Thousands of African cattle looted…institutionalising theft


A DROUGHT in 1941 forced most big employers, such as the railways and mines, to restrict maize rations to their labourers owing to the shortage of maize.  

At the same time, force was brought to bear on African cattle producers to ‘make their contribution to the country’s Imperial war effort’ by selling more cattle. 

Such cries had grown increasingly louder as it became embarrassingly evident that in spite of the existence of  ‘excessive’ herds of cattle held in the native (African) reserves, both the CSC and Liebigs were unable to fulfil their orders for the urgent supplies of tinned meats for the forces.

Meanwhile, as calls for Africans to sell more cattle were being made, the Government also took the decision to set up the Natural Resources Commission (NRC), to investigate ways of arresting ecological deterioration in African reserves. 

As a result, the Commission recommended that: “All excess African-owned cattle be de-stocked on the basis of scientifically determined criteria based on the carrying capacity of available land.”  

Because of the cumulative deterioration in peasant productivity and restrictions on land available for African use, cattle increasingly became the main form of investment open to Africans.

The Government had no qualms in adopting the Commission’s recommendation, and went on to promulgate the Natural Resources Act No. 9 of 1941; purportedly, to limit the numbers of livestock owned by African families on the grounds that: “Overstocking lay at the root of ecological degradation in the Reserves.”

Although it is well-known that the colonial Government’s own land alienation policy was the real cause of land degradation in the reserves, it chose to blame what they perceived as ‘overstocking’ for causing ecological deterioration.

That the Government sought to implement the drastic de-stocking measures at a time when the country was facing a domestic beef crisis was not purely an historical coincidence. 

The truth of the matter, however, was that the recommendations of the NRC came at an opportune time and were used to justify the requisitioning of African-owned cattle for the war effort. 

In 1942, a commission known as the Thomas Commission noted: “It is deplorable that a colony which prides itself on its cattle industry should thus, have failed hitherto so lamentably in the Empire’s hour of need.

Instead of Africans selling more cattle witness is borne to the fact that thousands of native cattle are likely to perish this season through poverty. 

This is futile and wanton waste. 

No better argument than the spectacle of this grim and tragic state of affairs is required to justify the early establishment of orderly distribution and marketing of cattle. 

Meantime, it is strongly urged that regulations dealing with Native cattle framed by the Natural Resources Board should be brought into force without any further delay.”

In December 1942, as a prelude to forced destocking in the rural areas, the Government made sure that it had effective control over the marketing of African-owned cattle throughout the country.   

An official statement from the Prime Minister’s Office in 1943, noted that: “The usual scarcity of cattle at this time of the year …. the drought … and the late rains in Matabeleland this season have caused inflation in slaughter cattle prices greater even than 12 months ago and butchers have in consequence again asked to be allowed a higher selling price for ‘boy’s meat’. 

The Government is not prepared to agree to this price increase, which would be reflected in the higher cost of living of European and natives and higher costs in primary and secondary industries. 

The Government however, realises that there is something to be said for the butcher’s case, and to deal with the situation we propose, at an early date, to issue an Order to the effect that:(a) No person who is not a licensed butcher, licensed farmer or representative of Liebigs or the CSC will be allowed to purchase cattle at auction sales whether within or outside the Native reserves. (b) Persons purchasing cattle at auction sales must first apply for permits to purchase stating the purpose for which the cattle are required and no permit will be granted unless the cattle are required for bona fide farming or butcher’s business.”

The statement condescendingly went further: “The Government cannot agree to varying seasonal prices for Compound grade cattle. 

Such cattle are chiefly derived from Native-owners, and the Native mind would not understand receiving 15/. per 100 lb. at one time of the year and 25/. per 100 lb. at another. 

On the other hand, a higher price than 20/. a head all the year round would encourage producers to continue to raise inferior stock and discourage the general improvement in our herds, which is so essential to any long-range cattle policy. 

The average prices throughout the year, grade for grade, … taking effect from January 1 1943, will be guaranteed by the Government for five years, and in the case of the higher grades, may be raised after the war, should it be possible for the CSC. to sell in other markets at better prices than those obtainable in the United Kingdom …. At the request of the British, Government have undertaken to supply a large quantity of beef to Northern Rhodesia and the Congo in the interests of copper production, and it is our intention to implement the promise even if requisitioning of cattle has to be resorted to.”

In a circular titled ‘Slaughter Cattle and Control of Prices’, from the Department of the Prime Minister dated December 30 1942, it further pointed out: “Past history the world over has shown that lasting success in the world’s markets can only be won and maintained by the regular output of high-grade uniform products.”

After the livestock carrying capacity of all African reserves had been assessed, a five-year culling programme was drawn up.  

In 1949, the compulsory de-stocking of African-owned cattle began in earnest in the reserves that were declared ‘overstocked’ in the period between 1942/43 to 1945. 

Throughout the country, de-stocking measures were ruthlessly enforced and African cattle owners were warned that: “Unless they co-operated fully and the desired results thus obtained voluntarily, ‘extreme measures would be taken’. 

They were given only two choices: they either had to ‘freely’ sell cattle at low prices arbitrarily set by the CSC in agreement with the Native Department, or alternatively, they would simply be directed to do so by culling officers.” 

This compulsory de-stocking explains the huge increase in the number of African-owned cattle bought by the CSC from 27 000 head in 1942 to100 000 head in 1945. 

Having set the stage for the guaranteed flow of cheap cattle from the reserves, in 1944, the Native Department requested the CSC to arrange a price schedule based on a live weight basis and constant throughout the seasons and a European schedule drawn upon a basis and having a seasonal factor built into it, low in the rains, highest in winter and spring.

In 1945, the Native Department and the CSC signed a formal agreement thus establishing prices and methods of sale.  

Hence, the twin objectives of ‘arresting ecological deterioration in the reserves’ and the need to, “…secure cheap cattle supplies for the Allied War Effort”, explains why the Government resorted to compulsory destocking measures against African cattle producers during the height of the war.

Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) and Post-Colonial Heritage Studies. he is a writer, lecturer, musician, art critic, practising artist and corporate image consultant.  he is also a specialist post-colonial scholar, Zimbabwean socio-economic analyst and researcher. 

For views and comments, email:


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here