Zimbabwe farmers brace for further land seizures

President Mugabe's land-grab campaign again turned violent over the weekend as a white farmer was killed.

They called him "father," a white man who saw no racial boundaries and treated his black workers as his family.

A fourth-generation Zimbabwean, Terry Ford spoke to workers in Shona – the majority language – and had grown up among them. Childhood days were spent playing together in the fields of wheat and maize that once blanketed the landscape.

Now the crops are long gone and the workers of Gowrie Farm are in mourning. Ford was shot dead by a mob of ZANU-PF Party activists supporting President Robert Mugabe's illegal land-seizure program early Monday.

"Terry's workers are devastated – we all are," says his fiancée, Naomi Raaff. "They are saying to me, 'We have lost our father today. Terry was one of the most kind-hearted people in the world, and all he wanted to do was farm.' What has this achieved, other than the loss of a much-loved, innocent man?"

Many people fear that Mr. Mugabe – flush from his election victory, despite claims by the opposition and monitors that it was rigged – has started his new term of office in the way he means to rule the country. They hoped that his hints of reconciliation – urging people to "work joyously" to rebuild the shattered economy, and acknowledging that, whether black or white, "our destiny is one" – meant there would be change.

"We had hoped that certain elements of his speech would translate into positive action on the ground," says Jenni Williams of the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU). "Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be happening that way. Farmers are thinking long and hard about their futures."

Ford had been prevented from farming for the past two years, since the government served notice that it intended to seize his land and property. It is a situation 98 percent of Zimbabwe's 3,500 commercial farmers face. Since the land seizures began in 2000, hundreds of farmers have left. Now, more are contemplating following.

"There is a huge feeling of doom and gloom," says Peter Goosen, vice president of the CFU for Matabeleland South. "We have a real opportunity to make this into a jewel of Africa, but if the land seizures continue, we will be forced to leave. You will see the emigration of Zimbabwe's farmers – a huge number of refugees – and the total collapse of commercial agriculture."

Supporters of the president point to Zimbabwe's colonial history, which left 70 percent of the land owned by the white 5 percent of the population, as justification for the land seizures.

When British colonist Cecil Rhodes conquered the region (later named Rhodesia), white settlers staked out plots for themselves and began to farm commercially. That crushed the black communal farming infrastructure and created a black working class, with the most fertile areas set aside for the whites.

At an international donors conference in 1998, the CFU agreed to sell back 2.5 million acres of land with another 12.4 million to follow in a phased plan. But international funding dried up after donor money was instead lavished on Mugabe's cronies. Restless for a share of the land, the war veterans launched farm invasions in 2000.

"I very much doubt that there is a single farmer in this country who does not agree that there is a need for land reform – and if there is, they don't belong here," says Mr. Goosen. "But let's do it properly. The money was available, the farmers were in agreement, the government and the international community seemed happy.... Then the opportunity was thrown away."

Meanwhile, the policy affects far more blacks than whites. The industry employs around 1.5 million black farmworkers, many of whom are now living in the bush after being driven off the land by armed squatters.

Goosen, a fourth-generation Zimbabwean, owns 4,700 acres at Nyamandhlovu, northwest of Bulawayo. He bought his farm in 1985 with full government permission – as did many of today's farmers. Last August it was invaded by 70 self-styled war veterans who fired 59 of his 83 workers and threatened them with spears, axes, iron poles, knives, chains, and knobkerries.

Farmers like Goosen are being prevented from preparing the land for the May wheat crop, despite a nationwide food shortage.

Squatters are still at his farm now, looting machinery parts and stealing farm equipment. "They are saying, 'We have won the election, so we have won your farm. Now we are going to take it,' " Goosen says.

Louis Uys, whose 1,300-acre Lion's Den farm was attacked last Thursday, has seen most of the owners of his neighboring properties pack up and leave since the invasions began two years ago.

"I don't have neighbors," says Mr. Uys, whose wife and daughter left to live in Mozambique last year. "They've all gone, and settlers have moved on to their farms. About 40 of them came over in a mob and beat up my cook, the house guy, and workshop manager with sticks."

Matabeleland's CFU president, Matt Crawford, predicts an economic collapse if Mugabe does not call off the land seizures. "People have a tendency to believe that it is only the white Zimbabweans leaving, but what we are already seeing is educated Zimbabweans – both black and white – leaving the country and taking their skills abroad."

Farmer Alex Goosen – Peter's cousin – has diversified since his 115,000-acre farm was invaded. He now owns a butchery and an engineering business in Bulawayo.

Despite the turmoil, he takes heart from the racial unity that exists among Zimbabweans who are affected by Mugabe's policies. "Whether you see yourself as a rump steak or a piece of stewing beef, we are all on the hot plate together."

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