The Land Question in Zimbabwe
The land crisis in Zimbabwe has intensified. Millions of farmers in Zimbabwe are crowded in unproductive land waiting for a promised redistribution of land, while 4500 whites own 75 percent of the fertile farmland. Zimbabweans have sought to get back their land since independence in 1980, indeed for 110 years since the British colonization, which took the best land without compensation. Many Zims have lost their patience. Squatters have invaded farms, and white owners and farmworkers have been attacked and killed.
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
The government sometimes backs the invasions and calls the white farmers "enemies," and other times calls for peace and order and negotiations. Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe told CNN television in an interview in Havana, Cuba, that he would not block the redistribution of the country's farmland (April 14, 2000, the South African Daily Mail & Guardian).
The problem is the same in many countries around the world, where the heirs of the colonial conquest sit on much of the best land while the heirs of the conquered peoples await their promised land. Zimbabwe's land nationalization has been going on for twenty years, but little land has been transferred, and a physical redistribution has been vulnerable to favoritism. Many of those who received land in Zimbabwe have government connections and little farming experience.
Murder and other violence is rightfully condemned, but the invaders are sometimes desperate, driven by hunger. African leaders have called upon Great Britain and other countries to finance land purchases. The government has received some money from abroad to purchase land, but there has been no systematic and effective plan to distribute the land to those who are the most desperate.
There is an economic way to resolve the land question, without having to purchase land. The government can tax the land rent, gradually increasing the rate until most of the rent and land value are being paid to the government. The rent money can substitute for other taxes, reducing and ultimately eliminating taxes on wages, profits, and sales. The funds can also be distributed equally to the population as a "citizen's dividend."
Some owners of farms will then choose to sell their farms rather than pay the charge, especially if they were not using their farm efficiently. This selling will spontaneously distribute land to those most able to use it. Once most of the rent is being collected, the price of farmland will drop to a small amount, making it affordable to the poor. Farmers would be able to pay the rent, since the market rent is the production above normal wage income and other farm expenses.
If a farm owner chooses to keep the land rather than sell, then the rent becomes compensation to society for holding that land, and justice is satisfied. That rent should go to the rest of society as cash payments or wanted services. Rather than needing funds from abroad, redistribution via rent taxation generates revenue. The collection of the rent would induce an efficient use of land, and the elimination of taxes on production would unleash full incentives to work and invest.
Why, then, is land distribution via rent collection not implemented in Zimbabwe and other countries? Is it even a topic in the coming Zim elections? Perhaps the political incentive is to use the land crisis in order to get money from abroad. Or perhaps the public and government officials have not been informed about the rent-tax alternative. Certainly the leaders of the USA and Europe as well as the news media can be faulted too for not explaining and advocating this just economic solution to the crisis.
Some Zimbabweans are seeking to leave the country as events slide into chaos. Thousands try to smuggle themselves into South Africa as the economy deteriorates. If ever there was a case showing how sharing rent can prevent and solve a social problem, the Zim land crisis is a prime example.
-- Fred Foldvary
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Copyright 2000 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.