Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (4) 

Source: Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (4) | zimbabweland

What happened in the villagised, ‘informal’ A1 areas?

When land invasions took place during 2000, many areas were invaded and land was claimed. In some instances this was not made official during the ‘fast-track’ process, and ‘offer letters’ were not issued. Sometimes there was dispute over years and years, as the new land reform villagers petitioned the government to gain recognition. In some cases this was granted, in other cases such claims are still outstanding.

This blog covers some of these so-called ‘informal’ sites, although all but one is now formalised. These sites are in Chiredzi and Mwenezi districts and so in the very dry southeast of the country. These are areas where agricultural production is risky, and more diverse livelihood options, including livestock production, must be sought.

In part because of the uncertainty over tenure and in part because of the challenges of agricultural production, these sites show the highest level of turnover, with 24 exits being recorded out of 110 households in our original sample. Some exits are only temporary, however, as diversified livelihoods mean that people move frequently, including recently from our Mwenezi sites to Masukwe to mine purple amethyst. There are, however, also many new households coming, especially in the most remote, informal sites. One of the village leaders argued, “if we have many people, then we stay here; the government will not be able to get rid of us, so we have Shangaans from Gezani, Vendas from Beitbridge and Pfumbi from Matibi coming here”.

The average age of household heads in these sites is 47, but 65% have children in the 21-30 age group, with 43.5% now farming, often having got plots in the area, or in other resettlements nearby. Indeed, half of all households had a member who had gained a plot in another resettlement; far higher than other areas. Due to the proximity of the border with South Africa and Mozambique, 34% of households had adult children outside the country, often in low-paid jobs, but nevertheless able to send some remittance income. 41% of households had received some remittance in the past year, which is a high rate compared to other sites, and reflective of the challenges of 2019 as a major drought year.

Overall, populations in this area are marginalised and mobile. Many male heads of household are working elsewhere, and 41% of households are de facto female headed. Women take on important roles in these areas and 37% of households have women involved in an independent business, while 24% have women involved in local leadership roles, often in groups for production and marketing. Educational levels are not as high as in other areas, with only 27% having proceeded beyond Form II at school, while 21% had Master Farmer certificates.

Everyone grows maize, but also sorghum. Total outputs are highly variable, with maize varying between an average of 297 kg and 1816 kg per household between 2107 and 2019. Sorghum production was a bit less variable and averaged about one tonne per household over the period. Although yields were way down in 2019, in the previous two years around 43% of households produced more than a tonne of maize and around 36% of households produced more than a tonne of sorghum. This is perhaps surprising given the marginal agroecology, but demonstrates the high variability of production. With decent rainfall, the good soils produce well in favourable years, but production drops to vanishingly little in other years, meaning grain storage and other off-farm incomes are required. Mr TG explained the consequences of this variability:

We came from Chivi communal area in 2000 with just three donkeys. I bought cattle since. I bought six at one time in 2004 from a bumper crop of cotton and sorghum. The highest number we had was in 2008 when there were 17. Since then the animals died from drought, and we have had to sell many over time. Drought is now every year.

One of the sites in this area (Uswaushava) was the centre of a cotton boom in the 2000s, but this dropped off as prices collapsed. Only in the last year or two has cotton picked up again, and in 2019, a quarter of households had a contract for cotton growing. To replace cotton, farmers in this area diversified into other contracted crops, including lablab bean, sesame and water melon; all of which generated decent profits. Those with gardens along the river – which is now nearly everyone – grow water melons, which are marketed in huge quantities along the road and to nearby towns. The water melon business is especially important for younger farmers. Without other land, they can get small portions by the river, and once they have a pump they can expand production, transporting their crop in cars they have acquired or on buses that move along the Ngundu-Chiredzi road.

The area is highly suited to livestock production given the ‘sweet veld’ of this region, but herd sizes are not large, with household holdings of cattle on average 7.4 head and goats 7.8 head. However, only 9% had no cattle at all. 38% of households had purchased cattle in the last five years, and 57% had sold at least one during the 2019 drought period. 59% had sold at least one goat, and two-thirds of households had sold poultry. Livestock as a source of livelihood, usually for coping with drought, are essential. Mr HM from Turf Ranch explained:

I arrived here with very few cattle. They grew to a large herd. Now I have only 24, but I have bought a tractor (in 2014) and a truck (in 2018), as well as invested in a well and pump (in 2012) and a grinding mill (in 2015). Cattle were bought from selling sorghum and the herd grew on its own. I have a large area of land, and the soil is good if there’s rain. My sons tried their luck in South Africa, but failed and I have allocated them land. All three of my wives have land too. There is plenty here – you just have to clear the bush!

Because of the variability of crop production, a diversified livelihood is essential. Here, the type of off-farm income sources include pottery/basket making (38% of households), piece work (48%) and cross-border trading (44%). Because of the marginality of the area, some 67% had been provided some form of welfare during the previous 12 months, in the form of food aid/cash support from the state or NGOs/church groups. However, all our informants commented that life was better in the new resettlements:

Despite the droughts, life here is good, much better than before. We don’t suffer that much from the drought, and we get good yields in some years, and if not we always have a beast to sell. Our relatives from Chivi come and get food here, and they come and sell labour in drought periods too. Things are definitely going up. We have household utensils, decent blankets and so on. It might look like something small, but it’s definitely an improvement. Others even have cars, everyone has bicycles and there are lots of livestock here. Scotch carts are like wheelbarrows now, and pumps and solar panels are everywhere.

Looking forward, people again comment on the importance of irrigation. There are some river bank irrigation areas in these sites, and people have started buying pumps and selling vegetables, including to various boarding schools. Domestic water supplies are also a challenge, but compared to when the land was invaded and settled, things have improved. “We used to have to go with carts and barrows up to eight kilometres, but now many have dug boreholes and with so many scotch carts in the areas it’s so much easier”, said one informant from Uswaushava.

Asked about the persistence of informal status on the land, our informants were less concerned than they were a decade or so ago, when protests to argue for their land rights were organised. “No-one comes to bother us”, one informant commented. These places are far away from the centres of power and administration and the state is largely absent. After a long silence, the same informant said, “yes the state does help us – certainly social welfare for the needy and cotton seed and maize seed are provided. We however had to build the school and clinic ourselves, although they provide the staff. And it was the church that paid for the first borehole”. Even in the remotest site in Mwenezi, our informants admitted that the state was now more present than before, and they have graded the road and a clinic and school nearby are being built, but extension workers are rare, and the government “doesn’t really bother us”.

In the Mwenezi sites, where turnover of plots is high and there are is a constant flow of people, the governance arrangements are more fluid than the more settled sites such as Uwwaushava where the original Committee of Seven continues to function. In Turf ranch, for example, the number of sabhukus (headmen) has increased from four to 18 since 2000, reflecting the influx of people. This is facilitated by village leaders who get paid for new land, and churches who attract followers and bring them to new land. Although wildlife damage remains a problem, and especially from elephants, there is perceived to be a large amount of land, and the under-used A2 farms nearby offer free, unrestricted grazing for now. For many years, these sites were remote, frontier settlements, operating under different rules, but increasingly they are being incorporated into state administration and wider economic circuits. Transport is easier now, for example. Eleven households have cars and scotch carts in Turf ranch, making transport to nearby townships easier. Cars are bought in exchange for cattle, and dealers from as far as Harare come and sell, knowing that in good years farmers in these remote new resettlements have money to spend.

As in our other case study areas, across a variety of income sources, some people are able to accumulate and invest. Perhaps surprisingly 33% had bought ploughs in the past five years, 22% had bought carts and 59% had bought solar panels. Unlike in the other areas covered in previous blogs, the investments are, however, intermittent and the result of infrequent windfalls – a good sorghum or maize crop, the selling of cotton, the sale of cattle and so on. Accumulation is a stop-start affair, but nevertheless, compared to when they first settled many – probably at least a third – are doing well, and comment how life has improved.

The townships and open markets in these areas are witness to the underlying strength of the economy. The weekly Chikombedzi bakosi market is always full, and many women are involved in the Mwenezi sites in trading, including selling goats in Limpopo, South Africa, as well as mopane worms across the region when in season. Similarly, the township near Uswaushava resettlement area now has 20 shops, several grinding mills as well as the usual selection of bottle stores/bars, with many of these up-and-coming businesses owned by farmers, with them being started from agricultural proceeds, notably cotton and vegetable sales.

Despite this, overall, households in these informal A1 areas in these remote, dry parts of the country are poorer and more vulnerable that the other A1 resettlement areas in Masvingo province. But nevertheless, these are not the same as nearby communal areas from where they mostly originally came from. A significant group are even are to accumulate, even if unevenly, and invest both in fine buildings, new township businesses and farming.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on ZimbabwelandLed by Felix Murimbarimba, the Masvingo team is: Moses Mutoko, Thandiwe Shoko, Tanaka Murimbarimba, Liberty Tavagwisa, Tongai Murimbarimba, Vimbai Museva, Jacob Mahenehene, Tafadzwa Mavedzenge (data entry) and Shingirai, the driver. Thanks to the research team, ministry of agriculture officials and the many farmers who have supported the work over the years.


  • comment-avatar

    Starvation, corruption, being able to say “told you so”. Priceless!

  • comment-avatar
    Ndebele 1 month ago

    Scoones could do well to study history. Both Hitler and Stalin embarked on a FTLRP into Poland in September 1939. Peter K was 15 when the tanks rolled in through their potato field. Peter, his sister and his parents were sent to Siberia as slave labour in a gulag. Peter’s father died of dysentery in Siberia. Peter was a lumberjack felling trees for the Russian offensive. But then Stalin had a change of mind – he switched sides. The Polish slave labour were then sent to the UK. Peter K got a job in the RAF. He was packing aircraft parts into crates that were being sent to Africa and Australia for the RAF pilot training schemes. One day Peter was packing a crate and came across his very own branded stamp on a plank from a tree that he had felled personally in Siberia – in the UK! Russia was sending timber to the UK. After the war Peter K went to the then Rhodesia and joined the Ford agents, Dulys where he worked for well over 30 years. Peter’s family never got their farms back because they were incorporated into The Ukraine. Peter K was fully qualified to to see the writing on the wall when the food shortages started to occur in Zimbabwe in 2003. He had seen it all before. Maybe the UK also needs to go hungry again so that the likes of Scoones and Shiri are brought to book for their actions? History repeating itself?