Causes and Effects of Land reform policy and expropriation in Zimbabwe

The current crisis that Zimbabwe is experiencing has devastated the livelihoods of its urban population and created extreme poverty in its towns. From the 1980s, housing policies had made it extremely difficult and expensive for low-income residents to comply with the nation’s legal housing requirements. However, during the 1990s, these policies were tolerated as poverty increased and this created a lot of shanty towns and many cases of what the Zimbabwe government calls “informal employment”.  In 2005, the government implemented “Operation Murambatsvina (‘Restoring Order ’)” in order to eradicate “illegal” housing and informal jobs that negatively affected many poor urban residents and the country in general. This resulted in a crisis where nearly 700, 000 people lost the basis of their livelihood: either their jobs, homes, or both. 

According to the state, this drastic policy was necessary to eradicate illegal housing and informal employment, but given the economic stability of a developing country like Zimbabwe, there is no doubt that there were other reasons behind some economic and political. In this research paper, I will present the influence of the authoritarian regime in worsening the living standards of the urban areas by exploring the causes and effects of the land reform policy that lead to the Zimbabwe crisis in 2005.  By focusing on showing how this policy has affected the economy of Zimbabwe and how unjust this policy was implemented and executed in the situation of Zimbabwe, I discuss how lack of collaboration/cooperation between urban low-income people and policy makers can be a dangerous act especially when enforcing policies of planning in urban areas. Indeed, I will suggest a comparative approach of confronting this issue using the example of Rwanda where the similar policy seems to have worked.

Amartya Sen is an economist who won the Nobel Prize in 1998 for his contributions to welfare economics, social choice theory, and for his interest in the problems of society’s poorest members. In his freedom and development theory, he proposes that the only way to attain freedom is through development. His theory states that the purpose of development should be to sustain growth. According to Sen, in order to achieve of development; there must be the removal of the following: poverty, tyranny, and lack of economic opportunities, social deprivation, neglect of public services, and the machinery of repression. Indeed, he argues that inequality is basis of famines and other severe crises.

In his paper, “The Zimbabwean Crisis and the Challenges for the Left”, published in the Journal of Southern African studies, Brian Raftopoulos analyzed the Zimbabwean crisis by setting up and combining historical aspects of land distribution from the 1980’s from various authors to show how the authoritarian regime of Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, has played a major role in implementing policies that ravaged the economic growth of Zimbabwe since its independence. He attributed the crisis as a result of the lack of democratic and a collection of human rights violations of the regime and dictatorship towards its own people (Raftopoulos, 208). Raftopoulos points out that because of its influence of the ruling party in the liberation struggle that lead to the independence of Zimbabwe in the 1980’s, ZANU PF, has used that pride to represent itself as the only protector of “national interest, patriotism, and authenticity” (212).  This has resulted in a political coalition with other opposition parties such as MDC, regarded as a foreign white creation due to its critics against biased and unprepared policies implemented by Mugabe’s regime. In most cases, these policies were established to punish areas where MDC had a lot of supporters. However, most importantly, a set of these policies have negatively affected the economy of Zimbabwe at the point where unemployment rate was 80% and hyperinflation that resulted in the abandonment of the Zimbabwean currency in 2009 (217).

The outcomes of “the operation Murambtsina” were so catastrophic that the world had difficulty interpreting its negative impacts on the population.  By eliminating illegal housing and informal jobs in the capital of the country, Harare, the government of Zimbabwe thought that it would restore the order in their city. However, this policy worsened the quality of life in Harare. During and after the operation, 700, 000 people lost their homes and/or the livelihood of their resources and 2.4 million people were indirectly affected (217). Moreoever, land distributions displaced approximately one million farm workers and their families (217). In 2000, a large amount of land owned by the minority of white commercial farmers was settled to approximately hundreds of thousands of black Zimbabweans who lacked experience and professionalism in farming. They started selling their farming equipment since most of them were subsistence farmers and the agricultural production reduced significantly (Potts, 214). Therefore, these farmers could not maintain the intensive and industrialized farming of the white owners. The previously large exports of industrial crops such as tobacco, cotton, soya and horticultural production consequently reduced dramatically and the income derived from these sources couldn’t significantly contribute to the national economy anymore (216). Indeed, this leads to a total loss of about four hundred thousand jobs of workers who worked in farms (217). As a result, all these factors resulted into a high depression. According to the World Bank and IMF, from 2000 to 2007, the national economy of Zimbabwe contracted by as much as 40% and inflation was extremely high. There were persistent shortages of hard and fiat currency, fuel, medicine, and food. Indeed, the GDP per capita dropped by 40%, agricultural output dropped by 51% and industrial production dropped by 47% (Potts, 287).

In her paper, “Restoring Order, Operation Murambatsvina and the Urban Crisis in Zimbabwe”, Deborah Potts used results released by different agencies and non-governmental organizations through the ZNAC (Zimbabwe National Vulnerability Assessment Committee) and the PASS survey as well as other research centers to show ineffectiveness and the consequences of the operation and the associated injustice during its execution. Potts briefly discussed Zimbabwean economic history where she acknowledges Zimbabwe as one of the most economically stable countries in sub-Saharan Africa with only 25 to 30 % of people below the poverty line in the early 1990s. 10 to 15 % of the urban population in the HDAs was identified as poor, but they had access to potable water and electricity (Potts, 274). However, by 2003, statistics shows that 51 % of the Zimbabweans are below the poverty line and 57% of urban population in the HDAs is extremely poor without access to clean water and electricity as well as the cost of urban health and education services become extremely expensive (Potts, 274). Therefore, the government established “Operation Murambatsvina” in order to solve disorder in the cities by focusing on focusing on illegal housing, and informal jobs.

Due to the injustice and unfairness of this so called, “restoring order operation”, people’s health was severely compromised. People ended up losing their shelters and jobs, which created extreme levels of poverty and lots of health issues. For example, HIV/AIDS patients were left sleeping outside or forced to move to rural areas and abandon their medicines since doctors could not followed them up (278). Instead of reestablishing the order as the government officials predicted, it created more chaos than before including, violence and extreme conditions of poverty. Statistics showed that only 20 % of those displaced had temporarily moved to rural areas and many others were living by roads or moved into churches (280).

Zimbabwe is not the only country that has recently had to deal with urban land reform. In fact, many developing countries in Africa are trying to build and transform their cities into modern cities. Currently, Rwanda is also dealing with this problem, but so far the process has been excessively successful. This is because through education, the population understands why the city needs to be modernized: attracting foreign businesses and investors for the stable development of the country.  Indeed, those who are misplaced by the city’s policy are expropriated and compensated fairly. While many could ask what went wrong with the land distribution in Zimbabwe, the freedom and development theory of Sen provides a perfect understanding of the Zimbabwean tragedy.  According to Sen, any kind of development plan should be implemented in the way that reduces poverty by creating more economic opportunities as well as involving some kind of negotiation and collaboration with the population. However, in case of Zimbabwe, none of these methods were used during the process of urban reforming. People’s homes were destroyed without fair compensation and they were forced to move into rural areas. Before the restoring order, the government knew that 85 % of city households in HDAs (High density areas) were living off of informal jobs (288). However, they blindly destroyed people’s jobs without setting up strategies to compensate their jobs. Clearly, Sen would criticize the Zimbabwean policy makers since they claimed to establish development by increasing poverty and diminishing the opportunities to the majority. Indeed, Sen would also claim that this so called order was unjust and biased because the government didn’t negotiate with its people in order to reach some kind of agreements. These assertions explain why this policy worsened the situations instead of solving problems it was supposed to encounter.

Indeed, this shows how this policy was implemented with a great deal of injustice. At the beginning in the 1990s, when people were moved into towns of Harare, the capital city, the government did not stop the migration or ban the construction of illegal houses and illegal jobs, which means it wasn’t people’s fault. Therefore, during the restoring of order in 2005, people should have fairly been compensated for their property in order to avoid tragedies in the aftermaths.

Perhaps, Zimbabwe should have adopted the method that Rwanda is currently using to organize Kigali, the capital of Rwanda into a modern technological city. From 2005, the city adopted the “Kigali master plan”, which is a planning scheme to transform Kigali into a modern technological city. This means that the city has to move people in order to make sure that all the construction follows the master plan. Unlike Zimbabwe, the process of expropriation in Rwanda is done in ways that provide fair compensation to the displaced population. In order to do make this possible, private companies buy land to the government, and then, the government negotiates with the population on the prices of their property to receive compensation according to current costs of materials and labor. In many occasions, people are given choice of where they can build their new houses compatible to their economy or they can choose other selected places as long as it matches what they can afford (Ilberg, 5). Therefore, once people are moved, they could find new places, which facilitated the expropriation into a smooth process. In this way, as the government negotiated with people and this created a level of freedom that Sen states in his theory. Indeed, because the government has managed to encourage private real estate companies to be involved in this process, the population gets a lot of benefits and this creates new economic opportunities for the population. This shows how the Rwandan government has carefully implemented this policy to organize the city and to facilitate its development.

Raftopoulos and Potts did a good job at explaining and clarifying reasons for the crisis of Zimbabwe through the evidence of their work and their research on operation Murambatsvina. Their research provides us credible information because they collected data from NGO’s and agencies that researched on the land distribution issues for about 20 years. Initially, this operation established to demolish informal settlements and informal employment in cities ended up sinking Zimbabwe into an economic depression. During their research, these authors found other unfair factors that pushed the government to embark on this policy such as punishing followers of the opposition party, MDC, for voting against the ruling party, ZANU PF. Most importantly, this shows why it is important to think about the capacity of the population when implementing policies. Originally, this policy was not a bad one, but the conditions and the process in which it was executed had extremely bad consequences not only on the policy makers, and the people, but also the whole country in general. High inflation resulted into health issues, education, and the shrinking of the national economy in general. In order to deal effectively with this land reform policy and expropriation, policy makers need to establish strategies to fairly compensate those who are misplaced in order to increase opportunities and maintain development of the people.


[1] Potts, Deborah, “’Restoring Order’? Operation Murambatsvina and the Urban Crisis in Zimbabwe, Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Jun., 2006), pp. 273-291

[2] Raftopulos, Brian, “The Zimbabwean Crisis and the Challenges for the Left, Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Jun., 2006), pp. 203-219

[3] Ilberg, Antje, Technical Advisor for German Development Service (DED) at Kigali City, June 2005 – February 2008, Introduction beyond Paper Policies: Planning Practice in Kigali.


Published by Didier Champion

Didier Champion is a Rwandan blogger. I love telling stories and writing about Rwanda. I was born and raised in Rwanda. I speak 3 languages. Kinyarwanda, English, and French. From Rwanda (my home country), to the United States (my adoptive country), and Europe, where I am currently working, I take the Rwandan and African pride with me. I am a Rwandan Pan-Africanist who love sharing African stories. Although I am a trained Energy Engineer, my passion is in business and entrepreneurship. My topics about Africa focuses on an aid-free Africa relying on trade, tourism, innovation, and technology. I dream about a self-reliant Africa whose financial freedom is unshakeable. An Africa that consumes what It produces & produces what it consumes. I love traveling across Africa, exploring the beauty of our continent and learning about how to make it in Africa. I am always encouraged by the African Youth with same dreams and aspirations. For more, follow me on twitter and follow this blog to stay in touch. Thank you Didier

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