The Land Issue

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

burning stalks at sunset

Burning stalks after harvest to refertilize the land -- a view at sunset from Domboshawa. (Click on this picture to obtain a larger image, which take longer to download.) Photographs George P. Landow. Scan of original negative by Imager. Images may be used without written permission for any educational purpose. Any commercial or other use requires prior written permission from

The history, contemporary politics, and literature of Zimbabwe reveals that land is a defining cultural issue that resonates in many unexpected places. Who "owned" "the" land before the arrival of White settlers, who owns it now, and who should own it? What is the relation of land (and land ownership) to culture and to conceptions of the individual, including gender roles of men and women?

Unlike the countries of West Africa, such as Nigeria, Zimbabwe did not suffer from the scourge of slavery and the slave trade. This different history means that Zimbabwean fiction does not have the same imperative to come to terms with the effects of a slavery-induced diaspora, and neither does it have the occasion to provide representations of the effects of slavery upon individual lives or to come to terms with the enthusiastic participation of indigenous peoples in the slave trade. Therefore, one does not encounter works, such as Buchi Emecheta's The Slave Girl, that examine slavery and its relation to gender.

Instead, the British colonizer's savage appropriation of land from those whose lives and culture depended upon it -- and attempts to redress this horrendous injustice -- provides the crucial historical fact for much Zimbabwean culture. As the materials assembled by Andrew Morrison in Hyperland reveal, the question of land ownership relates essentially to a large number of culturally and politically defining questions including conceptions of property, nationhood, community, ethnicity, citizenship, and gender. Granted one wishes to redress the injustices created by settler land appropriation, how does one go about achieving that essentially postcolonial goal?

Many problems and issues arise in the fact that the area that is now Zimbabwe has changed a great deal since the last century, and nothing can turn back the clock. Communal conceptions of self and property to some extent have been replaced by European notions of individual, corporate, and national property rights. At the same time the ways land is used has changed: Giving a farmer non-arable lands that an agribusiness uses for grazing will neither provide food not restore a way of life.

Then, too, as people have increasingly moved to the cities, many do not want the life of farmers. As one of the respondents in Hyperland pointed out,

I personally don't agree with the government's efforts to distribute land equitably in terms of the ratio between black and white and the land available. Most of us young black people have had little if any contact or experience with agriculture or land and we do not see the need to possess any land other than that which we live on. I would rather see the government develop the economy, the industrial base of the nation thereby creating employment and wealth.

As some of the comments linked below make clear, Zimbabwe must decide who will answer key questions, such as who is a Zimbabwean and who has a right to land? Are migrant workers originally from neighboring countries who have lived in Zimbabwe for three decades Zimbabweans? As with much revolutionary rhetoric, that during the War of Liberation employed simple binary oppositions that provide very little guidance after victory has been achieved. The simple rhetorical opposition of White colonizing settler vs. indigenous African people obscures major differences in each group, particularly among indigenous peoples with different cultures and differing relations to land. As the 1980 agreement emphasizes, descendants of settlers and the large agribusinesses can own land, but even if their lands were to be purchased and redistributed, what happens to the farm workers who have lived there for a generation? How does one take into account the way colonization has affected women's relation to land, and how does one decide between the needs and rights of a small group and the nation -- an issue that surfaces when one finds the needs of small farmers and wildlife in conflict, or when the government find necessary displacing the Tonga people in order to dam Lake Kariba, which now provides about 80% of Zimbabwe's electricity. In doing so, the national government destroyed a riverrine culture by moving the Tonga from a water-filled environment to a parched, arid one, and it did so on the grounds that the needs of the many -- the nation -- must take precedence over the needs of the smaller group.

But the idea of Zimbabwe as a nation is a postcolonial one, a redefinition of a quantity of land in terms of an assemblage of different peoples and cultures. Do the Tonga have to accept such a definition of nationhood and the consequent diminishment of the importance of the Tonga, who are no longer solely a separate people but one group among several? Once someone thinks of an entity like Zimbabwe, do the Tonga and other groups -- including the Shona, Ndebele, those of European and Asian descent, and so on -- have any viable alternative?

What is land, and who owns it now?

Some Selected Points of View on the Land Question -- Send in Yours

Postcolonial Web Africa OV Zimbabwe OV [Politics]