on very tiny plots of less fertile land or on over-populated, marginal communal land. [ii] This was the undeclared policy of the British South Africa Company (BSAC), which was itself modeled on the British East India Company, through which the British ruled until 1923. After 1923, Zimbabwe was governed as a British colony with internal self-rule; and after 1965, when Rhodesia unilaterally issued a declaration of independence, ruled by the white minority living there.

Throughout that period there was basic unfairness in land tenure, with most blacks pushed either to ‘land reserves’ which were held under ‘communal tenure’ without deeds, and only usufruct rights, or to ‘Native purchase areas’, which did have rights of exclusive use, and more privacy, but were in less fertile areas compared to white land, and adjacent to the ‘reserved land’. There was serious discrimination also in the different state policies that were adopted to regulate production and access to markets, particularly between 1930 and 1937, and these remained in force in different permutations thereafter. Only in 1980, with black majority rule, did the people of Zimbabwe become formally politically self-governing.

At the time, the issue of land was settled by the Lancaster House Agreement, which was brokered in 1979, which guaranteed white property rights, and the selling of land owned by whites on a willing seller/willing buyer basis (with the British providing a 44 million pound grant to purchase this land). This helped to pave the wave for black majority rule. Land was a very important issue for the newly independent state, and important to resolve fairly, for at the transition to black majority rule, whites owned most of the land. Most blacks lived on marginal and overpopulated holdings; and there was not enough money from donors to purchase all the white-owned land.

Beginning in 2000, the government of Zimbabwe mobilized its supporters to seize and occupy white property. Most whites were expelled from their farms and many have since left the country. Since then, the story has been a deeply unhappy one: production has declined; Zimbabwe has frittered away its established access to markets and infrastructure, which most developing countries could only dream of; and the population remains impoverished and land- hungry. [iii] The land reform process was disastrous and muddled: there were bureaucratic mistakes, with some land being seized that were unfarmable, or seized more than once; and the people who were rewarded were mainly Mugabe loyalists and fighters, rather than the original farmers (or their descendants) or farm workers who could make a claim of attachment to the particular piece of land.

Zimbabweans line up to go and work at Bunkshill farm owned by a white man and occupied by armed war veterans in Harare April 13. Zimbabwe's acting president, [Joseph Msika], asked war veterans who have invaded more than 1,000 white-owned farms in recent months to move off the properties, the state-run ZIANA news agency said on Thursday. - RTXJQEH

[Picture Description: “Zimbabweans line up to go and work at Bunkshill farm owned by a white man and occupied by armed war veterans in Harare April 13. Zimbabwe’s acting president, Joseph Msika, asked war veterans who have invaded more than 1,000 white-owned farms in recent months to move off the properties, the state-run ZIANA news agency said on Thursday” by Reuters Photographer].

Two things are clear then: first, that colonialism perpetrated land-related wrongs, and, second, that the remedy adopted to address these wrongs was deeply flawed. The disastrous effects of the policy have recently been in the news: some land owners have taken the initiative to hire evicted white farmers in a managerial role, in joint profit-sharing arrangements; a practice that Mugabe has condemned as a form of black servitude.[iv]

Normative analyses of this sorry state of affairs are usually in terms of property rights. Was it justified in the circumstances to seize white land? If it was, what justified it? And is it justified even when, as in this case, the effects of the land seizures and the eviction of the previous farmers was so disastrous? In what follows, I will discuss the issue of land-related rights, and their violations, in more detail, and especially with a view to (a) the additional wrongs perpetrated with the expulsion of people from land and (b) the implication of the passage of time, both on the wrong and on the appropriate remedy.

In one sense, the problem in Zimbabwe, which the Lancaster House Agreement was designed to avert, is a problem familiar to us from any transfer from one political and legal order to another, where the successor regime is very reluctant to recognize the rights established in the legal or customary order of the previous regime. The British (through the BSAC) did not recognize the rights of the native inhabitants as property rights at all, in part because new political orders are generally reluctant to accord legitimacy to the order that they have just replaced, and in part because land rights in the old order did not have the same structure of mutually exclusive and transferable holdings with which they were familiar.

Also, crucially, the British South Africa Company was a for-profit company, and wanted to gain these sorts of rights for itself. There is no question that the property rights of the original inhabitants were violated in the most egregious manner. For example, prior to the 1898 conquest of Matabeleand, the Nbedele people occupied 21 million hectares; after the conquest, they were confined to two reserves, which, together, were only one million hectares; and cattle that belonged to them was seized as ‘loot’ by the white colonists who had participated in the invasion.[v] The Nbedele people’s rights to graze animals, or farm in a particular area, or fish in a particular river, are also property rights on any normal understanding of that term, where ‘property rights’ refers to a collection of rights, powers, immunities and duties, which generally give the right holder an entitlement to access and control objects and exclude (some) others from them.

The British, through the BSAC, forcibly expelled many of the original holders from their traditional land, beginning in the 1890s, and this practice continued in a smaller scale right through to the post-World War Two period. This expulsion also violated other place-related rights, not just property rights. There is no question then that the initial colonizing whites wronged the original inhabitants. However, if the basic idea is that two wrongs don’t make a right, we have to ask: what about the white farmers who held land in 2000? Was it justified to seize their lands?


“Prior to the 1898 conquest of Matabeleand, the Nbedele people occupied 21 million hectares; after the conquest, they were confined to two reserves, which , together, were only one million hectares; and cattle that belonged to them was seized as ‘loot’ by the white colonists who had participated in the invasion”.


There are at least three possible positions here. 1) Respect the property rights of the previous regime, which would mean that any taking of land should be regulated and done in accordance with a fair procedure, and fully voluntary and compensated. 2) Seize, without compensation: this was Mugabe’s public position in 1976, and this was roughly what happened after 2000. On this view, land that was stolen can be expropriated without compensation; the title was not legitimate and there is no need to respect those rights or to compensate their holders for the land. 3) Require the white farmers to disgorge the benefit that they have received from the original injustice. This doesn’t necessarily require expulsion and is compatible with some compensation, albeit not at full market value. It is also, I argue below, compatible with remaining on the land, subject to significant taxation levels, which amount to taking the stream of benefits that flows from working the land through robust redistributive taxation.

The reasoning underlying these three positions relies on ideas that cannot be derived just by analyzing a right to property. It raises issues about multi-generational injustice, and how enduring a right is over time; as well as the other place-related wrongs that might be involved in forcible expulsion, beyond simple property violation.


1. Full Compensation For Property Rights.

The problem with this position, at least if it’s applied to the white farmers of Zimbabwe after the independence period, is that it fails to recognize the property rights of the people who were originally wrongfully expelled from their land and their property seized. Why should the white farmers get fully compensated when they had violated the rights of the previous inhabitants, wrongfully expelled them from the very same land, and failed to compensate them?

Of course, if there is a lot of money, everyone can be compensated for the loss of property rights, loss of residency rights and so on; but this was simply not true in the Zimbabwe case. The British were less generous than they had been in Kenya, in terms of providing money for the buy-out of white farmers, probably because, at the onset of black majority rule, Zimbabwe was not part of the British empire, and the white population there had alienated themselves from Britain by a unilateral declaration of independence in 1965.[vi] More pertinently, full compensation was not warranted: the land was wrongfully taken from the original inhabitants, and so the property-holders (owners) of this stolen land ought not to be entitled to full compensation.


“Why should the white farmers get fully compensated when they had violated the rights of the previous inhabitants, wrongfully expelled them from the very same land, and failed to compensate them?”


2. Seize Without Compensation.

What about the opposite view, viz., that the land can be taken from the white settlers, who had wrongfully settled there, without any form of compensation? This view has a great deal of intuitive plausibility, especially if we focus on property rights, which, in modern legal orders, requires that the land or property in question was actually in the hands of the legitimate property holder when it was transferred.

However, there are a number of problems with the ‘seize, no compensation’ view. The first is connected to the burden of assessment placed on the property holder regarding the provenance of the original holding; and the second is connected to the residency rights that settlers may have, and the third is connected with the constraints imposed on land reform by recognition of third-party rights of the population to the basic conditions for a flourishing life.

Before I make this argument, it is worth recalling that the white farmers in question did not actually perpetrate the original injustice of displacement and theft. Most of the farmers who operated farms by the late 1990s were not descended from the original settlers whose forefathers and foremothers expropriated the original population: they had either purchased the land, in what they presumably thought was a legitimate property regime, or they took up opportunities for free land in the post-War period, and so were beneficiaries of injustice, not perpetrators of it (although opportunity costs were probably foregone). Those who are descended from the original settlers who arrived in the 1890s are also beneficiaries but not perpetrators of injustice: the original expulsion typically happened so long ago that those farmers in the 1990s were not themselves involved in the rights-violation of expulsion and settlement.

This fact raises a difficult question: should we simply assume that ordinary people are, or ought to be, sufficiently knowledgeable about the history of their country to recognise the illegitimate origin of their land titles? Should we assume that they are sufficiently critical and autonomous to reject the standard imperialist (white) trope of a hardy pioneer stock, coming to the land, transforming it, educating blacks, teaching them agricultural techniques and otherwise lifting the native population from a state of cultural darkness? [See Ward for a discussion of the racist roots of colonial thinking].

Do we expect ordinary people – farmers and workers and citizens – to recognize the historical myth-making of their own communities and to engage in sufficient critical reflection to see its mythical qualities? It may be especially difficult for the children of the perpetrators to come to terms with that history of injustice, because it involves seeing one’s own family, one’s own parents or grandparents, as having perpetrated a grave injustice on many people.

Supporters of the ruling ZANU (PF) party queue up for election tee shirts at a rally in Bindura, 80 Km's north of the capital Harare, April 7. President Robert Mugabe who spoke at the rally vowed to fight the country's white farmers for access to their land and accused the farmers of bankrolling the new opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). - RTXJOWM

[Picture Description: “Supporters of the ruling ZANU (PF) party queue up for election tee shirts at a rally in Bindura, 80 Km’s north of the capital Harare, April 7. President Robert Mugabe who spoke at the rally vowed to fight the country’s white farmers for access to their land and accused the farmers of bankrolling the new opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)” by Howard Burditt/Reuters].

Do we assume that individuals have to bear the full cost of benefiting from injustice, even when they did not choose that benefit, or when they did not realize that an injustice had been perpetrated by someone else, or in the past, from which they are benefiting? Ordinary people, who are not in positions of power, do often accept as legitimate the authoritative statements and claims of those they regard as legitimate authorities. And, with this in mind, we can see why someone who purchased land, perhaps invested their life savings in it, would feel that they were a victim when, some time later, members of some other group came along and expropriated them without compensation on the grounds that they are members of a group that was there before the person that sold or bequeathed the land to them.

The response to the above is that they ought to have known that this land was acquired unjustly. Let us assume that white property-holders ought to have reflected critically on the legitimacy of the white controlled regime. It is regrettable that many did not, but that does not change their liability. Whatever they thought about the relative justice or legitimacy of the regime does not change the historical facts and, at the very least, they should disgorge the benefit that they have gained from the original injustice. However, as I will argue below, the ‘disgorge the benefit’ view is not equivalent to the ‘expulsion without compensation’ view, as is apparent when we factor in a more nuanced analysis of the benefits and costs.


3. Disgorge The Benefit View.

The obvious remedy for the initial injustice of forcibly removing people from their land, and violating their property rights, is a right of return (of the people to the land) and restitution of their original property rights. However, this becomes increasingly problematic over time, as the new settlers also develop normative claims on the land, and the effects of the original injustice extend beyond the originally expelled people to include others. By the 1990s, it was deeply problematic to return to the status quo ante, by which I mean the state of affairs prior to the original fairly extensive expulsion and denial of property rights which began one hundred years earlier. At the same time, the white property-holders were beneficiaries of injustice and they ought to disgorge the benefit that can be attributed to injustice.[vii]

Within this section, I examine three arguments aimed at gaining a more precise accounting of the benefits and costs, and in particular the interaction between people and land, which typically occurs with the passage of time. The aim is to have a more nuanced analysis of what is involved in the ‘disgorge the benefit’ view, and how exactly we are to calculate the benefit and go about remedying the original injustice. The first argument focuses on the value added labour that the farmers put in to their land. The second focuses on rights of residency that the farmers and their families may have developed over time, which would be violated by forcible expulsion. The third argument focuses on a distributive justice wrong associated with colonialism, which is that it led to excessive poverty and deprivation, and hindered the economic growth of the black farming community, which the remedy should also be aimed at addressing.


3.1. Value Added Labour.

While we can all acknowledge that the original inhabitants were entitled to the land, and wrongfully expropriated, the claim here is that the land that they occupied was often improved by the presence of the new (white) settlers. This view relies on a neo- Lockean idea that labour can give rise to entitlement to land, or to some form of property right in it. The idea is that the white settlers introduced crop techniques, fertilizers, watering systems, and so on, which made the land more valuable. Some of this added value involved direct improvements to the fertility of the land, but some could be attributed to the creation of an infrastructure to sell the farming products, to market it to foreign buyers, and so on. If it’s true that the later ‘owners’, who are beneficiaries of this injustice, helped to make the land more valuable through laboring on it and improving it in various ways, it might be thought that they need only disgorge the benefit that came from the original acquisition, but not be stripped of the full value of the land, because they are entitled to some of it. On this view, there should be some recognition of the value added by the white farmers to the land in the intervening period, and compensation for this loss, or taxation of their income and land, which would be equivalent to paying for the original theft. This is, in many ways, an intuitively plausible position, at least if one accepts a certain view of the acquisition of property rights, notwithstanding the difficulty in actually parsing the original value from the value added.

Zimbabwean farmer Rijk Danckwerts describes his plans to develop Bunkers Hill farm at the edge of the city into a housing estate April 13. Around 1500 war veterans, civil servants and people from the suburbs have invaded the farm. Over 900 mainly white owned farms have been illegally invaded by government sponsored war veterans and villagers. - RTXJQEE

[Picture Description: “Zimbabwean farmer Rijk Danckwerts describes his plans to develop Bunkers Hill farm at the edge of the city into a housing estate April 13. Around 1500 war veterans, civil servants and people from the suburbs have invaded the farm. Over 900 mainly white owned farms have been illegally invaded by government sponsored war veterans and villagers” by Howard Burditt/Reuters].


“Some have argued that there should be some recognition of the value added by the white farmers to the land”.


However, in the Zimbabwe case, the reality was very different from this story of white improvement. Although land policy mainly favoured the large land consortiums, there is no doubt that white farmers had favourable treatment, vis-à-vis blacks, and also in relation to their position within the domestic and global capitalist economy. A number of measures were adopted between 1930 and 1937 that helped to regulate production and improve access for white farmers, to the exclusion of blacks. These were the Maize control act, the Cattle Levy Act, the Market Stabilization Act, and a whole array of marketing boards, as well as the Farmers’ Debt Adjustment Act.

These measures had the effect of curtailing African peasant agriculture, and stabilizing prices and access for white commercial agriculture. The price for African peasant maize was kept extremely low, and the hut tax, introduced in 1892, was doubled in 1904, which forced many peasants to seek formal employment, in the wage labour market. Indeed, that was its main aim. State support of white agriculture continued after World War Two, when British soldiers returning from the War were offered plots of land in what is now Zimbabwe and received subsidized seed, training, and low interest loans (indeed, they were forgiven loans) until they managed to turn a profit. This was a significant subsidy for the farming sector, which then dominated politics in Zimbabwe until the 1990s.[viii]

By contrast most of the expropriated black peasants were granted use rights on communal holdings, and this was formalized by the Land Apportionment Act of 1930. There is a basic injustice surrounding this racial segregation in land tenure categories, but it’s also the case that it served to entrench inequality. The land tenure structure on which most blacks were forced has been associated with the tragedy of the commons, and it also makes it difficult for blacks to transfer or leverage these rights in economically advantageous ways.

In view of this, it seems doubtful that the whites added value to the land, especially if we take the appropriate baseline to be the value that the original occupants would have added if they had operated in a fair social and economic structure. It is of course impossible to know precisely what would have happened in a more fair social and economic system. Nevertheless, the scale of the subsidy to white farmers was so significant that it is very plausible to argue that the original occupants would have probably done equally well, or better, if they had operated under a fair system, or under similar rules.


3.2. Attachment – Based Claims.

The second argument focuses on the importance of the passage of time on the relationship between individuals and the land. This argument applies both to the original black residents, who were forcibly expelled by the British, and to the white farmers who bought or inherited this unjustly-taken land a considerable time later.

It is important to distinguish between two types of land-owners, which have been important since the initial white settlement of Zimbabwe. When the British South Africa Company (BSAC) first acquired land – initially for example through war in Matabeland – the land was parceled out to companies such as Willoughbys Consolidated in return for capital support. By 1892, half of all white controlled land (from which blacks had been expelled) was owned by speculators, a fact that was widely resented by ordinary white settlers and probably resented even more by the native population who had been forcibly evicted.[ix] Most of this expropriated land remained in the control of large land consortiums and under-used. This land-use pattern can be explained by the fact that, in this early period, the BSAC was mainly interested in mining, and land was mainly used to leverage capital for gold, diamond and other mining operations.

However, on the insistence of a company administrator, Earl Grey, who raised questions about the Company’s focus on mineral resources, which he argued were limited, the Company adopted an official ‘white agricultural policy’ in 1907, which involved expanding white settlement, farming interests and establishing an agricultural research station in Salisbury. In 1905 there were 500 white farmers in what is now Zimbabwe. By 1915, it had tripled to 1500. By 1920 there were 2300 resident white farmers. However, these farmers on smaller plots operated in a somewhat conflictual relationship with land speculators and large land consortiums, which farmed tobacco, principally for export. Although white settlement of the land intensified, a significant portion of white-owned land was under-utilized and owned by land consortiums right up until the period where land was seized by Mugabe fighters and forcibly acquired. This land- use structure is relevant to the argument that follows, concerning an individual right of residency. This right of residency attaches to owner-occupying farmers, and not the absentee landlords and land consortiums who owned significant swathes of Zimbabwe.

Let me turn now to the individual right of residency, which is the view that individuals have a right of residency in the place that they live, if they live there long enough, and have organized their life and projects around residence in that place.[x] The right of residency is not the same as a right to property: people who do not own any immoveable property may still have a right of residency, and expulsion is a violation of this right.

Although we don’t always make clear why we think that expulsion of individuals from their homes and communities is a wrong, it is not hard to see why it is. The principal idea behind the claim that individuals have a right to a place is that we are physical beings, and occupy space; and within that place we develop projects and relationships and pursue a way of life to which we are typically attached. Some of these attachments are to the place, but some are to the projects and to the people who share the space with us, to our family and friends and the community that forms the background context in which we live our lives. This means that – in addition to the unjust coercion that typically accompanies expulsion, and the loss of immoveable property that the individuals may or may not have – there is a fundamental injustice in disrupting the background conditions in which we live our lives, pursue our projects and relationships, and exercise choices [See Hidalgo on the wrongs of co-compatriot deportation in the Dominican context].

For people living on the land, who are forcibly expelled, the obvious remedy when a right of residency has been violated, by forcible expulsion or other means, is a right of return for the expelled person or persons, perhaps including an apology for the moral wrong and compensation for loss of use for the time that the people were expelled. This right of return follows unproblematically from the recognition that expulsion is itself a wrong. Obviously, the original black inhabitants who were expelled had their rights of residency violated.


“The right of return follows from the recognition that expulsion is itself a wrong”.


The justificatory argument that underlies this right is context-sensitive: it applies only in certain contexts, and these contexts are affected by the passage of time. Most of the people who suffered the injustice – the people who were attached to their homes and communities and to the land itself – are now dead. In most cases, the people who expelled them are also dead.[xi] Moreover, and perhaps crucially, the same considerations that tell in favour of people having a right to residency also eventually apply to the people who are descended from the original perpetrators of the injustice. It is difficult to avoid this conclusion, because the structure of the argument – the reasons why we think it important that people have rights not to be expelled – does seem to require that people are present in the place, that they actually live there and structure their lives around that place and the people in that place. [xii]

At this point, someone might object that this argument gives rise to an incentive to forcibly evict people, in order to pass on the land to people who will eventually have rights to it. Most of us have a strong intuition that our policies and practices should recognize the moral asymmetry between the victim and the aggressor, and that this should affect land rights. So we should amend the argument above in line with that intuition: we should interpret the right to residency in such a way that the expropriator does not immediately begin to develop rights to the land, following the expulsion, but can only develop rights after a significant period of time has elapsed, probably at least with the passing of the generation of the original aggressor.

The right of residency argument applies to the owner-occupier farmer who had his own farm, where he lives but not to the large tracts of commercial land, which were farmed by export, principally with employed black labourers and managers. In the latter case, disgorging the benefit means no longer having access to the land, and that expropriation without compensation is justified (subject to it being done in accordance with condition 3.3, below). This is not true of the owner-occupier, for whom expulsion is a wrong, and can be remedied straightforwardly by a right of return. However, there may be other remedies, such as compensation – but not necessarily full or market-based compensation – when return is impossible or undesirable for other reasons.


3.3. Distributive Justice.

The violation of property rights and rights of residency do not exhaust the wrongs of colonialism. Many economists writing on land issues have argued that a resolution to the land ownership issue was crucial to economic progress in Zimbabwe because land ownership is the key to wealth accumulation in largely agrarian societies.[xiii] The unequal racialized land-owning structure hindered the development of a black middle class, and did not set the stage for the right conditions for economic development. This means that a further wrong of colonialism is that the system led to avoidable poverty and deprivation; and by the term ‘avoidable’, I mean that a different, more equal, system, would have been more conducive to economic development and the eradication of deep, grinding poverty.


“The unequal racialized land-owning structure hindered the development of a black middle class, and did not set the stage for the right conditions for economic development”.


If this is right then it is a matter of corrective justice that whatever land reform policy is adopted, it is consistent with the requirements of distributive justice: that it not only share the land more equitably, but that it also aims to eradicate poverty.

As is well known, the land reform policy that was adopted failed spectacularly to do this. In the initial period, between 1992 to 1997, the Land acquisition Act failed to re-distribute most of the land. Less than 1 million hectares were acquired and most of it was not farmable.[xiv] There was little effort to redistribute land to farmers who could have made good use of it, or to resettle people who had worked on the land. Land redistribution was slow and most of the land went to Mugabe’s political allies. Indeed, in many cases, the new owners were also absentee landlords, who were unfamiliar with farming, and unfamiliar also with the export market and distribution system. The British grant to buy white land, which was always insufficient, had been exhausted by 1988 (and expired in 1996), but the claim by the British that they had an obligation to ensure that the money was spent in a responsible way was true. (The accompanying claim – that they were not responsible for the wrongs of colonialism – was false, indeed, incendiary.[xv]).


“Land redistribution was slow and most of the land went to Mugabe’s political allies. Indeed, in many cases, the new owners were also absentee landlords, who were unfamiliar with farming, and unfamiliar also with the export market and distribution system”.


Other mechanisms that would have dealt with under-populated and under-used land, and raised revenue in an efficient way, such as a land tax, were never implemented; and it is possible that such a tax was not implemented because some of the Mugabe loyalists, who were beneficiaries of this initial redistribution, would also have been subject to it.

In 2000, and in response to a political challenge to the ruling party, and expected electoral defeat in elections in 2000 and 2002, Mugabe’s ruling party, ZANU(PF), orchestrated widespread squatting on white land, and dispossessed white farmers, often violently – in an effort to collaborate more closely with war veterans, and forge an effective alliance.[xvi] This was accompanied by a narrative of pan-African liberation, anti-colonialism, and corrective justice. The effect of this new alliance – forged through widespread granting of seized land to military veterans and military personnel– was to put military men, or ex-military men, in key positions in a number of government agencies that they were incompetent to run, such as the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority; the National Railways of Zimbabwe; head of the Grain Marketing Board, and so on; as well as give them large grants of land. [xvii]


[Picture Description: “War veterans shout slogans denouncing opposition parties at Glenara Estates 20 Km’s north of Harare April 14. The war veterans, who invaded the farm 7 April, have said that they will not move off the farms despite a High Court ruling and a directive from the Vice President Joseph Msika who is Acting President. Over 1000 mainly white owned farms have been illegally invaded by government sponsored war veterans and villagers” by Reuters Photography].

The effects of this alliance were deleterious to the whole society: it led to increased violence, with opposition MDC supporters subject to widespread assault, torture, death threats, disappearances and murder, often carried out by the ruling party’s youth militia group. The widespread expropriation of white farmers, which had the appearance of spontaneous land grabs and squatters’ rights, was in fact orchestrated at the centre. The expropriation could not be justified by a right of necessity, for that would apply only when other reasonable methods to meet basic needs have been exhausted. This was not the case, as I explained above: there had been little attempt to buy land from willing sellers in the previous period, or to settle those who were most in need of land. Nor was there an attempt to redistribute land to people who might be knowledgeable about how to farm the land and have an attachment to it: shockingly, less than 5% of farmworkers were granted land, and many were categorized as an ‘enemy of the state’ along with the white farmers themselves and supporters of the opposition MDC.[xviii] Moreover, a right of necessity does not necessarily lead to the seizure of property rights – although in some circumstances it could justify this – but would more readily justify a sizeable tax aimed at redistributing wealth in the society and investing in economic infrastructure to help those in need. [xix]



In this paper, I have argued that, while most of the discussion of Zimbabwean land reform has been about property rights and financial compensation, this is a very narrow view of the matter. Equally important are people’s rights to a place; and the basic conditions for a flourishing life. As a general principle, I have endorsed the idea that beneficiaries of injustice should disgorge the benefits of injustice, but also argued that this does not mean the removal of people who live on the land, because that would be unjust too. I have also suggested a number of distinct policies that would have dealt with the Zimbabwean land crisis in a normatively acceptable way.

To make this argument, I claimed that the white farmers who were settled on the land, and had not themselves engaged in forcible expulsion and theft of the land, had residency rights. Forcible expulsion from the land wronged them. It may be true that, in some circumstances, their removal from the land could be justified, but, in that case, they would have had to be compensated – not full compensation for the market value of the property but compensation for their loss of residency rights. It would also have been justified for the state to tax the ‘stream of benefit’ that comes from selling the products raised on the land in the market in a robust redistributive scheme, as part of a general policy of ‘disgorge the benefit’.

Large land consortiums ought to be treated differently. They did not add value to the land, mainly because they had, for so long, operated in an extremely unfair playing field, which amounted to state subsidy for white-owned farms, including these large corporate holdings. The absentee landowners, who were shareholders in these companies, typically resided elsewhere in the world, or anyway, not primarily on the farm. This means that residency rights did not apply to them, either. For this reason, uncompensated expropriation of large absentee land-holdings property is acceptable, provided it is done in way that does not violate the third condition, connected to the overall stability and flourishing of the economy.

Footnotes & References

[i] The slogan often claimed in South Africa – that 80% of land is held by whites – has been analyzed by Prof. Cherryl Walker, author of Landmarked: Land Claims and Land Restitution in Southern Africa. She argues that it is roughly (but only roughly) correct: 79% of land is arable, and 82% of that land is white owned. See Cherryl Walker, “Institute for Poverty, Land Agrarian Studies, fact sheet”, at www.plaas.org.za. In Namibia, racialized ownership is harder to calculate, since statistics are not kept by race; and there has been some land reform, but it is believed that 4,000 whites (out of a population of more than 2 million) own more than half of all arable land.

[ii] One of the largest European acquisitions of land (which served as a template for a history of racialized domination and subordination) occurred in the British invasion of Matabeleland in August 1893. As a result of almost inevitable frictions, and also because the land was thought to be rich in minerals, and Company plans were being hampered by local people, the Company ordered Captain Allan Wilson to recruit men for the invasion of Matabeleland. Each member was promised 6,000 acres of land; twenty claims in the goldfields and a share of the ‘loot’, half of which would go to the Company, the remainder to be divided equally among the officers and the men. As a result, millions of hectares of land around Bulawayo were confiscated, without any form of compensation, and the Ndebele and Shona peoples were forcibly expelled and removed to dry and infertile African ‘reserves’ in Gwaai and Sangani. See David Martin and Phyllis Johnson, , Struggle for Zimbabwe (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1981), p. 51; Robin Palmer, Land and Racial Domination in Rhodesia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), chapters 1-3.

[iii] Jon Jeter, “Africa’s Racial Land Divide. Zimbabwe Confronts White Grip on Fertile Farms”, Washington Post, Mon. Feb. 21, 2000, Page A01.

[iv] Kevin Sieff, “Zimbabwe Seized white farmers’ land. Now Some are being invited back”, Washington Post, Sept. 14, 2015.

[v] Richard Hodder Williams, White Farmers in Rhodesia, 1890-1965 (London: Houghton Macmillan, 1983), 13-42; David Martin and Phyllis Johnson, Struggle for Zimbabwe (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1981), 51-72.

[vi] Lloyd Sachikonye, “The promised land” in Zimbabwe. Injustice and Political Reconciliation, eds., Brian Ratopoulos and Tyrone Savage (Capetown: Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, 2004), p. 6.

[vii] For a very good philosophical analysis of the ‘disgorge the benefit of injustice’ view, see Daniel Butt, “On Benefiting from Injustice”, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 37, no. 1, 2007, 129-152; and Daniel Butt, Rectifying International Injustice: Principles of Compensation and Restitution between Nations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.)

[viii] For a good discussion of these policies, see Palmer, Land and Racial Domination; and Martin and Johnson, Struggle for Zimbabwe , 51-72 ; and Sabelo J. Ndolu-Gasheni, “Mapping Cultural and Colonial Encounter. 1880s-1930s”, in Becoming Zimbabwe, eds., Brian Raftopoulos and Alois Mlambo (Johannesburg: Weaver Press, 2009), 39-74.

[ix] Martin and Johnson, Struggle for Zimbabwe, 51-2; Palmer Land and Racial Domination in Rhodesia, 36.

[x] I have argued for this right in Margaret Moore, A Political Theory of Territory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 36-46.

[xi] For a very good philosophical discussion on how changes in circumstances (wreaked by time) can affect injustice, see Jeremy Waldron, “Superseding Historic Injustice”, Ethics, vol. 103, no. 1, 1992, 4-28.

[xii] To see the intuitive plausibility of the above, consider the implications of assuming the opposite – assuming, that is, that a right to reside in a place ought to continue undiminished through time, despite the myriad evictions, forced removals, settlements and other things that happen through history. This is extremely counter-intuitive. It would be equivalent to a ‘first occupancy’ principle, where the first occupant of the territory has rights to it, and the people who live there, but who are descended from later occupants, do not. But people who are descended from people who lived in a place do not typically have the right kind of relationship to the place to have rights there, and people who live there, who structure their lives around their presence on the land, do.

[xiii] Ian Phimister, An Economic and Social History of Zimbabwe, Capital Accumulation and Class Struggle (London: Longman, 1983), 269.

[xiv] “Land Redistribution in Southern Africa; Zimbabwe Program”, in http://web.archive.org/www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/africaland/gp_zimbabwe.html

[xv] This latter sentiment was notoriously expressed by the British, in the context of donating money to purchase (white) land on a wiling buyer-willing seller basis, in 1997, by Clare Short, the Development Secretary, who wrote to the Zimbabwean Agricultural Minister Kangai: “I should make it quite clear that Britain does not accept that it has a special responsibility to meet the costs of land purchase in Zimbabwe. We are a new government with diverse backgrounds without links to former colonial interests. My own origins are Irish and as you know we were colonized not colonizers. We do however recognize the very real issues that you face over land reform.. we would be prepared to support a program of land reform that was part of a poverty eradication strategy but not on any other basis.” There is much to criticize in this letter, but the philosophical problem with her argument is that it fails to recognize the British state as an on-going political entity, with rights and obligations. The fact that particular individuals in the state, or working in the state, might be descended from formerly colonized groups is of no relevance to the continuity of the British state as a former imperial power. Copy of letter from Clare Short to Minister of Agriculture and Land, Hon. K. Kagai, 5 November 1997.

[xvi] Brian Raftopoulos, “The Crisis in Zimbabwe, 1998-2008” in Becoming Zimbabwe, eds., Brian Raftopoulos and Alois Mlambo (Johannesburg: Weaver Press, 2009), p. 211.

[xvii] Ibid., p. 211.

[xviii] Ibid., p. 217.

[xix] This is of course a tricky issue, and raises its head in many circumstances. But one of the issues that arise in the transition from one regime to another is concern about the market’s unfavourable response to instability and unsecured property rights. While I am not necessarily endorsing capitalism here, it does seem hard to imagine a government handling this worse than the Zimbabwe government did, which led to rapid currency devaluation, becoming a net importer of food rather than Africa’s leading food exporter, and a sharp decline in any kind of investment. The meltdown of the Zimbabwe economy did harm to many people, and can be attributed, at least in part, to the complete disregard for economic stability, human rights, and Zimbabwean civil society.

Margaret Moore
Margaret Moore
Margaret Moore is Professor in the Political Studies department at Queen’s University, where she teaches political philosophy. She is the author of A Political Theory of Territory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), which has been the subject of a number of workshops, panels and journal discussions. She has published two earlier books, both with Oxford University Press: Foundations of Liberalism and Ethics of Nationalism, as well as edited or co-edited three volumes and a special journal issue. She has written articles in journals such as Political Theory, Political Studies, Philosophical Studies, International Theory, Journal of Social Philosophy and Ethics & International Affairs. Her current work is on norms of the international system, such as sovereignty, human rights, boundary-drawing, and territorial claims. She currently holds a SSHRCC Insight grant on corrective justice and land.
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