The Collapse of Commercial Agriculture in Zimbabwe and its wider implications

Over the past 100 years, Zimbabwe developed a sophisticated agricultural system. The basic structure of the industry was as follows in 1999: -

6000 large scale commercial farmers on 8 million hectares
480 agribusiness enterprises. On 4 million hectares
24000 small scale commercial farmers on 3,5 million hectares
800 000 peasant farmers. On 20 million hectares.

This system of farming activity was supported by an industrial base where 60 per cent of all industry was either predicated to supplying farmers with inputs or was using farm produce as a primary raw material. The farms employed a third of all workers in formal employment and at least half of all industrial jobs were dependent directly on farm activity.

In addition to this activity a network of research facilities that supported the industry and developed seed varieties, which were used for a major seed industry - one that dominated the regional markets. Farmers were major investors in the infrastructure that supported them - co-operatives were active in the pig industry and in input distribution.

Some 30 per cent of all Bank lending went to agriculture and in addition the industry supported a considerable network of sophisticated marketing enterprises - the Cold Storage Commission (once the largest meat organisation in Africa). The Tobacco Auction Floors (largest in the world), Colcom (pigs), the Dairibord - a commercialized State enterprise that is now listed on the stock market. Cotco - the largest cotton marketing enterprise in Africa.

The farm industry generated over half of all exports and probably a third of all GDP. It was highly diversified and recognised as being both efficient and advanced - even by world standards.

Then in the year 2000, the commercial farmers and his labour and their families - together a population of about 1,8 million people, held the balance of power between a new urban political force known as the Movement for Democratic Change and the ruling Party, Zanu PF. In the referendum in February 2000, the ruling Party was defeated for the first time in its history. Then in the June 2000 general election the vote was split between Zanu PF and the MDC - the combined opposition actually winning 52 per cent of the popular vote.

With 40 per cent of the vote in the urban areas, 40 per cent on the communal or peasant farming areas and Zanu PF and MDC holding about 85 per cent of both, the 20 per cent of the vote in the middle were a "swing vote". It was this vote that gave the victories to the MDC in 2000. It was enough to persuade the authorities that Commercial Agriculture was expendable.

The farm invasion began - today, 4 years later, of the 6000 large-scale commercial farmers, only 600 or so remains. The great majority of white large-scale commercial farmers have been forced off their farms and dispossessed. The cost to the country has been enormous: -
GDP is down to nearly half what it was in 1997.
Exports are down by two thirds.
Employment is down by 40 per cent.
Up to 3 million people have fled the country as economic and political refugees.
Food production has fallen to the point where up to 70 per cent of the population has had to be fed by foreign donors in the past year.
Life expectancy is down to 35 years - less than Malawi and down 24 years since 1990.
All investment has stopped and some US$2 billion in capital has left the country in the past 4 years.

It must be recognised that this has not been the result of a civil war or any natural clammily. It has been a deliberate, carefully planned and ruthlessly executed strategy by a beleaguered political party that has been determined to stop at nothing in its efforts to hold onto power in order to protect personal security and assets.

The justification that the Mugabe regime has given for this exercise was that it was simply moving to correct an historical injustice. To the Pan Africanist he has justified the exercise as one designed to allow Africans to regain their natural heritage. To their local supporters they have said that they are giving land back to the people, they are rewarding their supporters, they are finally fulfilling their pre-election (in 1980) promises.

None of these justifications holds up to scrutiny.

Well over 80 per cent of all commercial farms had changed hands since 1980 - the new buyers obtaining approval before acquisition on the grounds that the land was not required for resettlement. Only a minority of the farmers affected were foreign - the great majority were local citizens. Only 140 000 people have been 'settled' where once 1,8 million made their living and held rights of abode.

The real reasons that have never been disclosed were quite different. They were: -
To eliminate the commercial farmer and his workforce as a political element.
To reduce the influence of the middle class - also as a political element in the national equation.
To provide resources for patronage and to use patronage to reward supporters and punish perceived political enemies.

To give credence to that last point, it must be noted that virtually every black business person of stature, who does not actively and publicly support Zanu PF has been forced out of the country in recent years - Nigel Chanakira, Strive Masiwa, Julius Makone are all examples of this trend.

The impact on commercial agriculture has been dramatic - food production is down by 60 per cent or more, tobacco output by 80 per cent. Today commercial farm production is probably no more than 20 per cent of what it was before 2000. Several billions of US dollars of capital assets have been destroyed and decades of know how, expertise and experience lost.

But the wider implications are just as serious and are often lost sight of. Food prices have risen to the point where Zimbabwe now has some of the highest food prices in the region. Historically, food prices in Zimbabwe have always been lower than in any of our neighbors - including South Africa.

The attack on tenure has not been restricted to agricultural land - mines and factories are also affected. So much so that Implats in South Africa has just announced that they will not go ahead with a R4,7 billion investment in Zimbabwe if a special agreement with South Africa covering tenure rights is not signed. This has put a halt to investment in almost all forms of property. There is today hardly a single major construction contract underway that is funded by the private sector.

But just as serious has been the impact on the quality of life for the average Zimbabwean - the food and employment crisis and the associated collapse of the economy has exacerbated the impact of the Aids pandemic. 58 per cent of women between the age of 15 and 25 are HIV positive. Death rates from Aids and related problems now kill three times as many people as all other problems combined. This is made very much worse by the collapse of the health sector, shortages of all drugs and the flight of human skills in health and education services.

Zimbabwe now has the highest maternal death rates in the world, will soon have more orphans than any other country in the world as a proportion of its national population.

And perhaps the most bizarre feature of this situation is that the basic political objective of Zanu PF has not been achieved - in fact the very opposite. With the national population declining now by at least 3 per cent per annum, the population of the cities still continues to increase at the same rate or more - resulting in rural populations declining rapidly. It is now estimated that Zimbabwe has about 65 per cent of its total population in the cities - which remain citadels of opposition influence and activity.

Eddie Cross Bulawayo
2004