President Robert Mugabe confessed yesterday that millions of acres of prime land seized from Zimbabwe’s white farmers are now lying empty and idle.
After years spent trumpeting the “success” of the land grab, Mr Mugabe, 81, admitted that most of the farms transferred to black owners have never been used.
All but a handful of Zimbabwe’s 4,000 white farmers lost their homes and livelihoods when armed gangs of Mugabe supporters began invading their property in 2000.
In the first 18 months of the campaign, eight white landowners and 39 of their black workers were murdered, court orders defied and Zimbabwe’s economy plunged into crisis.
Mr Mugabe said this was the price that Zimbabwe would have to pay to redress the wrongs of the British colonial era, which left much of the best land in white hands. He claimed that the seizures would boost production and benefit millions of blacks.
Yet in his home province yesterday, Mr Mugabe chided the new landowners for growing crops on less than half of their land.
“President Mugabe expressed disappointment with the land use, saying only 44 per cent of the land distributed is being fully utilised,” state television reported. “He warned the farmers that the government will not hesitate to redistribute land that is not being utilised.”
Some 10.4 million acres were seized under a scheme designed to create a new class of black commercial farmer. By Mr Mugabe’s figures, 5.8 million acres are lying fallow.
Last year, Mr Mugabe boasted of a bumper harvest and said that Zimbabwe no longer needed help “foisted” on it from the United Nations World Food Programme.
His land grab had made Zimbabwe “self sufficient”, Mr Mugabe repeatedly claimed, and the national maize crop was a record 2.4 million tonnes.
The Commercial Farmers’ Union said that Zimbabwe grew only 850,000 tonnes of maize last year, not enough to meet domestic demand. In 1999, the last year before the land grab began, Zimbabwe grew 1.5 million tonnes. Then, Zimbabwe also earned about £263 million from tobacco exports. Last year, production had fallen by more than 70 per cent and earnings were down to £77 million.
Critics said Mr Mugabe’s admission exposed the land grab’s “failure”.
“It has been a phenomenal and absolute failure on every level,” said Tendai Biti, secretary for economic affairs of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. “It has failed both in terms of production of crops and in terms of the occupation of the land.”
The new farmers are unable to raise bank loans because their properties are formally owned by the government and they have no individual title deeds. Without loans, they cannot buy seed, fertiliser or farming equipment and the regime has broken a pledge to supply them with tools.
Some farmers have resorted to using horse-drawn ploughs. Many have given up trying to produce anything at all.
Zimbabwe will hold parliamentary elections on March 31 and, for the first time in 10 years, Mr Mugabe is no longer holding out the offer of white-owned land as a vote-winner. Instead, his speeches are dominated by attacks on Tony Blair, who he claims is plotting to recolonise Zimbabwe.
About 400 white farmers remain in Zimbabwe, with about one third of this year’s tobacco crop of 89,000 tonnes coming from only 250 white landowners.