'I just want justice, that's all'

The standard story of personal loss on Zimbabwe’s farms is usually told by bitter white farmers; it is hardly ever told by the likes of Luke Tembani, aged 74 and black.

There are no Zanu-PF militia chanting racial threats outside his gate. Instead, his story tells of how Zimbabwe, as it was driving white farmers off the land, was also losing a critical class of successful, independent black commercial farmers.

It was violence and chaos that drove whites off farms, but many black commercial farmers were losing to a more insidious force—greedy state banks that took advantage of rising interest rates amid a deepening economic crisis—auctioning off black-owned commercial farms to cronies on the cheap. He once ran a 1 265 hectare farm, employed dozens and was the leader of a union of black farmers.
Now Tembani lives in depressing rented accommodation in a township in Rusape, a small town two hours east of Harare.

“I lost everything. I left with nothing,” Tembani told the Mail & Guardian.

Tembani had been a farm manager for decades when he bought his own farm in the eastern Nyazura district in 1983. Then blacks were either peasant farmers or worked for whites. Tembani set out to change that.

Minverwag farm was virtually virgin bush when he acquired it from a white farmer. With a bank loan the farm soon took shape. With no help from the government, he used some of the loan to build a school for 300 children, construct dams and buy equipment. The farm prospered: tobacco, maize, pigs, 600 head of beef cattle, ostriches, marigolds, paprika, wheat and soya.

His white neighbours overcame their prejudice and sent their own black managers to gain new skills.

But 2000 was a turning point as militia and landless peasants evicted whites. It was also the year that Agribank, the state-owned land bank, came to auction off Tembani’s farm. Interest rates had soared and farmers like Tembani, with money tied up in farm assets, struggled to repay their loans. The bank agreed to sell a ­portion of the land for the debt, but later broke its promise and auctioned off the whole farm.

Tembani was given 48 hours to leave. He had time to save only a few personal effects. He reels off all the things he left behind: a new tractor, his Land Rover, cash in the office safe.

Over the years Tembani’s quest to save his farm took him to the offices of a string of top officials. He tells how he wailed loudly in the lobby of late vice-president Joseph Msika’s office to get his attention.

He also wrote a series of letters to President Robert Mugabe. The rebuffs were polite.

“The president is sympathetic to your case,” the series of letters from the president’s office would start, before quickly tapering off into the standard: “However, because of his busy schedule —”

One day, desperate, he walked to State House, Mugabe’s heavily guarded official residence. “I had nothing left to lose. I said I wanted to see the president. The soldiers said they would shoot me if I didn’t leave.”

He still believes that “if the president had known about my case, I would still be on my farm”.

Out of options, Tembani took his case to the SADC Tribunal in Namibia, raising suggestions that he had joined a group of white farmers challenging land reform there. He firmly denied this. “I am not against land reform. How could I be? I just want justice for the illegal sale of my farm, that’s all.”

This week a Pretoria court ruled that Zimbabwe government assets in South Africa could be sold as compensation for evicted white farmers. But with SADC suspending the tribunal, Tembani will not be heard.

He is bitter about the state of the farm he had left behind. “They are destroying that farm.”

Tembani recalled the names of many other black commercial farmers who lost their farms in the same way. He feels cheated watching how streams of cheap loans disappear into the pockets of new farm owners.

“The money I used went into development. Today, we see all these loans going out. What are they doing with that money? Nothing.” Two months ago Tembani’s young daughter died after she was electrocuted because of the poor ­wiring in their township hovel. He has no income and relies on relatives to survive. “I left with nothing. I am 74. Where do I begin?”

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