Zimbabwe's deadlock over land

For the third day after an eviction deadline, some white farmers continued to defy the order Sunday.

Outside a brick farmhouse, a few dozen neighbors chat as their children chase each other with toy guns around parked pickups and 4 x 4s. Much of the talk is the normal banter of old friends, but peppered between lively predictions about the next day's rugby match are nervous whispers about departing friends, striking laborers, and the threat of violence.

These farmers were among the 3,000 across Zimbabwe, who 90 days ago were ordered to leave their farms by the past weekend to make way for black settlers under President Robert Mugabe's land distribution program. The farmers are tensely awaiting a speech by Mr. Mugabe Monday that they hope will clarify the government's next move. Mugabe has said white farmers must go because blacks deserve to have land that was lost under British colonialism.

But for the white farm families here, it is not ill-gotten land, but their homes and livelihoods that are being taken.

Only two dozen or so of the 90 families that once lived in this district are left. Many have packed up for the capital Harare, Australia, or for neighboring countries, taking with them the agricultural expertise that once drove this country's economy and fed millions who are now threatened with starvation. Only 15 white families will still be here a month from now, one farmer predicts.

Those who have chosen to stay – in hopes of a last-minute reprieve from the government – are increasingly besieged. Some families have been barricaded into their homes by farmhands demanding compensation.

Some of the remaining farmers laugh ruefully as they swap tales about the people who have come to claim their farms. One rose grower tells of a police inspector who offered to cut him in as a partner on the grower's own $250,000-a-year flower farm.

Others trade stories about the black settlers on their farms who have come knocking on their doors, asking to borrow tractors and farm equipment. One farmhouse, they say, has been claimed by a minister. Another by the minister's brother. Despite Mugabe's promises to redistribute the farms to landless blacks, many farms have gone to his cronies and ruling party officials.

The government has targeted 95 percent of white-owned farms for seizure and has theatened arrest and a prison term if farmers continue to defy eviction orders. Despite the tensions, no violence or efforts to remove the farmers forcibly were reported over the weekend.

The number of commercial farming families, most of whom are white, has dropped from 4,660 in 1998 to 2,900, according to the Land Tenure Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The government says the seizure of white-owned farmland, which began two years ago with the violent invasion of some farms, will crown Zimbabwe's revolution and mark final victory against colonialism.

Such claims anger Johaan Steyl, who, like many white farmers here, bought and paid for his land after Zimbabwe gained its independence in 1980. From the cab of his tan Landcruiser, he surveys the ruins of his farm, pointing out the reservoirs he built, the fields he opened, and the orchards he planted.

Mr. Steyl, who neighbors say is one of the best farmers in the country, says white-owned commercial farmland is the best in the country only because white farmers have made it better through investing their sweat, knowledge, and resources.

The Steyls' farm once produced 3,500 tons of corn, 1,000 tons of soy beans, 1,200 tons of wheat, and 8,000 cartons of oranges, as well as valuable seed corn. This year, he says, he managed to harvest only the oranges, while 57 settler families who took over the remainder of his property a year ago grew perhaps 100 tons of corn and some cotton.

Harvest of sorrow

"A year ago this was green with wheat," says Mr. Steyl, sweeping his arm across an unkempt field of dry corn and half-picked cotton. "It breaks my heart to come here."

The Steyls' farm is still occupied by invaders who arrived a year ago in the run-up to the country's presidential elections, looting his farm and chasing his family from their home. On other farms, the process has been more orderly, with the new settlers showing up to claim their land backed with government letters assigning them a plot.

Many of the new settlers are middle-class black Zimbabweans from nearby towns. They are store workers and low-ranking civil servants, who, squeezed by the country's high inflation rate, want a piece of land in the country to grow a little corn and plant a vegetable garden.

A settler's troubles

Raymond, a clerk in an agricultural store more than 50 miles away, came for the holiday weekend to build a new house on the land he has been allocated by the government. He plans to keep living in the city, but says he will settle three or four families on his 70-acre plot, to work the land for him. Perhaps he will choose them from the more than a million farm workers who will likely also lose their homes as a result of Zimbabwe's land redistribution.

More than 100 families live and work on the farm where his plot is located. And there are other complications. Raymond says that though he has been promised seed and fertilizer from the government, he realizes the government has no money for such things. Seed for corn, he also says, is hard to come by because the government has taken all the seed-corn farms. But seed corn once grew on the plot where he's now building his house.

Raymond is a bit sheepish about settling on land that once belonged to someone else. He pulls a pink newspaper from his belongings and opens it to an article about white farmers being evicted from their land. "So sad," he says, displaying the article. "So sad."

While the white farmers will lose their land and the decades of hard work they put into it, few will go away destitute. Most will drive away with a little savings and their personal belongings. It is the estimated one million black farm workers who stand to lose the most in the country's land reform. Most have nowhere to go. Desperate, many are refusing to allow their employers to leave until they pay compensation.

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