Zimbabwe's land reforms were begun with good intentions – to benefit poor black farmers. They not only became mired in nepotism, but now look to have been poorly implemented too.
You reap what you sow; and Zimbabwe's controversial land reforms, launched in June 2000, appear to be yielding a poor harvest.
The reforms were sown with good intentions: to transfer vast tracts of fertile land from a tiny minority of white commercial farmers, who produced most of the country's food and agricultural exports, to black farmers – most of whom were either landless or were forced to survive on poor quality soil.
The controversial land seizure programme was executed swiftly and ruthlessly enough in the face of international criticism. In just two-and-a-half years from June 2000 the government took over between 9 and 11 million hectares from white farmers. But when it came to implementing the next stage of reforms – settling in black farmers with financial and other incentives – the government faltered.
Besides, by the government's own admission, widespread corruption marred the whole exercise.
The result is that although some black farmers have benefited, many are still without land while fertile land lies unused. And millions face food shortages across the country. "The problem is that this was a rushed exercise," says John Mautsa, president of the Indigenous Commercial Farmers Union (ICFU), which includes the new black farmers.
Webster Makoni, a Harare-based agricultural economist comments: "Yes, the basic resource – land – has been given to the new farmers, but they need financial support to succeed. The government has no money and banks are not willing to [lend] to the new farmers because they have no security."
"In the end, we will have farmers with land but no seeds, fertiliser and machinery to farm."
Faced with the prospect of mass starvation after a severe drought last year, President Robert Mugabe contracted China International Water and Electric Corporation in February 2003 to farm 100,000 hectares of unoccupied land in southern Zimbabwe.
The corporation plans to produce at least two million tonnes of maize starting this winter – enough to feed Zimbabwe's population of 12 million, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a regional inter-governmental food security organisation. Crucially, the Chinese company will also bring in farming equipment that can be taken over by locals once the contract expires.
China International was unwilling to be interviewed, but its involvement is already becoming a political issue. Renson Gasela, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change's (MDC) shadow minister for agriculture, says the recruitment of the Chinese company indicates "a disastrous failure of the land reforms".
"The intention was to de-racialise commercial farming but now they have removed one group of whites to benefit another group – the Chinese," says Gasela.
Dr Godfrey Chikowore, head of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Zimbabwe, disagrees.
"The contract to China is part of the government's long-standing programme under which land has been leased to foreign governments or state-owned firms," he explains. "The one with China International Water and Electric Corporation is meant to boost agricultural production until resettled blacks can produce enough for the nation."
There is another problem with the land redistribution exercise. Although some 220,000 peasant farmers have received small plots of land, there are questions over the redistribution of many of the larger, 400-hectare plots, which were meant for black commercial farmers to feed the nation.
Tonderai Gurundoro, who comes from President Mugabe's rural home Zvimba, west of the capital Harare, says he is still waiting to receive his promised plot.
But his name, like those of many other frustrated land applicants, appears in a list of beneficiaries published by the government. Despite many visits to agriculture ministry and district administration offices, he remains landless.
"I was surprised to hear that the farm where I was supposed to have been allocated a plot (Sinoia Old Citrus) was given to a prominent politician. It was reported in the Sunday Mail of February 16," says Gurundoro.
Only 54,000 out of 100,000 applicants for the larger plots have been allocated land. Overall, 70 per cent of the larger plots remain unoccupied, says the agriculture ministry.
Mugabe has sought to fend off international criticism by vowing to stamp out corruption involved in the selection of beneficiaries, accusing provincial governors of "practising preferential treatment, if not an element of nepotism and corruption".
A land audit team led by minister of state for land reforms, Flora Buka, corroborates claims that the land reforms programme was sought to be hijacked by corrupt public service officials and ruling party bosses. It is expected to publish its report soon.
Meanwhile, Martin Adams and John Howell, two British academics working as agricultural consultants in South Africa who have researched land reforms in the region, say the major hurdle confronting Zimbabwe is not what to do with non-performing land-owners or those left out of the exercise. Rather it is the government's inability to offer financial and technical support to the new farmers.
"If resettled farmers are to bring the land back into production, they will require security of tenure, basic social services and agricultural inputs," says Adams. But he adds that the government lacks the funds and skilled staff to do this.
Dr Clever Mumbengegwi, an economist and dean of the Faculty of Social Studies at the University of Zimbabwe, says the government is trying to raise Z$60 billion (US$70 million) to finance loans for farmers with larger plots. So far it has raised Z$10 billion ($11.7 million) from the domestic market.
He adds that gains from land reform will take time to bear fruit: "We cannot evaluate the success of the reforms in terms of production now, but over three to five years."
Agriculture Minister Joseph Made, recognising that he cannot turn the 54,000 new land owners into commercial farmers overnight, is offering white farmers some of their property back on condition that they sell their farming equipment to the government – saying it is needed to settle black farmers.
But relations between the government and white farmers have hit rock bottom and the president of the white-dominated Commercial Farmers Union, Colin Cloete, has refused to sign the deal, said to be worth US$55 million.
According to Mumbengegwi, the government is not rolling back its reform plans by offering land to white farmers. Rather, he says, it is "re-emphasising the same policy – that land has to be equitably distributed both among blacks and whites".
Despite the bad news and the controversy, he is hopeful about the future. "The lessons learnt so far are that the reform exercise was not the picnic that it was expected to be," he says. "There were hurdles, but these will be overcome."
Dumisani Ndlela is a Zimbabwean reporter specialising in business and economic affairs.