Last-ditch battle for white Zim farmers

Five years after Zimbabwe launched a controversial land-grab programme to redress colonial imbalances, thousands of white farmers have mounted a last-ditch battle to fight a state bid to have them legally endorsed.

”We are fighting an attempt to legitimise an illegal process,” said Mike Clark, an official of the Commercial Farmers’ Union.

”The government wants the court to confirm the land seizures as legal but we will fight. Even if we don’t get justice now, it will be recorded in history and we will pursue the matter when we have an independent judiciary,” said Clark.

Zimbabwe’s administrative court is currently sifting through more than 5 000 land cases, which it started hearing last month.

President Robert Mugabe’s government embarked on its land-redistribution programme in February 2000, compulsorily taking away prime farmland owned by about 4 500 white farmers to give it to the landless black majority.

Before the land invasions, about 70% of the most fertile and in the country was owned by white farmers who were mainly descendants of British settlers.

The white commercial farmers mostly grew tobacco, the Southern African country’s main cash crop, and had not been targeted by the government of Mugabe, who took over the reins of the country after leading it to independence from Britain in 1980.

But on February 12 and 13 2000, a proposed constitutional amendment to beef up the powers of the president to allow him to expropriate land was shot down in a referendum.

However, about two weeks later, the head of state — smarting under the first big setback in his post-independence career — let his supporters, led by veterans of the independence war, attack and take over white-owned farms.

About 10 farmers died in the initial stages and their black workers were chased out of the properties after being branded as their slaves.

This sparked an exodus with white farmers leaving for nearby Zambia and Mozambique, and a handful even going to faraway Nigeria to rebuild their lives.

The policy has been partly blamed for the collapse of Zimbabwe’s once-model economy and it is now a far cry from its heyday, when it was referred to as the bread-basket of the region.

The new beneficiaries often do not know the rudiments of farming and critics allege that prime farmland has been expropriated by Mugabe’s cronies and ruling-party bigwigs.

The Zimbabwean government plans to clear 5 089 cases pending at the courts by the end of this year, according to the head of its civil division, Loyce Matanda-Moyo.

A lawyer representing 60 farmers in the protracted land saga said the future of the evicted farmers hinges on the judgements of the ongoing cases.

”In terms of the law, the government cannot acquire the land without confirmation from the administrative court, so they [the government] are now making frantic efforts to get the confirmations ahead of the election,” lawyer Rodney Makausi said, referring to upcoming legislative polls on March 31.

”If the court confirms the [farm] acquisitions, the farmers lose their right to return to their properties.”

Zimbabwe evicted about 4 000 white commercial farmers, which set off a flurry of legal battles, some of which are still continuing.

”Some of us have got court orders to say we can continue farming but the government has disregarded those court orders,” said Clark. ”We have done nothing wrong but we are all being punished for the actions of a few individuals who got involved in politics.”

Zimbabwe’s ruling Zanu-PF party has accused white commercial farmers of bankrolling the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which has posed the stiffest challenge to Mugabe’s 25-year stranglehold on power.

Critics of the land reforms blame the policy for Zimbabwe’s compromised food-security situation, arguing that the majority of the ”new farmers” lack experience and rely on government handouts to farm.

Of about 4 500 large-scale commercial white farmers operating in Zimbabwe five years ago, there are about 600 now, who own 3% of the country’s land. — Sapa-AFP

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Fanuel Jongwe
AFP Journalist.

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