Zimbabwe’s election: what are the parties saying about land, agriculture and rural development?

At last one of the major parties contesting Zimbabwe’s election on August 23 has produced a manifesto – in this case the Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC), which was launched last week. ZANU-PF remain without one, claiming that they are running on their record. Other parties have produced them, including ZAPU, but two are no longer relevant, as the Douglas Mwonzora and the MDC-T dropped out and Saviour Kasukuwere was disqualified by the courts.

Right now there are ten presidential candidates, but in the end only two matter – Emerson Mnangagwa of ZANU-PF, the ruling party that has been in power for 43 years, and Nelson Chamisa, the head of the new party, the CCC, which emerged from the Movement for Democratic Change that was led for so long by the late Morgan Tsvangirai.

Rather than commenting on the endless intrigues and the faction fighting within the parties, on which you can spend days on social media if you like (and be none the wiser), for this blog I will concentrate on the substantive policies around land, agriculture and rural development that each of the parties offer. In terms of policy debate, this election has been rather disappointing to say the least, with so much airtime being taken up by many court cases contesting the validity of candidates, when candidates registered and so on. There are a lot of lawyers in the political class in Zimbabwe and electoral democracy has become highly litigious, not necessarily resulting in a better process given the state of the judicial system in the country.

Avoiding all these shenanigans and following the tradition of this blog established for the elections in 2013 and 2018 (see blogs here, here, here and here), I have had a look at the policy promises made by the two main parties.

ZANU-PF’s mixed track record

As already noted, ZANU-PF have not produced a manifesto at all, so we have to take them at their word and look at their record and assume that this is the basis on which they are contesting.

Luckily the very well respected and independent think-tank Sivio has produced one of its ‘record card’ assessments of the track record of the current government across a range of areas. In many, the record is poor – including in areas where there has been much critique, including most notably overall governance, but in agriculture Sivio gives the government a surprisingly positive grade, with 28 of 32 promises kept (although only 3 were fully implemented) and an overall mark of 74%. This is on the basis of a range of subsidy schemes, some investment in infrastructure (notably irrigation and an acceleration of dam construction) and good harvests (of course helped by good rainfall seasons recently).

So, if elected, we assume that they will stick with their current approach, encouraging external investment in the sector, including via joint ventures; subsidising key crops (such as wheat) and certain farmers (through the various schemes – the Presidential inputs support, pfumvudza, command agriculture and so on) and continuing with the (very slow) land registration process and the issuing of leases for the A2 farms. The agreement of a compensation deal for the white farmers who lost their land in the land reform is seen as a big policy achievement of the past government, and presumably we can expect this to remain a priority, with negotiations around wider government debt encompassing the huge sums ($3.5 billion) committed as part of the compensation deal.

Much of course will depend on whether a new ZANU-PF government can convince the ‘international community’ that they (this time) really do mean business, and that sanctions/restrictive measures are then reduced, debt cleared and investment then flows. There will be much scepticism given the poor track record of the government since the coup in 2017 when so much more was expected. The failures of the current government on many fronts – most notably on the economy, and so jobs – is a focus of much commentary, and it is no surprise that a large majority think that the country needs to change, even if according to Afrobarometer ZANU-PF were ahead in the polls at least a month or so ago  – presumably because the rural voters appreciate some of the ruling party’s policies and respect their local candidates who emerge through often hard-fought primary elections, while on-going scepticism about the electoral process and voter intimidation dissuade rural people from backing an alternative (at least in public).

Citizens’ change ahead?

The opposition led by Nelson Chamisa defines itself around change, and the CCC manifesto is all about rebuilding Zimbabwe – with large doses of Christianity thrown in for good measure. God is supposedly on their side and at the manifesto launch, Chamisa committed to “rededicate Zimbabwe to God”. Chamisa’s bizarre policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ confused many and resulted in much discontent internally, but the manifesto (coming very late in the campaign and held up by internal wrangling) is full of important specifics, including a five point plan and 20 actions for the first 100 days, together with lots of detail on a whole array of policy areas across 100 pages.

It replicates much that was in the MDC Alliance’s last manifesto, and indeed overlaps considerably with many of ZANU-PF’s commitments and in fact on-going projects. The photo editor may well be the same as in 2018 too, with a distinct proclivity to choose stock photos from around the world depicting a high tech modern future for Zimbabwe modelled on Spain, the US and elsewhere, with multi-lane motorways, high-speed trains, fancy medical equipment and (bizarrely) a rural landscape that looks like New England in the fall.

There is quite a lot of detail about modernising the agriculture sector, including a focus on ‘precision agriculture’, value addition, agro-processing, irrigation and so on (pp. 52-55). And even seemingly as an afterthought there is a mention of climate change and the environment (p. 95). There are also some good sections on the importance of decentralised approaches to economic development and supporting rural growth linkages through the MATURA plan (much as we have been banging on about for years). And, as with all parties, there is a declaration that the land reform is irreversible, although the CCC manifesto repeats the tired rhetoric about the ‘chaotic’ land reform destroying the sector and the inaccurate claim that the country has been in continuous food deficit. But the CCC manifesto also makes the case that there is an urgent need to focus on land governance and administration. It argues for the need to address multiple farm ownership, stop elite grabbing, corruption and patronage and so on, removing land from the political matrix of patronage and party control and towards an effective administration system. All good stuff, aligning very much with what has been argued on this blog over years.

However, as in previous manifestos, the opposition party seems obsessed with giving people freehold title to their land (this time only to resettlement areas, whereas communal areas will get transferrable permits to occupy, but also seemingly a land reorganisation separating village and field areas, with echoes of the notorious 1951 Land Husbandry Act). Maybe it’s the number of lawyers involved but, as argued on this blog many times before, this freehold title obsession may be a diversion, and will almost certainly be unimplementable.

The big question for the CCC (as with ZANU-PF) is how all these promises will be paid for and how a more stable economy will emerge given years in the doldrums, shunned by international players, let alone valued at US$100 billion. It will take more than a quick phone call to President Biden, I fear.

A modernising zeal, but with what resources?

In the end, beyond some different emphases, the positions of the current government and the opposition on land, agriculture and rural development are not hugely different. Both proclaim the need to modernise, to invest in technology, to upgrade infrastructure, pay fair prices to farmers and so on, but how this will be done with what resources remains the big question. Whoever takes over after these elections the big issue will be the mounting debt, the fragile currency and the lack of resources in the exchequer.

In the end the capacity to implement any of the policies laid out in manifestos and speeches with multiple promises will depend on the politics of reengagement with international finance either public or private. And in turn it will mean dealing with the currency situation and so inflation (presumably once again accept the de facto reality and adopting the US dollar formally), and in parallel addressing the ballooning debt obligations (now with high global interest rates), owed to the international finance institutions as well as the Chinese.

All this will be a massive challenge for any incoming administration and will not easily be solved whoever becomes president and whichever party gains the most seats in parliament. The challenges of land, agriculture and rural development will likely persist and will require more detailed policies appropriate to local needs and aligned with resource availability, rather than the grand handwaving and promises that cannot be fulfilled that we see in every election (and not just in Zimbabwe of course).

We can only hope that the election and its aftermath will remain peaceful and that an incoming government will engage with debates on the ground and with empirical research evidence and enlist researchers and others in trying to address the many challenging issues in Zimbabwe’s rural areas.

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