White farmers may be allowed back on their land in Zimbabwe as part of a plan by the government of Robert Mugabe to solve the country’s deepening economic crisis.
The president’s key finance aide has called for some of the farmers whose properties were confiscated in a land seizure programme to be allowed to resume growing crops to boost the country’s flagging agricultural output.
Gideon Gono, governor of the central bank and Mr Mugabe’s main policy maker, made the proposal as he announced a 31% devaluation of the Zimbabwe currency.
“In order to ensure maximum productivity levels, there is great scope in the country promoting and supporting joint ventures between the new farmers with progressive-minded former operators,” said Mr Gono in a state radio and television broadcast that lasted nearly three hours.
He added that the skilled whites and other new investors would be given special guarantees of uninterrupted tenure of five to 10 years, backed by government force to prevent any disruptions on the farms.
Mr Gono was careful to say that it would not reverse Mr Mugabe’s redistribution of white-owned land to blacks.
However, observers say his plan would be an implicit admission that the land seizure policy has failed.
A Zimbabwean economist, John Robertson, said: “This shows the desperation of the government to improve the economy. They say it is not a reversal of their land seizures, but it is. It won’t get very far.
“I don’t think many farmers will take up the offer because they would have to give up their title deeds and lease their land back.
“The range of measures proposed by Gono and the government show that the economic situation is dire. But they are avoiding the fundamental changes needed because those would be opposed by Mugabe. These measures don’t add up. The economy will continue to be a disaster area.”
At the start of the land seizure policy in 2000, Zimbabwe had 4,500 white farmers, now about 400 remain on portions of their farms. Mozambique, Zambia and Nigeria have welcomed some of the skilled white farmers.
The economy has also shrunk by more than 40% in five years.
Yesterday Mr Mugabe did not comment on Mr Gono’s proposal.
During the election campaign in March, the president said he was disappointed that only 44% of the land seized from whites was being cultivated and that the remainder was lying fallow.
He has also had to admit that Zimbabwe, once called “the breadbasket of Africa”, needs to import food to feed its population. For months he had boasted that the country had a bumper harvest and would “choke” if it was forced to take international food aid.
But Mr Mugabe said this week that his government would welcome food from the UN, as long as it came without any political conditions.
The government announced yesterday that it was busy redrawing its 2005 budget to fund food imports.
Drastic cuts to other parts of the budget will be needed to raise the money to import food, the acting finance minister, Patrick Chinamasa, said, according to Reuters.
On Thursday the government devalued its currency and banned imports of luxury goods to try to reduce the economic freefall. But the devaluation falls far short of the Z$25,000 that one US dollar (55p) fetches on Zimbabwe’s thriving black market.
Mr Gono reduced by half his forecasts of the country’s economic growth, to 2.5%. That figure is viewed as unrealistic by economists, who point out the five consecutive years of economic decline.
John Worsley-Worswick of Justice for Agriculture said: “This is a puppet show and it’s not going to solve things. Gono is a master of spin and he is saying that he can fix things. But the reality is that the few farmers who have managed to stay on their land are being hammered by the military.
“This suggestion that white farmers could come back is an admission of their failure, but I don’t know anyone who would take them up on their offer. The government’s agriculture policy has failed abysmally. There is no maize, there is no wheat, people are hungry. It’s a debacle.”
· Eighty percent of black South Africans who responded to a survey believe Mr Mugabe is ruling badly.
Toby Harnden, Telegraph (London), May 22
White farmers evicted by Robert Mugabe’s government have reacted with contempt to an offer that they should return to Zimbabwe to take part in “joint ventures” with those who brutalised them and stole their land.
Gideon Gono, the governor of the country’s central bank, suggested the idea last Thursday as a possible solution to Zimbabwe’s economic crisis.
Greg McMurray, a tobacco farmer who fled Zimbabwe in 2001 and is now a grinder at a factory in Wiltshire, said: “These are empty promises. We have had all the assurances before and then they just turn around and change their minds.
“I had them coming into my garden and threatening my fiancée. Men with a bit of beer in their bellies told me, ‘We’ll come and burn you and your wife and your house’.
“I would love to go back but the economy’s in ruins. The place is a shambles. So many professional people have left. It would need a new regime before most of us would think seriously about going back.”
The prospect of a return for white farmers was dangled by Mr Gono, Mr Mugabe’s leading economic policy maker, in a rambling three-hour statement in which he also announced a 31 per cent devaluation of the Zimbabwean dollar.
He said: “In order to ensure maximum productivity levels, there is great scope in the country promoting and supporting joint ventures between the new farmers with progressive-minded former operators as well as other new investors, so as to hasten the skills transfer cycle.”
During the evictions, some white farmers were murdered and many others were beaten and their families abused. The evictions prompted the collapse of the agriculture sector, the traditional engine of the economy.
Those who took over the farms had no specialist knowledge—and most farmland now lies uncultivated. The machinery has been stolen, buildings have been plundered and the former workers are starving.
Eddie Cross, the economics spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change—which was heavily defeated by the ruling Zanu-PF party in recent parliamentary elections that were widely condemned as being rigged—said that Mr Gono was desperate.
Mr Cross said: “He’s got no power and he can’t deliver. The reality is a thousand miles away from everything he says. He wants to regain some credibility with multilateral institutions. He has meetings with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank next month. This is about having something to say to those guys. The only salvation will be a change of government and a return to the rule of law.
“Until then, no one’s going to invest here or come back. Who on earth is going to do anything in agriculture when there is such dispute over land ownership? They’d be mad.”
While Mr Gono’s words could be interpreted as an admission that the land seizure policy pursued by Mr Mugabe—which led to him becoming an international pariah—had failed, they offered little comfort to the dispossessed.
One tobacco and cattle farmer, who was forced off his property by armed squatters in 2000, said: “He can’t be serious. My house has been burnt down, my fields destroyed and he wants to invite me back?
“There has to be a proper return to respect for property rights. We need facts, not words and a legal framework. No one’s going to go back on the basis of this.”
The man, who asked to remain anonymous, is among 1,600 evicted landowners who have stayed in Zimbabwe and are attempting to get compensation.
In 2000, there were 4,500 white farmers. Now only 400 remain on parts of their farms, many having made deals with Mugabe’s regime. Thousands of others lost everything and have had to seek help to set themselves up in ventures outside Zimbabwe.
Colin Ransome, of the Zimbabwe Farmers Trust Fund, a Scottish-registered charity, said: “A lot of those who settled in Britain have young families and new jobs. Everyone is very wary. Iron-clad assurances would be needed.”