Blogs > Cliopatria > Postcolonial Land Reform

Aug 27, 2004 6:25 pm


Postcolonial Land Reform




A story in the New York Times this week contrasted the approaches of the Kenyan and Zimbabwean governments on the issue of land reform, with the Kenyan government protecting the property rights of white farmers from Masai and Samburu claimants and the Zimbabwean government confiscating white-owned land en masse .

I have been somewhat reluctant to talk directly about the case of Zimbabwe as a land reform “policy”, because it’s really nothing of the sort. Zimbabwe’s ongoing political crisis has almost nothing to do with land reform or white farmers. That’s a red herring, a diversion pursued very consciously by the Mugabe government to distract from the deeper forms of misrule and autocracy they practice. The Zimbabwean economy has been in free-fall since 1998 not because Mugabe decided to take white-owned land but because many of his ministers have persistently ransacked the economy for personal gain and used the state’s security apparatus to violently suppress all sources of opposition.

However, if that diversion has succeeded in recasting the story for some Western observers, that is only partly due to the gullibility of those observers. It is also because underneath it all, there is a real “there” involved. The issue of land reform is real, which is what makes the cynical misuse of the issue by the Zimbabwean state so deeply offensive. Its reality is always one that confronts us with history, both its meanings and its uses.

Let’s start with a basic fact: modern colonial powers in Africa, primarily England and France, stole land from Africans. Colonial government generally held themselves to be the primary owners of land within their territories, selling some land to private (mostly non-African) holders and “permitting” most Africans to live upon and work land.

So where do independent African nations go with that, after the end of colonialism in Africa? Let’s suppose they decide to pursue a restorative course in which all land taken is returned to its former owners, in which the injustice of land alienation is wholly erased. But how? How do you return land to its owners when the people who formerly worked it didn’t operate within a modern, juridical construction of private property in the first place? How do you decompose a colonial system of land ownership back into usufruct rights? And to whom do those usufruct rights go, given that colonialism and modernity have spurred so much human movement within Africa? Do all configurations of private property get reverted to 1875? Wouldn’t this require destroying most urban communities in Africa?

Do those new states just take land from whites? Why not from wealthy African entrepreneurs or accumulators who also took advantage of colonial policies? If all private property is a consequence of colonial intervention, why distinguish between white-owned private property (when the whites in question are national citizens resident on the land they own) and black-owned private property?

A restorative course of land reform really has no way to explain why it arbitrarily stops short of decomposing the entirety of modernity, why it accepts any aspect of liberal, contractual, conceptions of property. No wonder that such a course typically crumbles into official corruption, as it has in Zimbabwe: the process of deciding what current person or family should be the contractual landholder entitled to particular pieces of land is always already arbitrary, so the slide from “person whose family lived in this place in 1890” to “minister who is from this general region” is not as far as it might appear.

The other course of action is to pursue land reform that increases the public welfare of a contemporary, modern nation. Here the questions and goals are very different. They ask, “How can we maximize the greatest good for the greatest number?” Asking that question often means that one might legitimately judge that allowing very large tracts of commercial, fertile land to be owned by a very small and racially identifiable minority is not socially just or prudent. But the redistributive principles that one might follow in remedying that would be very different. A nation might judge, as the current Kenyan government has, that private property rights in general are an important social good in their own right, and need defending—so rather than confiscation, a nation might pursue a purchase of land targeted for reform. And a government might also judge that post-reform patterns of land tenure should follow some other principle than the recreation of mid-19th Century smallholdings. It might decide that the land ought to belong to those who work it now (as advocated by Hernando de Soto) rather than the descendents of those who worked it then, and so give new landholdiing rights to tenant farm workers rather than people from another district.

History can only be a guide in postcolonial land reform in African societies if the aim is to obliterate the entire substance of the past 150 years. There is no sensible way to go just so far towards a restorative program of land reform and no farther. If the aim instead is social justice and the maximization of the public welfare of a modern society, the path to land reform leads only forward, never backward.



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Timothy James Burke - 8/28/2004

The Lancaster House framework for land acquisition was functionally abandoned by the Mugabe government in the mid-1990s: it informs nothing of the current round of land acquisitions.

The cultural-political rhetoric of ZANU-PF's address to land since 1980 (and before) has always been restorationist in its fundamental logics, that the idea of land reform was to return land to its rightful holders. In the context of that rhetoric, they've rarely made a distinction between people dispossessed in the 1970s and people dispossessed in 1890. On the flip side, the most notorious cases of 1960s-1970s era land alienation have been among those handled least well by the Mugabe government. Most strikingly, the Tangwena people's claims against a white landowner in eastern Zimbabwe, which became an international cause celebre, have ironically culminated in some of them being forced off their land by the Mugabe government because of forestry policies.


Nathanael D. Robinson - 8/28/2004

I thought that the Lancaster House Agreement addressed land dispossession from the 1960s and 1970s, not from the 19th century. I don't want to be an apologist for Mugabe, but did not these things happen in the recent past?


Timothy James Burke - 8/27/2004

No, it can't be undone. Neither has it accomplished a recreation or re-enactment of 1875 land tenure, of course--what it's done is taken productive commercial farms and made them into vanity properties owned by government ministers that are largely lying fallow. Farms have become country estates. That's not "backward", either--it is most definitely a result which is only possible within the context of the modern state. But its ideological justification is restorative, even if its results are not.

Whatever comes next, it'll also be a "forward", e.g, non-restorative transformation. The productive if also white-owned commercial farms that existed in Zimbabwe in the 1980s are never coming back. That's just a fact. It'll take a generation to get a commercial farming sector or any other alternative arrangement of the farming economy into place, if it can ever be accomplished. Destruction is easier than creation.


Ralph E. Luker - 8/27/2004

If the experience of Kenya and Zimbabwe in land reform are so distinctly contrasting, what does it mean to say that the path to land reform is only forward, never backward. Surely, one hopes that at some time the travesty of land reform in Zimbabwe will be undone. Isn't that undoing a "going backward" in order to go forward?

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