After Mugabe's exit, white farmers see an opportunity

370 views
A resettled farmer opens a furrow in his field with an ox-drawn plough on Eden farm where Deon Theron ran a successful dairy farm before he was forced off the property during the Robert Mugabe lead land reform program. — AFP

By Ben Sheppard

STANDING outside the gates of the farmhouse from which he was evicted in 2008, white Zimbabwean Deon Theron knows he will never get his land back.

But he does believe that Robert Mugabe's fall after almost 40 years in power could lead the new government to encourage white farmers to play a part in reviving the country's key agricultural sector.

Thousands of white farmers were forced off their land by violent Mugabe-backed mobs or evicted in dubious legal judgements, supposedly to help black people marginalized under British colonial rule.

The farms, however, were often allocated to Mugabe's allies and fell into ruin, leaving tens of thousands of rural laborers out of work and sending the economy into a tailspin as food production crashed.

"I was evicted after intimidation, violence and court cases," said Theron, 63, who now runs a guesthouse in the capital Harare and a dairy processing business.

"I don't expect my land to be returned, but I do think the government will explore getting people who have the skills back on the farms — and that means younger people from evicted families."

Days after Mugabe's fall on November 21, Theron took AFP back to Zanka, the 400-hectare (1,000-acre) farm that he bought in 1984 and where he built his own house and lived for 24 years with his wife, raising three children.

'Block out the memories'

"It was given to a top official in the reserve bank," he said, looking through the locked wire fence at the house and abandoned tennis court in Beatrice, Mashonaland East province, two hours south of Harare.

"I blocked out a lot of memories, and have tried to move on," he added, close to tears as he recalled how his foreman was beaten to death in 2005 apparently while in police custody during the height of the evictions.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who came to power last week after the military forced Mugabe to resign, is a veteran hardliner from the ruling ZANU-PF party.

However he does not appear to share Mugabe's ideological hatred of white farmers and has prioritized agriculture to revive the moribund economy.

Mnangagwa used his inaugural speech to stress that the land seizures would not be reversed, vowing instead to compensate evicted farmers and to put the vast tracts of idle land back into production.

"My government is committed to compensating those farmers from whom land was taken," he said, pledging to "ensure that all land is utilized optimally".

Agriculture is "central to national stability and to sustained economic recovery," he added.

Heidi Visagie, who was evicted in 2012 from a farm she and her husband bought from the government outside the central town of Chegutu, said Mnangagwa's rise offered "a glimmer of hope".

"The new president is a practical businessman, so we are cautiously optimistic," she told AFP.

A quiet return?

As vice president, Mnangagwa oversaw Mugabe's "command agriculture" policy of recent years, designed to tackle severe food shortages.

Two sources told AFP that, under the policy, Mnangagwa had quietly encouraged evicted white farmers to lease new land — as long as they didn't return to their old farms.

"Farmers want the opportunity to farm," said Visagie, 45, whose business used to employ 300 workers growing asters and other flowers for export to Holland.

"Our workers all lost their homes and the school for their children. We drive past and see the greenhouses smashed and the water pumps all sold," she said.

Zimbabwe was known as the breadbasket of southern Africa in the early years of Mugabe's rule after independence from Britain in 1980.

But starting in 2000, about 4,500 farms were seized with the approval of Mugabe in a furious reaction to white landowners increasingly backing the MDC opposition party.

Just a few hundred white farmers are still in business and agricultural output fell from $2.9 billion (2.45 billion euros) in 2001 to $880 million in 2008, according to the World Bank.

On his return visit this week, land that Theron used to cultivate with a tractor decades ago was being ploughed by ox.

The number of functioning tractors has dropped from 25,000 in 1996 to only 5,000 now, according to Zimbabwe's Agricultural Dealers and Manufactures Association.

Its chairman Marco Garizio said that he drew encouragement from his regular past meetings with Mnangagwa.

"He owns farms himself that he runs reasonably successfully," Garizio said.

"I don't say that he will be a champion of 'white farmers', but he will definitely be a champion of getting production going again and allowing qualified farmers to be able function properly.

"We still have the nucleus of farmers in this country to recover to an extent." — AFP

New leader appoints Cabinet

Zimbabwe's new President Emmerson Mnangagwa has appointed a new Cabinet that includes ruling party loyalists as well as figures linked to the military, whose takeover helped oust former leader Robert Mugabe.

No opposition politicians are included in the list, which has been seen as the first test of whether Mnangwgwa, a longtime Mugabe ally, would move out of his shadow.

The 22-member Cabinet announced late Thursday on state-run television includes Maj. Gen. Sibusiso Moyo as foreign minister, Air Marshal Perrance Shiri as agriculture minister and Chris Mutsvangwa, leader of Zimbabwe's war veterans, as information minister.

Shiri is directly linked to the Matabeleland killings of thousands of people by a North Korea-trained military brigade in the 1980s when Mugabe moved against a political rival.

Moyo on Nov. 15 announced the military takeover that put Mugabe under house arrest and set in motion a national clamor leading to the former president's resignation after 37 years in power.

For some Zimbabweans who had hoped that the new leader would make the Cabinet more inclusive, Thursday night's announcement was seen as a disappointment after they had cheered the military's takeover and backed the ruling party's impeachment efforts.

Lawyer Alex Magaisa tweeted a recent photo of Mugabe and his wife laughing with the words "When they saw the new Cabinet." Former finance minister Tendai Biti tweeted: "The honeymoon is over even before it had begun. What a shame. What a missed opportunity."

In an interview earlier Thursday with The Associated Press, main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai said Mnangagwa has a "very small window" to show that he is different from Mugabe and that he is meeting national expectations of change. Tsvangirai added that there has been "no dialogue" with the new leadership. — AP


370 views