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23 Jul 2010 09:45
Along with thousands of other besieged farmers across Zimbabwe, Mike Jahme will be closely watching the trial of a Zanu-PF-linked businessman accused of stealing and selling US$50-million of farm equipment.
Last week, Jahme’s tea and avocado farm in eastern Zimbabwe was overrun by gangs loyal to a local government official, who carried off some of his equipment.
He will be deeply interested in the trial of Themba Mliswa, a businessman, former fitness trainer and Zanu-PF enforcer, on charges of stealing and selling farm equipment looted from dozens of farms.
As a consequence of Zimbabwe’s “land reform” programme, many displaced farmers have been forced to flee with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, leaving behind infrastructure accumulated over generations.
Farmers, hopeful of a change of policy, are hoping the Mliswa trial will trigger a wider probe into how thousands of farms were looted. But the trial has all the hallmarks of an internal Zanu-PF dogfight.
Mliswa’s troubles began when he tried to grab a controlling shareholding in a Harare company under the guise of empowerment laws.
But the country’s top cop, Augustine Chihuri, a powerful Robert Mugabe ally, reportedly also had interests in the firm.
In court, Mliswa revealed he had sold some of the equipment to the police commissioner himself, and to other prominent figures, among them army commander Constantine Chiwenga.
The trial coincides with what many regard as a purely symbolic victory, with no practical implications for Zimbabwe, at the Southern African Development Community Tribunal in Namibia. Last Friday, the tribunal ruled for a third time that the Zimbabwe government is in defiance of a court order that protects white farmers.
Zimbabwe’s Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa said this week the court actions would give the farmers “propaganda” victories, but would do nothing to recover their farms.
Charles Taffs of Zimbabwe’s Commercial Farmers’ Union, which represents mainly white farmers, said: “What we have witnessed over the past 10 years is that beneficiaries [of land seizures] have come on to farms and asset-stripped them, leaving absolutely nothing.”
Mugabe has always cloaked land reforms in struggle dogma, arguing takeovers were meant to end a century of white control of the country’s best land. But the exercise has long been taken over by criminal gangs, many of them tied to top officials, who move from farm to farm ransacking houses and looting equipment.
The latest victims were the Jahmes, whose Silverstone Estate has 65 hectares under tea and 22 000 avocado trees. Youths last week invaded the farm, assaulted the owners and made off with equipment. “While we were barricaded in the main office we could hear the sounds of breaking wood and glass and general vandalism going on around the house and outbuildings,” Jahme said this week.
He had been due to export 250 tonnes of avocados to South Africa’s Westfalia.
Threats to withdraw aid
Last month, Germany had to threaten to withdraw aid to force the government to drive mobs off fruit estates run by a German national.
The Mliswa trial has shown the contrast between the dire impact the land seizures have had on the economy, and the easy millions made by a select few.
Farm looting has a long history. Last year, an official report named five of Mugabe’s ministers as having looted assets from the Kondozi estate, once one of Zimbabwe’s largest fresh-produce exporters. No action was taken.
Farmer unions have over the years accumulated hundreds of police reports on the looting.
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