Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

Land reform in Zimbabwe was delayed by the 1979 Lancaster House Agreement and Britain’s subsequent failure to honour this agreement. Many African Heads of State applaud Mugabe for the stance he has taken to empower his people through land redistribution

Speaking at the 67th UN general assembly on 26 September 2013, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe rebuked the United States of America and the United Kingdom for imposing ‘illegal and filthy sanctions’ on Zimbabwe. He condemned the continuation of unilateral sanctions against his country and called it a violation of the UN Charter. He accused those imposing sanctions of ‘covetous bigotry’ and a ‘hunger for domination.’

Appearing as a foreword to David Martin and Phyllis Johnson’s book titled ‘The Struggle for Zimbabwe’ (September 1981), President Robert Mugabe’s words speak: ‘Our struggle…represents the final phase in the development of a conflict situation between the colonised and the coloniser. It was mainly on the principle of the recovery of the fatherland that the armed struggle was built.’

At the ZANU-PF Central Committee’s ordinary session in Harare on 6 July 2007, President Robert Mugabe again showed his understanding of the current destabilisation efforts. He said: ‘Our beloved economy is under siege. Our people’s welfare is under attack. We are witnessing the corporatization of politics of regime change.’


The trigger for Zimbabwe’s economic hardship is a decision taken by Britain’s Labour Government under former Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1997, not to support ‘the package of assistance for in the period immediately following independence.’

Claire Short, then member of Blair’s government responsible for foreign affairs particularly Africa, wrote to Zimbabwe’s Secretary of State and Minister of Agriculture and Land, Kumbirai Kangai MP, on 5 November 1997, ‘Tony Blair said that he looked forward to developing a new basis for relations with Commonwealth countries founded upon our government’s policies, not on the past…’

Claire Short continues in her letter, ‘It follows from this (land resettlement programme) that a programme of rapid land acquisition as you now seem to envisage would be impossible for us to support.’

She continued: ‘I know that many of Zimbabwe’s friends share our concern about the damage which this might do to Zimbabwe’s agricultural output and its prospects of attracting investment.’

Britain’s Labour Government under former Prime Minister Blair unilaterally reneged on the Lancaster House Agreement of 1979 and thus, categorically denied any colonial responsibility for Zimbabwe’s land reform, as soon as it came into power in 1997.

The United States did not honour its 1979 Lancaster House Pledge and Britain’s Conservative Government paid an insignificant 44-million Pound Sterling.


Mugabe argued that land remained an issue because of the constraints placed on him by the 1979 Lancaster House Agreement to end white rule in former Rhodesia, and Britain’s betrayal of the promises it made to ensure a settlement. Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo headed the liberation fighters’ delegation to the talks. From the beginning, Nkomo said that returning the land to the majority was central to their cause: ‘What will be the future of the people’s land?’ he asked the British.

Margaret Thatcher’s government was largely interested in protecting the property rights of the white minority. Her foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, insisted Zimbabwe’s new constitution include a 10-year bar on the forcible redistribution of the farms. Mugabe – who once vowed, ‘none of the white exploiters will be allowed to keep an acre’ – wanted to return to armed struggle. He was dissuaded by a promise from the UK to raise hundreds of millions of pounds for long-term land reform.

A few years earlier, the UK had tried to nudge fearful white Rhodesian farmers toward a political settlement by proposing a fund to compensate them if their land was confiscated. A figure of $2bn contributed by two-dozen countries was discussed. At Lancaster House, Carrington assured Nkomo and Mugabe that lack of money would not be an obstacle to redistribution. Britain would enlist the help of its allies, particularly the US, to raise funds.

‘A future government would be able to appeal to the international community for help in funding acquisition of land for agricultural settlement,’ he said. The liberation delegation was eventually persuaded. ‘These assurances go a long way in allaying the great concern we have over the whole land question arising from the great need our people have for land and our commitment to satisfy that need when in government,’ it said.

But the only thing on paper was that Zimbabwe’s first democratically elected government would not be able to force white farmers off their land. Mugabe came to power a few months later, pledging that 160,000 black families would be resettled on white-owned soil within three years. It was to be the first step toward reversing the dire colonial legacy that left 97 percent of the population confined to less than a quarter of the land. Even into the 1970s, Ian Smith’s regime was forcing black people from their soil.

Yet after 20 years of Mugabe’s rule the picture had not changed. Just 6,000 white farmers occupied half of Zimbabwe’s 81m acres of arable land. About 850,000 black farmers were crammed into the rest. Since independence, only 10 percent of arable land has moved legally from white to black hands.

Mugabe’s early promise to Zimbabweans was blocked by the constitutional restriction that meant white farmers could not be forced to sell, and those who offered land often did so at inflated prices in the belief that the government had little choice but to pay. It was paid for by the UK with £44m in aid – the only money of the promised hundreds of millions ever to materialise. Many of those small-scale farmers lacked the tools and skills to turn the land into more than the barest means of survival.

By the time the constitutional bar on the compulsory purchase of land fell away in 1990, the white farmers did not take land redistribution seriously. White tobacco planters made so much money that some built landing strips for their new planes.

Britain has promised another £36m for transparent and legal land reform. Britain will come under pressure to honour its verbal commitment at Lancaster House and finally raise the millions of pounds it will take to make land reform work.

Meanwhile, it seems not only Mugabe has a good understanding of the situation in Zimbabwe and the pressures that the country reels under. Most Zimbabweans seem informed and so are the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU).

In his address on the 70th ordinary session of the Central Committee at ZANU-PF party headquarters on 6 July 2007, Mugabe outlined his understanding of his country’s sovereignty: ‘Let us be clear, if we do not own the economy, we cannot secure the livelihood of our people. A people with no economy of their own are not a sovereign people.’

To this day, many African Heads of State still applaud Mugabe for the stance he has taken to empower his people through land redistribution.

Mugabe has realised that if he does not address the issues of land acquisition and economic indigenisation, no one else, least of all those who might take over from him, would be willing and able to do it.

* Thato Mmereki is a writer & founder of the African Youth Secretariat


* Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka and make a donation NOW to help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT!

* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.