The Zimbabwe government is reneging on a pledge to invite exiled white farmers back to work the land and is moving to evict the few hundred who survived President Robert Mugabe’s six-year ethnic purge.
Scores of eviction notices were either delivered or were on their way to productive white farmers last week. The farmers will have 90 days to leave their homes and abandon their businesses.
In an indication that the government is launching a final push against the farmers, Didymus Mutasa, the lands and security minister, told Western diplomats this week that he did not care if Zimbabwe’s land remained unproductive “as long we [blacks] own it”.
Four months ago Mr Mugabe asked white farmers to stay. It was a spectacular admission that his 20 million-acre land grab had failed and that the expulsion of more than 4,000 white farmers had wrecked the economy.
“Productivity must return to the land,” Gideon Gono, the governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, said at the time.
Mr Mugabe even invited some who had fled their farms to return home and apply for 99-year leases for their properties, which were all nationalised last year.
About 900 existing and former white farmers applied for leases, half of them through the Commercial Farmers’ Union, but none has been processed.
“We were hopeful this would kick-start better production” said Trevor Gifford, a CFU official. “What is happening now is very disappointing.”
David Drury, a Harare solicitor, is preparing to go to court to challenge a batch of flimsy eviction notices.
“This is demonstrably an abuse of process, from a policy point of view and a legal point of view,” he said. But his hopes cannot be high.
The last time eviction notices were flowing was three years ago in the heat of the land invasions when white farmers were being killed or beaten up and imprisoned for refusing to abandon their homes.
Many remaining white farmers, trying to keep a low profile, are still regularly tormented by gangs and are often humiliated by the police when they beg for help.
“It is extremely painful. I don’t know how we endure this, but we have nowhere to go and no other way of earning our living,” said a farmer who had been under pressure from thugs who have surrounded his homestead for the last two weeks on behalf of a ruling Zanu PF heavyweight.
John Worsley-Worswick, spokesman for the pressure group Justice for Agriculture, said: “It is torture for farmers still out there. When they are evicted, they, their families and thousands of skilled farm workers and their families will be destitute.”
Most surviving white farmers, who have been forced to donate two thirds of their properties to the state, are tutoring the “new farmers” who were allocated their land.
Few “new farmers” have equipment or any agricultural skills. “It is in my interests that they are successful and want me around,” said one farmer.
Zimbabwe’s white farmers’ union has given warning of an impending “humanitarian catastrophe” after the government reneged on a promise to pay evicted white farmers the full value of the buildings and equipment seized along with their farms, leaving many of them destitute.
The government refuses to pay for the land seized from the estimated 3,800 white farmers forcibly evicted since 2000, but it had pledged to pay in full for the “improvements”.
Last week, however, farmers were outraged to learn that they will receive a fraction of the value of improvements, to be paid over the next few years in instalments—which, with inflation running at more than 1,100 per cent, means that some will be almost worthless.
Eric Harrison, the chairman of Justice for Agriculture, said the compensation scheme was a “scam to show the world the government is treating the farmers properly”.
Trevor Gifford, the vice-president of the Commercial Farmers Union, accused officials of pressuring farmers, many of whom have “lost everything and are now desperate”, to accept deals they knew were unfair.
“They are waiting until people are desperate and then offering them between two and 10 per cent of what it would fetch at auction,” said Mr Gifford. “They say, ‘We can give you 25 per cent now, another 25 per cent in two years time and the remainder in five to seven years time.’
“But with inflation as it is, that’s going to be eroded quickly. In two years time, you’re not going to be able to buy a packet of crisps with the money, let alone restart your life. This is a humanitarian catastrophe.”
Few of the 1,800 farmers invited to register for compensation have accepted. The government revealed last week that it had paid out a total of Zim$441 billion to just 206 farmers—an average of Zim$2.1 billion (£3,800) per farmer.
But it insisted it would not revise the payments. “Of course they (farmers) can do their independent assessments, but we will go by what is done by a government evaluator,” Didymus Mutasa, the lands minister, told Zimbabwe’s Financial Gazette. He dismissed the farmers’ complaints as “statements from people who just want more money”.
Ken Fraser, 59, said he was called to a “compensation hearing” on Thursday at which he was offered Zim$14.7 billion (£25,000) for one of the five farms he once owned. “What they were offering me was quite ridiculous,” said Mr Fraser, who was almost beaten to death by “war veterans” two years ago.
“We had a shed put up there about five years ago that was worth Zim$13.9 billion (£23,000), but that’s what they are offering me now for the entire farm.” He lives on savings and some income from contract work and has refused to leave his last house.
Nicholas van der Bergh, who lost several farms, and was finally evicted from his last 1,250 acres in central Zimbabwe last November, said the compensation he has been offered for one farm was “just about enough to buy a 60-horsepower tractor”.
Another farmer, who asked not be named, said he had rejected an offer of £38,000 compensation for buildings and equipment that he claims were worth £1.36 million. “The only people who have accepted are desperate and living in old people’s homes. Anybody who is able to work is trying their damnedest to hold out,” he said.
“We’ve been living by selling the furniture we managed to rescue from the farm, but we’re reaching the end of our tether.”
Mr Gifford contrasted the treatment of white Zimbabweans with that of foreign land owners, who were told last week they would be compensated for land and equipment in a currency of their choice. The government’s reneging on its compensation pledge represents an extraordinary about-turn by a regime that a few months ago was talking about returning farms to their owners in an attempt to boost dwindling food production.
The government insists its land reforms were necessary to redress the legacy of British colonialism, which left 70 per cent of the most fertile land in the hands of a few thousand whites.