President Robert Mugabe has begun to reverse his “insane” land grab and offer some white farmers the chance to lease back their holdings in Zimbabwe.
With the fastest shrinking economy in the world, Mr Mugabe has had to backtrack on six years of chaos and his own determination to rid the country of all white farmers.
In an orgy of violence, Mr Mugabe seized the land, homes, equipment and infrastructure of about 4,000 white commercial farmers who produced almost half of Zimbabwe’s foreign currency.
The U-turn is expected to be announced within days. The ruling Zanu-PF party’s politburo has been informed and selected journalists in the state-controlled media have been briefed on how to spin the policy reversal.
About 250 whites remaining on small portions of their farms will immediately be offered state leases for the land they used to own. Some will be hoping that their full land holdings will be restored at a later stage.
The leases will, farmers hope, give them some legal protection from local warlords continuously trying to evict them or seize their equipment or crops.
In a second stage, the leases will be extended to some white farmers who have already been evicted, particularly where there is no activity on that land. Some fled to Britain, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa and are desperately homesick.
The government is expected to admit in the next few days that it has only used about 50 per cent of the land it seized. In reality, land economists say the figure of idle land is nearer 80 to 90 per cent.
The new policy is understood to have been approved by Mr Mugabe but it is unlikely he will announce it, as the government hopes to play down the U-turn.
It will be executed by two of his most trusted lieutenants: the lands minister Didymus Mutasa and the agriculture minister Joseph Made. Neither was available for comment yesterday.
In anticipation of this change of policy, the Commercial Farmers Union has advised some members to apply for leases, and some farmers have already filled in lease applications at the agriculture ministry.
The union yesterday issued a rare statement calling for a “moratorium on land and agricultural policies”. All those involved in agriculture should get together and “rebuild the entire industry to return as the principal employer of labour and generator of food and foreign exchange”, it said.
“We have the energy and capacity to help bring Zimbabwe back once again to be the bread basket of the sub-continent.”
The statement was signed by the CFU president, Doug Taylor-Freeme, who would not comment on the change of policy. “We need to create some stability on the ground for existing farmers if we want any investment in agriculture. That’s the first step.
“All land has been acquired by the state for one reason or another but the issue now is who uses that land? We believe it should be farmers. When you look at the state of agriculture and the state of the economy we need to find the right balance.”
Behind closed doors last week, the International Monetary Fund told Zimbabwe’s finance minister Herbert Murerwa—who has helped himself to a white-owned farm—that land seizures should halt immediately and that without increased agricultural production there was no chance of halting Zimbabwe’s slide.
While this is a reversal of Zanu PF’s policy to rid Zimbabwe of all white farmers, some of those who lost their holdings are cynical about any offers from the government. Many will need convincing that the offer is genuine unless it is openly endorsed by Mr Mugabe and, even then, they may still be sceptical about a president who has broken promises in the past. “The government vastly underestimates the damage of its insane policies,” said one of Zimbabwe’s former top cereal producers. “They probably believe that allowing some of us to return will turn the economy around in a single season. We won’t be able to do anything without international finance, and we won’t get that until there is political reform,” he said.
“It’s bloody miserable out there. All our friends have gone, our equipment has been broken, irrigation has been vandalised, our homes have been wrecked, the roads are a mess, our workers have gone so why should we return? I am sure there will be some clots who are so damn miserable in other countries or living in towns that they will go back.
“We should be campaigning for compensation, not going back to help people who wrecked our country.”