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Africa’s only hope is Zim’s land reform model

February 16, 2015

By Bernard Bwoni
A recent report by the Oakland Institute revealed that there are billionaires from the West who have been buying and grabbing land in Africa at a very concerning rate.

These investors and hedge funders are reportedly paying next to nothing for these vast tracts of land in some African countries. This is a worrying trend and puts into context the Zimbabwe land policy and reform. Interestingly in South Africa in his State of the Nation address, President Zuma said that foreign nationals will not be allowed to own land in South Africa but will be for long-term lease only.

The land reform debate in SA has been taking centre stage with the country exploring a 50-50 Policy framework on rights to people who live and work on farms. The Zimbabwe Land Reform programme is a beckon of hope for the historically and perennially disadvantaged and displaced Africans. Any other African country in the same predicament as Zimbabwe was before the land reform will have to go through the same mire and mud Zimbabwe went through to regain their land.

It is such a shame that some African countries are relinquishing their God-given heritage for a few pieces of silver. Zimbabwe is a unique country and all the hard work was not for nothing. There is no other route to land reform in Africa except for the Zimbabwe Model. Anything else is child’s play.

There is no universal definition of the term property rights as everyone has an opinion and vested interest in the matter. The definition can and has been evolving over time, thus considering different perspectives, the historical context and background underpinning the Zimbabwe land and property rights issue is necessary. Property rights are not absolute but just a function of what society is willing to acknowledge, defend and enforce.

They may need to be adjusted at some point because they do not evolve optimally on their own. There is not enough empirical evidence in Zimbabwe of how the complex property rights package influences economic behaviour and as such those who remain fixated on property rights as the panacea to Zimbabwe’s economic woes are unreflective and insincere.

The Development Economist Daniel W. Bromley in his book, Environment and Economy: Property Rights and Public Policy, argued “property rights do not necessarily imply full ownership and the sole authority to use and dispose of a resource”. To be secure, property rights should be of a sufficient duration to allow one to reap the benefits of the investment and should be backed by an effective, socially sanctioned enforcement institution. Zimbabwe has in place ninety-nine year lease in place and that is “a sufficient duration” for anyone to benefit from their investment, case closed.

The relationship between the rights of the individual and the rights of the community has been constantly changing and without doubt will continue to evolve. We live in a complex and dynamic world where conventional wisdom can be overturned for the good of the majority and it is important to acknowledge that changes in theoretical views on property rights do take place.

During the unrestrained land grab by the colonial settlers the rights of the individual settlers took precedence over the collective rights of the indigenous community and in the new Constitution the Zimbabwe government addressed those inequalities created by these historical interactions.

Much of the early property rights literature was quite optimistic about the evolution of property rights towards economic efficiency. The available literature indicate that property rights form the cornerstone of every Western country’s economic modernisation and Hernando De Soto even calls the system of legal property rights the ‘’hidden architecture of modern economies’’ and “if a developing country is willing to succeed economically, property rights which have to be well-defined must be enforced”.

De Soto of course did not factor in China which “recognises the right to private property but only as a right bestowed by the state and not as a natural right’’. And, by the way China, is by far the fastest growing economy in the world and is poised to edge the USA as the biggest economy in the world by 2016 or so. My argument is that the property rights construct and debate in Africa was distorted by the colonialism and imperialism’s accumulative streak and that makes De Soto’s claim invalid in the African context.

Property rights are theoretical constructs in economics and the discourse needs to reflect that especially on a uniquely multiplex case like Zimbabwe. Property rights are formed and enforced by political entities and they reflect the historical context, the conflicting economic interests and the bargaining strength of those affected. They are the social institutions that define or delimit the range of privileges granted to individuals of specific scarce resources. In the modern economic literature the argument is that it makes sense to have secure property rights as it makes it easy to access finance and credit from financial institutions and promote sustainable development.

Some contemporary development economists have gone as far as stating that sustainable development will only come from stable property rights and that markets are less efficient when property rights do not exist. From a theoretical economic point of view that is true however complexities in different situations need to be acknowledged. There is an element of imperialism that has pervaded much of the discourse of property rights on Zimbabwe. I have looked into available literature on property rights on Zimbabwe and there is absolutely nothing and the question is how do you make recommendations without empirical evidence from realities on the ground?

Those who remained opposed to Zimbabwe’s land reform have argued that separation of provisions on property rights from rights over agricultural land is fatal as the section in the new Constitution on agricultural lands restricts thus running against natural justice. Chapter 4, Part 2, Section 72 of the Constitution points out that access to agricultural land is seen as a “fundamental right” and that “every citizen of Zimbabwe has a right to acquire, hold, occupy, use, transfer, hypothecate, lease or dispose of agricultural land regardless of his or her race or colour’’. The new Constitution also notes that following the colonial occupation and the triumphant liberation war “the people of Zimbabwe must be enabled to re-assert their rights and regain ownership of their land”. If you read the above clauses then the issue of secure property rights is not as contentious as some would want the world to believe.

The land reform in Zimbabwe is irreversible, and that is fact. Property rights with regards to agricultural land fall within the limits set by the State to avoid abuse and the government has set up the Land Commission to address issues of abuse through a transparent land audit which is still pending, and this is all within the bounds of international law. Chapter 4, Part 2, section 71 of the new Constitution addresses the overall issue of property rights fairly and again in line with international law. The rights are extended to all people and the rights to compensation are recognised.

However the issue of property of agricultural land needed to be and was addressed in line with the need to “redress the unjust and unfair pattern of land ownership that was brought about by colonialism”. Conventional economic wisdom tells you that economic progression is based on strong foundation of secure property ownership, but what it does not do is take into account complex interactions on the ground.

Chapter 4, Part 2, section 72 of the Constitution seeks to protect the continuing rights of persons currently occupying or using agricultural land under a lease or other agreement with government and states that the State must take appropriate measures ‘’to give security of tenure to every person lawfully owning or occupying agricultural land”. The Constitution states that, not all agriculture land will not be State land and “owners and occupiers will be allowed under the provisions and limits of the law to ‘transfer, hypothecate, lease or dispose of his or her right in agricultural land”. It is important to understand the fact that the property rights issue is insufficient in explaining why capitalism has succeeded in the West but failed dismally in other parts of the world.

The issue of property rights surely cannot be absolute without taking into consideration the realities on the ground. The choices we make today are often constrained by the decisions and actions of yesterday. History does matter and it is history that shapes our futures. The shifting relationships of property and property rights in the Zimbabwean context are contentious and as such it is important to adopt a historical outlook to it to garner a better understanding. The discourse around the issue of property rights needs to be reflective and all-encompassing for better outcomes for all Zimbabweans.