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Zimbabwe On Assignment

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Roots of a Crisis

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By Peter GodwinPhotographs by Gideon Mendel

With the onset of land reform in Zimbabwe, whites lost farms, blacks lost jobs, and the country that once fed much of southern Africa lost the means to feed itself.

Read this compelling excerpt, or print the whole story.

Three generations of the Stauntons, a white Zimbabwean family, huddle in the small sitting room of a safe house in the capital, Harare, surrounded by suitcases and cardboard boxes. They have been chased off their farm with a suddenness that has left them blinking in bewilderment. Now they wait to leave Zimbabwe for an uncertain future in Australia.

One Tuesday afternoon last year a motorcade of luxury SUVs wound its way slowly across Kachere Farm, which the Stauntons had owned since 1957. The farmworkers reported that behind the dark tinted windows sat Grace Mugabe, the president's young wife, and her entourage. She apparently liked what she saw: neat fields of maize and soybeans, wheat and potatoes, large greenhouses of roses for export to the Amsterdam flower market.

Within weeks the Stauntons' garden was full of men and women armed with iron bars and guns. The grandparents, James and Margaret, in their late seventies, phoned the police before locking themselves in the bathroom with their daughter, Angela, and young granddaughters, Caitlin and Sarah, as the attackers smashed down the back door and looted the house. When the Stauntons finally emerged after two hours, they found the remains of their belongings scattered on the lawn. According to the Stauntons, they were ordered off the farm by men who stood with crowbars over their children, while the police looked on passively. The attackers then gave the police a lift back to the station.

The Stauntons were caught up in the final throes of a government campaign to force the country's white farmers off their land without compensation, land they have inhabited for much of the past century. By early this year only 200 of 4,500 white-owned farms remained fully functioning. The endgame for the white farmers can be traced to a fateful day in 2000 when Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, lost a referendum on a new constitution that would have greatly expanded his powers. For this upset defeat—his first—Mugabe would blame the white farmers, accusing them of supporting the newly formed opposition. He said the farmers had enlisted their black employees to vote for the opposition too. Thousands of members of Mugabe's ruling party, ZANU-PF, immediately began to occupy farms. Ten white farmers and 27 black workers were murdered; hundreds more were injured, tortured, or arrested.

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VIDEO Photographer Gideon Mendel describes the tragedy of what's happening in "one of the most special places in the world."

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Land reform in Zimbabwe forced whites off farms, blacks out of jobs, and the country into a state of starvation. What should be the next steps for Zimbabwe? Share your thoughts.

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Land seizures in Zimbabwe are but one part of the economic and political crisis that has encompassed the country. Zimbabwe faces an enormous foreign currency crisis that began in 1997. At that time the exchange rate was about ten Zimbabwe dollars (Z$10) to one U.S. dollar (US$1). By early 2003 the official exchange rate had fallen to more than Z$800 to US$1. However, most business in Zimbabwe, including the purchase of basic necessities such as food and fuel, is conducted on the black market, which functions at rates closer to Z$1,500 to US$1.

In 2001-2002 the official exchange rate was Z$55 to US$1. The devaluation from Z$55 to more than Z$800 did not happen because the country's economy took a sudden nosedive, rather it was because the government could no longer ignore the reality on the ground where the rate was well over Z$1,000. So why did the government fix the exchange rate at Z$55 for more than two years? One reason is that it allowed those people with large sums of money and political connections to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe to buy stable, foreign currency at a lower rate. For example, Z$1 million converts to about US$18,000 at the government exchange rate, but only US$667 on the black market. Some of the biggest losers in the currency crisis are exporters such as tobacco farmers and gold miners whose income has to be brought into Zimbabwe at the official exchange rate, but who then buy supplies from within the country at prices set by the black market. The result is that many farms and companies can't afford to stay in business. As many of the elite who have profited from the fixed exchange rate acquired land, they also realized that they couldn't run successful ventures with such a low rate, and they pressured the government to change the fixed rate to where it is today. However, adjusting the fixed exchange rate will not alleviate Zimbabwe's economic crash without other measures to reign in inflation, which has risen to over 200 percent.

—Heidi Schultz

Did You Know?

Related Links
Get up-to-date news on Zimbabwe and link to other daily, weekly, and independent media.

Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe
The site hosts an alliance of Zimbabwean NGOs that focus on development and human rights. Contact activists in dozens of organizations by viewing their electronic fact sheets. 

International Crisis Group
Read field-researched reports that offer in-depth analyses of recent developments in Zimbabwe.

A part of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Networks) News provides information on human rights, food security, economic development, and gender issues in sub-Saharan Africa and central Asia.


Chan, Stephen. Robert Mugabe: A Life of Power and Violence. I. B. Tauris, 2003.

Godwin, Peter. Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa. Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996.

Land, Housing and Property Rights in Zimbabwe. COHRE (Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions) Africa Programme Mission Report, September 2001. Available online at report.pdf.

Manby, Bronwen. Fast Track Land Reform in Zimbabwe. Human Rights Watch, March 2002. Available online at

Meredith, Martin. Robert Mugabe: Power, Plunder and Tyranny in Zimbabwe. Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2002.


NGS Resources
Godwin, Peter. Wild at Heart: Man and Beast in Southern Africa. National Geographic Books, 2002.

Godwin, Peter. "Bushmen: Last Stand for Southern Africa's First People," National Geographic (February 2001), 90-117.

Cobb, Charles E., Jr. "After Rhodesia, a Nation Named Zimbabwe," National Geographic (November 1981), 616-51.


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