Zimbabwe agreed on Wednesday to pay $3.5bn in compensation to white farmers whose land was expropriated by the government to resettle Black families, moving a step closer to resolving one the most divisive policies of the Robert Mugabe era.
But the southern African nation does not have the money and will issue long-term bonds and jointly approach international donors with the farmers to raise funding, according to the compensation agreement.
Two decades ago Mugabe’s government carried out at times violent evictions of 4,500 white farmers and redistributed the land to about 300,000 Black families, arguing it was redressing colonial land imbalances.
The agreement signed at President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s State House offices in the capital Harare showed white farmers would be compensated for infrastructure on the farms and not the land itself, as per the national constitution.
Mnangagwa said the Wednesday deal was “historic in many respects”.
“It brings closure and a new beginning in the history of the land discourse in Zimbabwe,” Mnangagwa said.
“The process which has brought us to this event is equally historic as it is a reaffirmation of the irreversibility of land as well as a symbol of our commitment to constitutionalism, the respect of the rule of law and property rights,” he said.
Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube said at the signing ceremony: “In the agreement we have given ourselves 12 months to run around the world, around Zimbabwe to think of ways of raising this funding. We are determined that we achieve that. It’s also about pledges not necessarily about cash being put on the table. It’s about commitment.”
Details of how much money each farmer or their descendants, given the time elapsed since the farms were seized, was likely to get were not yet clear, but the government has said it would prioritise the elderly when making the settlements.
Farmers would receive 50 percent of the compensation after a year and the balance within five years.
Ncube and acting Agriculture Minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri signed on behalf of the government, while the farmers’ unions and a foreign consortium that undertook valuations also penned the agreement.
“As Zimbabweans, we have chosen to resolve this long-outstanding issue,” said Andrew Pascoe, head of the Commercial Farmers’ Union representing white farmers.
The land seizures were one of Mugabe’s signature policies that soured ties with the West. Mugabe, who was deposed in a coup in 2017 and died last year, accused the West of imposing sanctions on his government as punishment.
The programme still divides public opinion in Zimbabwe as opponents see it as a partisan process that left the country struggling to feed itself. But its supporters say it has empowered landless Black people.
Mnangagwa said the land reform could not be reversed, but paying of compensation was key to mending ties with the West.
Zimbabwe launched controversial land reforms in the year 2000 when ruling ZANU-PF party activists and veterans of the 1970s liberation seized large swathes of farms.
Mugabe justified the land grabs as a way to correct historical wrongs by claiming back land that was forcibly taken from the nation’s Blacks.
Critics blame Mugabe’s land programme for wreaking havoc on the agriculture sector – a mainstay of the economy. Economic output fell by half following the land seizures, and the economy has been hobbled ever since.