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August 2003

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Zimbabwe: A Land Possessed

By Peter Godwin
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.
The effect of this intensified phase of land reform has been catastrophic. Commercial wheat production last year was down 52 percent from the year before, and the commercial cattle herd fell from some 1.3 million head in 1999 to below 200,000 last year. Meanwhile drought has devastated crop production in the black communal lands, which have traditionally accounted for more than half the country's maize. This year's maize production is expected to fall 70 percent short of the country's needs.
As a result more than half of Zimbabwe's 12 million people are now threatened with starvation. And as the vise of hunger has tightened, Mugabe's men have used it to their political advantage, preventing the distribution of food aid to areas associated with the opposition.
Chris Lunga is hardly the kind of man to smash houses or starve his fellow countrymen, but he is one of the beneficiaries of the land seizures. At 35, the head of a shipping agency, he was about to buy himself a small farm to run on the side when he read newspaper advertisements offering free white farms. Like thousands of other black Zimbabweans he couldn't resist the offer. Following a lengthy application process he was allocated 120 acres (48.6 hectares), part of a farm owned by Brendon Fox, which was divided among 14 black applicants. The new settlers almost immediately began to squabble when one of them, the former governor of the province, grabbed a bigger slice than he had been allotted.
Like most white farmers Brendon Fox tried to hold on to a small piece of his land and to coexist with the new arrivals. He helped Lunga by starting to plow land for a maize crop, but before he could finish, he was thrown off by the government. Lunga, who lives near Harare and has no farming experience himself, has hired a full-time manager and comes out to the farm on weekends.
Lunga welcomes land reform, which he sees as long overdue. "My father fought in the same war as Mr. Fox's uncle, in World War II for the British. After the war white soldiers were allowed to buy farms, but my father, because he was black, got nothing. He died a poor man.
"In any revolution, it's not fair," Lunga went on. "And it is a revolution. We are reclaiming our land. The British pushed us out, and we're taking it back. Don't get me wrong, I don't regret the British coming. I wouldn't be talking to you in English if they hadn't, and we would have still been in the Stone Age."
Yet Lunga said the transfer of lands from whites could have been better planned. "They should be compensated for equipment, improvements. But the actual land, that's a different story. They shouldn't get compensation for the land."
He is also incensed by the food shortages in Zimbabwe, which he sees as unnecessary. "When it comes to my stomach, I'm angry. Hungry people are angry people."
Tapfumaneyi Manzira, a systems engineer who owns a computer company, also took up the offer of free land. "I have no sympathy for the white farmers," he told me. "Maybe they did buy the farms for themselves. It's collateral damage—tough—like civilian casualties in any conflict."
But Manzira is frustrated by the way things "got out of control." He is particularly upset that neither of his neighboring plots is being actively farmed by the new black owners. "Everyone was caught up in the excitement. And then the reality caught up with them—that you can't just admire the land like a flower. You've got to do something with it, or stay away."
Many of the new black settlers, those who want to make the most of the land, have been waiting in vain for the seeds, fertilizer, and tractors the government has promised them. In the turmoil of the evictions, commercial farmers have usually retained title deeds to their land. Even if the government obtains ownership of this land, it is very unlikely that title will be given to the new black settlers. Without security of tenure, they cannot, like the whites before them, use land as collateral to borrow money to buy vehicles, fuel (in desperately short supply), fertilizer, and seed. Irrigation pipes have been sold for scrap, wells have fallen into disrepair, electricity has been cut off because settlers can't pay their bills. As a result many farmers have reverted to subsistence agricultural methods on what were, just a year ago, highly sophisticated, productive agribusinesses.
Avoidability is a principal element of tragedy, and Zimbabwe's farm chaos— although understandable, perhaps, in light of past injustices—was avoidable. In recent years land reform has been common cause among nearly all Zimbabweans, white as well as black, seen as a necessary measure to correct the inequality between the races.
For much of the 20th century whites possessed at least half the country's land, even though they made up no more than 5 percent of the population. This land disparity was seen as one of the main causes of the nearly eight-year war for black rule, which ended in 1980 when white-dominated Rhodesia became black-ruled Zimbabwe.
To the relief of the white farmers in particular, the newly elected leader, Robert Mugabe, made racial reconciliation a centerpiece of his policy. He appointed a white minister of agriculture and appealed to white farmers to stay on and contribute to the new Zimbabwe. Most of the whites who couldn't stomach being ruled by a black president had left the country shortly after independence, and those who remained for the most part accepted the new status quo, setting about farming with vigor in a country freed from wide-scale war. Their produce, especially tobacco, brought in 40 percent of the country's export earnings, their crops helped feed the cities, and they employed a quarter of the country's workforce. By 1997 Zimbabwe was Africa's fastest growing economy—southern Africa's breadbasket—frequently exporting food to neighbors in need.
To achieve independence, Mugabe had agreed to a program of voluntary land redistribution, funded predominantly by Britain. Beginning in 1985 white farmers were required by law to offer the government of Zimbabwe right of first refusal on any land that was put up for sale.
Before 1990 the government purchased, at market prices, 21 percent of the land held by whites at independence. Some of those commercial farms, however, were handed out not to landless peasants, as stipulated in aid agreements with Britain, but to Robert Mugabe's political supporters. When the extent of this practice was revealed in the local press in 1994, the British protested. Mugabe was unrepentant, and in due course most foreign funding for land purchases was frozen, and the process of land redistribution stalled. Two decades after independence nearly four-fifths of white farmers were living on property they had bought after the government had opted not to buy the land for resettlement
by blacks.
The slow pace and eventual halt of meaningful land reform failed to raise more of a spontaneous clamor from ordinary blacks—many of whom remained squeezed into overcrowded communal lands, trying to farm on leached and eroded soils—largely because of the more immediate problems of rising food prices and unemployment. Also by then Mugabe had achieved a virtual one-party state, and Zimbabwe was urbanizing at a furious rate. Even though 70 percent of the population still lived in rural areas, the younger generation—with the highest literacy rate in Africa—had aspirations to salaried jobs in towns rather than to a life of toiling in the fields, which has become increasingly the burden of Zimbabwe's women.
Pinned to the wall of the office of Delvillewood Farm is the high court order proclaiming that the Selby family was still its legal owner. But in reality Delvillewood Farm, in Mazowe Valley, was already occupied. Major Kanouruka of the presidential guard had taken over the front half, and Molly Mapfumo, a local official, had taken the back. After a four-month tug-of-war in which the farm had been shut down no fewer than nine times, the Selbys were losing heart. Mick Selby, who farmed here with his father, Jeremy, had had his house broken into and occupied two months earlier by Major Kanouruka and his young toughs—graduates of a notorious militia training camp.
As I talked to Mick and his mother, Janet, the new overlords were in evidence. One of the youths had a half-full beer bottle sloshing in his pocket; another, tall and somewhat tipsy, danced around throwing kung fu punches.
"Zimbabwe for Zimbabweans," they chanted.
"I was born here, I'm Zimbabwean too," Mick rebutted in Shona—the language spoken by most blacks here—but the major's enforcers weren't listening.
The Selbys had come back to supervise a squadron of combine harvesters churning through their winter wheat crop. That they were allowed to plant the wheat at all was due to a deal they struck to share their land with Major Kanouruka. The Selbys agreed to prepare, plow, plant, fertilize, and harvest a similar field of wheat for him. He agreed to pay his share of the costs and reap his share of the profit. Of the latter the Selbys had no doubt; of the former they had no hope. The major had already forced the closure of their bakery, which supplied 15,000 people in the area, as well as their butchery and trading store.
After the winter wheat came in, there would be virtually no more activity on the farm, and the hundred workers would be out of jobs. The 45 acres of citrus trees were wilting and would soon die—the irrigation piping on which their health depended had been dug up and sold by the major's men. The greenhouses where the Selbys grew roses for export to the Netherlands were nothing now but a torn skin of plastic, flapping in the breeze against the exposed skeletons of wooden struts. The swimming pool was dark with rotting leaves; the clay tennis court had sprouted a quiff of elephant grass. Delvillewood Farm was rapidly returning to the bush.
To early white visitors the African bush seemed almost empty: Mostly an "unpeopled country," said an explorer in 1871. Casting his eyes across the wilderness, he mused, "Fancy a church spire rising where that tamarind rears its dark crown of foliage, and think how well a score or so of pretty cottages would look instead of those thorn clumps and gum trees!"
This impression of emptiness was accentuated by the Africans' slash-and-burn agriculture. The land was cleared by fire, and crops were planted by hand, with rain relied upon to water them. When the soil became exhausted after two or three seasons, the farmer moved on to a new patch of bush. The Western idea of land ownership was alien. One white farmer tells of his grandfather going to see a local chief about buying some land many years ago. "Buy land?" said the chief. "You must be crazy—you don't buy the wind or the water or the trees."
When, in 1890, the first white pioneers—emissaries of Cecil Rhodes's British South Africa Company (BSAC)—trekked up from South Africa, they came to prospect for gold. The BSAC struck a deal with Lobengula, king of the Ndebele—a deal that dwelt exclusively on mineral rights. But El Dorado this proved not to be.
Soon the white pioneers clashed with and defeated Lobengula's warriors, and Rhodes granted 700 white men large tracts of land in a country where the African population numbered perhaps 900,000. Subsequent whites obtained their land from the BSAC, but tribal authorities were never compensated.
In 1896 first the Ndebele and then the Shona tribes rebelled in a chimurenga, or war, against white occupation. Thousands of blacks and nearly 400 whites were killed in an 18-month revolt, which failed, leaving much of the land in white hands.
As white rule was established, and modern medicine introduced, the population in the reserves—the mostly drier, less fertile areas into which rural blacks were confined— increased. By 1950 blacks in what was then Southern Rhodesia numbered two million, and white immigrants were being recruited from Europe to buy farms with low-interest loans.
When the hard-line white conservative party of Ian Smith came to power in 1962, the stage was set for collision. Aiming to prevent black rule, in 1965 Smith declared unilateral independence from Britain. By 1972 black opposition to white rule had boiled over into civil war—the second chimurenga, as the nationalist guerrillas called it. Perhaps 30,000 blacks died in the fighting, many of them civilians; on the white side, just as in the first chimurenga, it was the farmers who found themselves on the front line. Guerrillas killed more than 1,500 whites by the time the guns were stilled in 1980.
Twenty-two years after the war, in the thick of Mugabe's fast-track land reform program, you might have believed it had never ended. Every night the main news bulletin on Zimbabwe's state-controlled TV was interspersed with commercials extolling the land-seizure program. "Chave chimurenga—Now it's war," the jingle went.
Although white farm owners have been the principal target of Mugabe's land campaign, it is the black farmworkers and their families who have become its main victims. So far 1.2 million of them have been displaced. Bigson Gumbeze is a project manager for displaced farmworkers at the Zimbabwe Community Development Trust, a private organization devoted to aiding workers affected by the land reform program.
One morning Gumbeze and I drove east out of Harare with a delivery of donated clothes. At the balancing granite boulders of Epworth, the hard-top road narrowed then ran out altogether until we came to Rock Haven refugee camp, an expanse of olive tents where about 200 farmworkers had been living for the past six months. The refugees sat, mostly barefoot and ragged, under a grove of msasa trees as Gumbeze and his assistants doled out their bounty. Most of the refugees were workers from one farm, Chipesa, owned by Iain Kay. He had openly campaigned for the opposition party in the disputed 2002 general election that returned Mugabe to power—and paid the price with his farm.
"One day," said James Sani, one of the Chipesa refugees, "the war vets and party youth arrived on our farm and said it belonged to them now. They put a gun to Iain Kay. The vets beat us with iron bars and axes, and they looted our property and chased us away."
Another Chipesa worker, Armando Serima, who had come to Zimbabwe from Mozambique as a small boy, spoke up. "They called us muvengi, enemy, because they said we supported the opposition party. We hid in the bush eating roots and leaves and begging food from other farmworkers at night, until Mr. Kay came and found us hiding there in the mountains just when we were about to die of hunger, and he brought us here."
"So we have nothing," Sani added. "I was born at the farm, grew up at the farm, went to school on the farm, worked for the past eight years on the farm. My father died on the farm. All we know is farming. That's what we want to do again."
It seems a vain hope. The devastation to Zimbabwe's agriculture is most apparent from the air. As I circled over some of the country's prime land, I saw not freshly tilled land planted for the new season but empty fields devoid of activity. "It's nothing less than the wholesale dismantling of the agricultural sector, the backbone of the entire economy," said John Makumbe. A professor of political science at the University of Zimbabwe, Makumbe is also the national chairman of Transparency International, a global organization that fights corruption. "Agrarian reform has to be holistic. You don't just allocate land; you must put infrastructure in place, financial support, training. None of that was done. So both in the medium and long term we are looking at a crippled agricultural sector in Zimbabwe."
And a crippled financial system as well. "White farmers, because they weren't compensated, have walked away from their farms owing millions of dollars to the banks. At least two banks have already collapsed, and the rest are teetering on the brink. We're in a new situation," said Makumbe.
Parts of Africa have expressed support for Zimbabwe's transformation, seen as the righting of historic wrongs. In Namibia, President Sam Nujoma has his eye on the large white ranches that make up a disproportionate part of his country's agricultural land. Following Zimbabwe's example, Nujoma has threatened to replace the country's current willing-seller land redistribution program with one of forced transfers. South Africa, the regional powerhouse, is itself struggling with land reform, and President Thabo Mbeki, through his inaction, has given tacit approval to Mugabe's land revolution. South Africa's original goal was to redistribute 30 percent of white-owned land to landless blacks by 1999. But so far less than 5 percent has been transferred, and the target date has been pushed back to 2015.
There are also African voices raised against what has been happening in Zimbabwe. Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian writer, compares the Zimbabwean land program with Stalin's land collectivization in the Soviet Union, designed to get rid of the kulaks, the prerevolutionary farmers whom Stalin saw as a political threat. And Archbishop Desmond Tutu, another Nobel laureate, has characterized
Mugabe's presidency as "almost a caricature of all the things people think black African leaders do. He seems to be wanting to make a cartoon of himself."
There may not be agreement within Zimbabwe and across Africa about the land transfer program, but no one disputes that Zimbabwe's century-old system of large-scale commercial farms, some of the most productive in Africa, is gone. And it seems clear that the chaotic, violent manner of its passing will scar the country—and perhaps keep it hungry—for years to come.


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