Posted on February 18, 2009

Should I Stay or Should I Go: What Every White Zimbabwean Asks

Martin Fletcher, Times of London, February 18, 2009

At one point or another every white Zimbabwean family has had the same debate: whether to stay in the country they love, as it steadily deteriorates, or whether to cut their losses and move elsewhere.

The young, those concerned about their futures, have mostly chosen to go. One of the many sadnesses of Zimbabwe is that it is a land of broken families, with children and grandchildren scattered across the world, having left to start new lives in South Africa, Britain, North America, Australia or New Zealand.

Some middle-aged white Zimbabweans, including former farmers whose land was seized, have stayed, learnt to play the system and run reasonably successful businesses. A lot of older and retired Zimbabweans, however, chose to stay in the land where they have lived all their lives because they reasoned that genteel poverty would be easier to endure in a warm climate than in the damp, grey cold of England. What they probably underestimated was the extent of Zimbabwe’s collapse.

Astronomical inflation has rendered their pensions, lifetime savings and insurance policies utterly worthless. Their last remaining wealth is tied up in their properties, and they now live off remittances from their children or whatever they have managed to stash away in foreign bank accounts.

That was fine until US dollar inflation also began to soar a few years ago. Provided Zimbabweans have foreign currency they can still buy most of the commodities they need, but at silly prices and many now make two- or three-day journeys to Botswana or South Africa to buy pallet-loads of cheaper food. The collapse of the health system means they now have to pay for expensive private health care in foreign currency if they fall ill. The breakdown of water and electrical supplies means they have had to sink boreholes in their gardens and invest in generators. Even The Herald, the miserable, state-controlled newspaper, now costs $1.

Most muddle through, somehow, though they live in constant fear of serious illness or major house repairs. They long ago stopped using their swimming pools. They have turned lawns into vegetable patches. They gave up whisky, then meat, and take their ageing cars out less and less. In extremis there are a couple of charities that offer discreet help to indigent whites.

The Times was told of one elderly man who committed suicide recently so that his wife would have only one mouth to feed. The only problem is that even the most modest funeral costs around $300–which makes the cost of dying almost as prohibitive as the cost of living.

A SECRET plan has been hatched by President Robert Mugabe’s most loyal supporters to evict the last of Zimbabwe’s white farmers from their land before his 85th birthday.

He is already planning to celebrate the occasion with vast quantities of champagne and caviar, even though half his country faces starvation.

But just in case the Bollinger does not provide enough fizz, his acolytes are preparing an extra surprise: a fresh onslaught against Zimbabwe’s last white farmers.

Police, prosecutors and magistrates loyal to Mr Mugabe are understood to be co-ordinating mass summonses against the few hundred remaining white owners in an effort to bring them to court and serve eviction notices.

The deadline for the action is next Saturday, the day before Mr Mugabe’s birthday and a week before his planned official birthday bash, which has already provoked criticism for its extravagance. The hospitality will reportedly include 2000 bottles of Moet & Chandon and ’61 Bollinger champagne, 500 bottles of Johnny Walker Blue Label whisky, 400 portions of caviar and 8000 lobsters.

While no official reason has been given for the eviction campaign, insiders say it is timed to hand Mr Mugabe a potent propaganda gift for his birthday celebrations, which normally feature grandstanding anti-colonial speeches.

Last Tuesday, in contravention of justice laws, groups of law enforcement officials held a secret eviction strategy meeting in Mutare, 260 kilometres east of the capital, Harare.

The plan is to send out court summons to all local white farmers who have defied eviction orders, aiming for speedy trials and jail for up to two years. Meanwhile, the new occupants, mostly servicemen, will be allowed to move onto the land.

Among the farmers summonsed was Michael Mackersie, who will go to court on Monday for the 63rd time in three years. “If I lose this one I think that will be it,” he said.

The Law Society of Zimbabwe said it would expel any members involved with the action.

Beyond legal moves, the campaign has also involved violent harassment. Mike Odendaal, a farmer, is surrounded by a pro-Mugabe militia at his home in Chipinge, about 65 kilometres south of Mutare.

“We have advised him to stay inside,” said Deon Theron, vice-president of the Commercial Farmers Union. “If he moves outside he may be attacked, and they will take his house and then he is gone.

“This is the biggest push against us in the last few years, worse than the violent weeks after the opposition [Movement for Democratic Change] won last year’s election.”

In November Mr Mackersie was one of 78 farmers who won their case at the Southern African Development Community Tribunal, a court of last resort, which ruled Mr Mugabe had ethnically purged white farmers and failed to pay compensation.

It ordered that those white farmers who had resisted the land grab, in which more than 4000 white farming families were evicted, be left in peace.

Mr Mugabe, who introduced the land grab policy nine years ago as part of a campaign to redress perceived colonial injustices, has said the tribunal has no jurisdiction in Zimbabwe.