Resolving Who Owns What Land Lies at Heart of Zimbabwe’s Future

Volunteer lawyers helped delay the villagers’ eviction in the courts even as the police intensified their campaign on the ground. Starting last March, the police began coming nearly every day to harass the residents.

One reason the 146 families who lived in Mazowe felt betrayed by their leader was that they themselves had seized the land from a white farmer in 2000, under Mr. Mugabe’s fast-track land reform program. Now, they risked losing everything to his wife and daughter: 3,100 acres of prime land for farming and cattle ranching that abuts a lake and gold mines.

As Zimbabwe embarks on its post-Mugabe era, the unresolved issue of land ownership remains at the heart of the nation’s future, just as it was at the time of independence, in 1980.

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Members of a family in Mazowe, Zimbabwe, whose dwelling was destroyed by the police in 2015.

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Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Associated Press

In the talks leading to independence from white-minority rule, Mr. Mugabe was pressured into an agreement that left land ownership unsettled. In what was and remains an agricultural economy, the nation’s most productive farmland was in the hands of a few thousand white settlers.

Resolving the land issue, including compensating white farmers whose properties were later seized, is critical to repairing relations with Western nations and international lenders, which have been virtually frozen for nearly a generation. The new government desperately needs Western assistance to revive the nation’s moribund economy.

Determining who owns the land is a necessary step to development and democratization in Zimbabwe. Nearly all Zimbabweans who benefited from Mr. Mugabe’s land reform policy lack titles, or legal ownership of their property — leaving them at the mercy of the politically powerful.

In his inauguration speech, President Emmerson Mnangagwa — who, with his military…

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