'We are Zimbabweans'

The dogs come in from the east: snarling, bone-thin mongrels, their howls echoing down the valley. Behind them come their owners, six men usually, squatters from the neighbouring farm, ready to beat off the hounds after they have run down a zebra, bush buck or impala.

Three years ago at the height of the land invasions, when my father first heard the dogs, he hauled out his shotgun and drove to the western edge of his property. He fired two shots in the air and the animals fled, their owners in hot pursuit.

These days when he hears the dogs, he just shrugs.
The game he stocked his farm with has all been slaughtered or has fled through holes cut in the fence by squatters. The gun is now just a small measure of protection for himself and my mother, should they be attacked by thieves or bandits who periodically roam their land.

It was with some trepidation that I returned to Zimbabwe in February, the country in which I was born and spent the first 22 years of my life. I was last here a year ago and even at that time my parents were — in my father’s words — “in the shit’‘. They had just received a Section Five notice that the government intended to compulsorily acquire their 292ha game farm “for resettlement’‘. They had not yet received a Section Eight, their final marching orders, but their prospects looked bleak. For the first time since the Liberation War more than 25 years ago they slept with a gun by their bed.

Via intermittent e-mails my father had sent in the interim, I gathered things had gotten worse. Most of their remaining friends had emigrated; their housekeeper had died of an Aids-related illness; the next-door farm, one of the most productive in the country, had been trashed by police and the youth militia, and its 4 000 workers and their families had been made homeless. The bush was rapidly closing in on my parents.

My parents’ farm is in the Eastern Highlands, four hours east of Harare, close to the Mozambique border. They bought it in 1990, 10 years after independence, having received a certificate from the government stating it had no interest in using the land for resettlement. Back then there was nothing but rock and bush on a range of steep hills, but my parents had a plan: they erected a game fence, brought in herds of zebra and antelope and built cottages, chalets and a restaurant for budget tourists. For 10 years they ran a thriving business. In the past four years, though, tourism to Zimbabwe has collapsed; my parent’s chalets and restaurant stand empty, most of their staff laid-off.

It was early evening when I arrived, and my parents were locking their front gate. There were uniformed guards on the perimeter, and I saw the fence around their house had been electrified in the past year. “We’ve just been to a farewell,’’ my mother laughed. “Soon we’ll be the only ones left!’’ She meant the only whites left, although leaving Zimbabwe goes both ways these days: three million of us now live outside the country.

My parents refuse to leave — “We are Zimbabweans, this is our country,’’ they say. My mother was born in Zimbabwe and my father, a South African of many generations, moved there in the 1960s. And even if they wanted to go they could not afford it. Everything they own is invested in the farm. But they no longer rail against those who do leave. In the early 1980s, when 150 000 whites fled the country, I recall them having stand-up rows with whites for selling out.

In typical Zimbabwean fashion, my parents find humour in the absurdity around them. While their own house is safe, they say, their rental cottages are routinely burgled; entire lounge suites and fridges dragged away through the bush at night. When my mother phoned the police about one robbery the officer in charge barely stirred: “I have no car,’’ he said, “Can you come and pick me up?’’ When my mother found a well-fed stray goat in her garden a week later and reported it, the same policeman drove around in minutes. “I refused to hand it over,’’ she said. “He obviously wanted to eat it.’’

It is hard to imagine that just a few years ago Zimbabweans stood strong in the face of the political corruption of President Robert Mugabe’s government. Even during the height of the violence between 2001 to 2003 the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was ascendant; people really believed change was coming.

The 2002 presidential elections felt as momentous as South Africa’s in 1994. Despite threats and intimidation, people lined up in their millions to vote, and for the first time in 22 years whites — my father included — moved out from behind their high walls and sports clubs and got involved in the campaign. They volunteered for the opposition, donated money and voted. They became Zimbabweans.

But the election was lost by the MDC — or, more accurately, “stolen’’ by Mugabe through widespread vote-rigging and intimidation — and the backlash was swift and brutal. The opposition has been virtually silent since, its leaders beaten, tortured and jailed.

I asked my father if he would volunteer again this time around. “No way,’’ he said. “We’ll keep our heads down. We are expected to live as expats in this country and that is what we’ll do.’‘

I said goodbye to my parents one Friday morning and headed west towards Harare. The maize and tobacco I saw on the roadside looked scrappy, stunted. Some of these fields belong to genuine new farmers who have neither the money nor equipment to cultivate it properly. But most belong to “telephone farmers’’ — fat cats from the cities who helped themselves to farms in the land grab and now use them for weekend getaways. With 1,5-million Zimbabweans in urgent need of food aid and the government spending $8-million on imported maize in the run-up to the elections, even the president has started to speak out against “telephone farmers’‘. He might start close to home: his wife is one of those who owns a large farm.

Reaching the capital, though, a strange thing happened: I felt as if I had been parachuted into a vibrant, prosperous African city. True, many of the traffic lights didn’t work and the roads were more potholed than I remembered, but there was no shortage of new Mercs on the street, many driven by glamorous black women with cellphones to their ears, the wives and girlfriends of the political elite. I drove through the grounds of my old state high school, Prince Edward. The grounds were immaculate and the pupils a model of multiracial harmony. Inflation is at 133% but there is, bizarrely enough, a property boom; in the suburbs of Borrowdale, Helensvale and Chisipite houses are being snapped up, many by the diasporans waiting quietly in exile for change to come.

On my final night, my sister threw a dinner party for me, friends and family, and all who are sticking around. There was a calm resilience to them as they insisted that they are Zimbabweans, this is still their home.

Were they really that confident about the future? “Sure,’’ said one. “If you can avoid getting sick, being arrested, losing your house or your farm, you can still live a really good life here.’’ He wasn’t joking.

I realised the reserves people find to get by. In 1997 Stephen, an old school friend, bought a 240ha farm next to where his parents ran one of the most successful tobacco farms in the country. He is still on his land, but he no longer owns it.

“I lease my own farm back from a war veteran,’’ he said. “I get on with him, I pay him rent, I get to stay, and I have a good crop this year.’‘

I told him the Cosa Nostra worked the same way.

He said: “Doug, I’m a farmer. I do what I can to survive.’’

His parents were evicted last year by a family who now live in their old home. Is the new family farming the land? “They’re trying but their crop is terrible. I asked them why it was so bad and they said: ‘Stephen, this farm has no good water. But your farm, your farm ... ‘’’ And they looked longingly from the house they recently acquired to Stephen’s farm across the way. — Â

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