For Ian Kay, a white Zimbabwean farmer, Chipesa, near the town of Marondera, is not just a farm, it is a family home.
After losing the property in 2002, at the height of the country’s violent land reform programme championed by former president Robert Mugabe, Kay says he cannot cut his connection to that land.
“My father bought it as virgin land in 1949 and built the place from nothing. I was born there in 1949 and I had a wedding there. My children were born there and my parents were buried there. It’s not just a farm to me; it’s home,” he said.
Three years after vacating the farm, Kay, a fluent Shona-speaker, did what some in
the area least expected: he ran for public office.
He challenged the then minister of defence, Sydney Sekeramayi, in the 2005 elections for Marondera constituency. Competing on an opposition ticket, he went on to win the seat and would hold it until 2013.
Now, with Mugabe gone, Kay cautiously welcomes the far-reaching decision by the new government to welcome back white farmers.
Early this year, President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration said white
farmers are now also eligible to get 99-year leases.
Under Mugabe’s administration, white farmers were given leases that were renewable every five years, something critics say stripped farmers of security of tenure.
Kay said, even though the issuance of 99-year leases is a sign of progress, more needs to be done for him to consider investing in farming again.
“The 99-year leases are a sign of progress but we need more evidence on the ground of the sincerity of the statements by the government. We had lost trust,” he said.
Back on the land
Despite ongoing uncertainties, some white farmers are already back on the land, thanks to Mugabe’s departure.
Eddie Cross, the Movement for Democratic Change’s economic affairs secretary, said reliable information shows that about 600 white farmers are back on Zimbabwean farms since Mnangagwa took over.
“They are leasing the land from blacks, something that Mugabe did not allow.”
Cross said production is likely to go up as a result of the recent changes.
Ben Gilpin, the director of the Commercial Farmers Union, said he could not comment on those who are back on farms because the figures vary.
“There are no clear stats but there is lot of interest. Some have indicated that they will be required to enter into joint ventures with current beneficiaries rather than get access in their own right. Until compensation is paid, this causes some ethical concerns with former owners,” he said.
Stoff Hawgood, a wheat and dairy farmer in Mashonaland East, said that under Mnangagwa he now feels like “a Zimbabwean with full rights”.
“Obviously it’s a positive move. Basically, white farmers are being considered as equal and full citizens of Zimbabwe with full rights as other Zimbabweans. It’s a reflection of a change of policy,” said Hawgood.
Edward Warambwa, a dairy farmer in the Midlands Province, said the government’s decision to issue 99-year leases to white farmers creates a win-win situation for everyone and is good for the country.
He said once white farmers have security of tenure it will lead to increased production.
Warambwa said white farmers, because of their experience, can also uplift those around them with skills transfer, adding that some of them have been doing so over the years.
“The fact is that white farmers are more experienced and if they get 99-year leases it will build confidence and they will start investing in permanent systems such as sheds. Dairy farming is not like keeping chickens or growing onions, which can be done overnight, so the long leases are important,” he said.
Warambwa said the uncertainty about the tenure of white farmers had resulted in a slump in business.
This also affected black farmers, he added. For example, black farmers used to get heifers from white farmers but, because of falling production on farms, the country has to rely on imports, which are expensive.
“I am a member of the Zimbabwe Association of Dairy Farmers and in our association we have both black and white members. We are integrated and the fact is white farmers are more experienced. Once a month we go to a dairy school and they come up with a topic to teach us.
“Once they get the leases they will grow. Once they grow we will get the heifers locally and not import, which is expensive. Getting heifers from here will help because they would have long acclimatised with our region,” he added.
War vets U-turn
It seems that it is not just the Zimbabwean government that has had a change of heart; even those who previously acted as foot soldiers to drive out the farmers now want to live and farm alongside white farmers.
The spokesperson of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association, Douglas Mahiya, said his association does not have any problems with white farmers getting 99-year leases as long as the documents are not acquired by corrupt means.
Some war veterans were implicated in driving white farmers off their land during
the “farm invasions” that began in the early 2000s.
Mahiya said the move by government to give white farmers leases would stop some farmers from being held to ransom by individuals because they will have security of tenure.
“If a person acquires the 99-year lease according to the rules of the land, if the person is a white Zimbabwean, I don’t see any problem with that,” said Mahiya.
Mnangagwa’s reforms include 99-year leases
Zimbabwe has started welcoming back white farmers after Robert Mugabe, with the army’s assistance, resigned in November last year.
The former president, who had ruled the country since independence from Britain in 1980, initiated violent land reform in 2000 and encouraged war veterans to occupy about 4 000 white-owned farms. It was a move that plunged Zimbabwe into severe food shortages and heralded the beginning of an economic crisis that the country is still recovering from.
Mugabe’s successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, promised during his inauguration — just days after Mugabe was ousted — to rebuild the economy in general, and agriculture in particular, by respecting property rights, among other far-reaching reforms.
Mnangagwa’s administration followed up on its promises in January by instructing all land officers to ensure that white farmers were granted 99-year leases to land, to guarantee that they would invest in the land and were treated the same as black farmers.
Under Mugabe, white farmers were issued with leases that were renewable every five years.
The new administration also moved to stop fresh illegal farm occupations, and some illegal settlers have since appeared in courts across the country.
On February 1 this year, the state-owned newspaper The Herald reported that Mnangagwa had pronounced that white farmers willing to come back and farm were free to do so but had to apply for land just as anyone else has to.
In a recent interview, the deputy minister of lands, agriculture and rural resettlement, Davis Marapira, said the government was treating all Zimbabweans equally and was not making its decisions based on people’s colour but on restoring productivity.
“The leases are being given to anyone who has shown that they can utilise the land.
We are not considering one’s skin colour. The leases are also now acceptable by banks [in order for them] to fund agricultural activities,” Marapira said. — Kudzai Mashininga