Posted on July 30, 2010

Zimbabwe: From Breadbasket to Basket Case

Rosie DiManno, The Star (Toronto), July 24, 2010

From breadbasket of Africa to African basket case–that’s Zimbabwe.

A country rooted in agriculture that now must import maize and wheat, 7 million of its people targeted for assistance this year by the World Food Program.

At least 85 per cent of the population is unemployed, 49 per cent malnourished according to WFP figures, with 83 per cent living on less than $2 a day.

Zimbabwe: Once the regional model of an African country functioning at maximum capacity; for the past decade in utter economic collapse, wracked by multi-trillion per cent inflation until the Zimbabwe dollar was shelved for U.S. currency last year.

The government blames a nation’s misery on international sanctions and chronic droughts.

The world blames Zimbabwe’s woes on President Robert Mugabe, his Zanu-PF thugocracy, endemic corruption and the catastrophe of land redistribution.

Out of some 6,000 large white-owned commercial farms in 2000, less than 300 remain, with half of those facing eviction orders, 80 seized in the year since a unity government was brokered between Zanu-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change. That indicates very little has actually changed, even with MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai installed as prime minister.

“Reform?” says Deon Theron, posing the word as a rhetorical question and simultaneously sneering. “Reforming from productive to unproductive, more like it.”

Theron is president of Zimbabwe’s ever-shrinking Commercial Farmers Union, which essentially represents Zimbabwe’s ever-shrinking constituency of white farmers. Since land resettlement legislation in 2000–taking back for black rural farmers, allegedly, what the white colonizers had staked unilaterally in centuries past–the country has been in economic free fall, unable to feed itself, arable property lying fallow, mud-hut dwellers working tiny plots and selling their produce by the side of the road where formerly massive crop yields were sold to foreign markets.

“It’s been devastating,” says Theron, 56, himself among the white commercial farmers–raising dairy and beef cattle–divested of property without compensation, living now on his mother’s farm, though the elderly woman has also been ordered off her land, despite a High Court ruling that she is the legal owner.

The narrative of white owners driven off their farms by invaders, often violently by youth militia mobs–police looking the other way because they refuse to intervene in anything “political”–has been well-documented since 2000. Yet it’s the far more numerous black farm workers who’ve suffered most as their jobs disappeared, the land usurpers–primarily government and “parastatal” officials, Zimbabwe’s cronies–hopelessly inexperienced at commercial farming.

It’s dispiriting to drive across this country’s highways, looking upon mile after mile of disused land, the Rhodes grass waist-high where once neat furrows of crops were cultivated.

“Mugabe’s policies have destroyed the symbiotic relationship between commercial farmers and small scale farmers,” explains Theron. “They claim to be empowering black citizens but only a small handful of individuals have benefited, Mugabe and his friends.”

Just look at the figures:

Between 2000 and 2008, production of maize declined 79 per cent, wheat 90 per cent, soya beans 66 per cent, citrus 50 per cent, fresh produce 61 per cent, dairy 59 per cent, beef 67 per cent, coffee 92 per cent, tea 40 per cent. Only tobacco, a major foreign currency generator, has rebounded markedly in the last year from a nearly 80 per cent decline.

Theron’s personal story shares all the hallmarks of Mugabe’s assault on white land owners. Three farms Theron bought after Rhodesia/Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980–none of it inherited–have been seized, with all of the equipment. “They attacked us. They beat up my employees. They slept in my bed, ate my food, drank my beer. They poisoned my dogs and they almost killed me.”

Because he refused to vacate his mother’s farm, Theron was charged and convicted in an absurd kangaroo court trial where the first magistrate had himself taken over a white-owned farm, the second scolded Theron to “face the music for your illegal occupation of the land” and the third refused to allow the defence to present any evidence or call witnesses.

Theron is appealing the six-month sentence handed down two days before Zimbabwe’s last national elections.

“They were desperate for a conviction to show that they were standing up for the rights of black farmers. But very few ordinary people have been given any land.”

Further, Theron adds, urban Zimbabweans graduating from college have no wish to farm; they don’t want to work with their hands, would prefer to sit in front of computers and do technology.

“Listen, I’m not opposed to land redistribution. We all know the colonial history of this country. But what happening isn’t land reform. It’s thuggery.

“There has to be some respect for the rule of law. There has to be restitution and respect for property rights. There has to be an independent judiciary. We don’t have any of that right now.”

There have been small glimpses of progress. The Southern African Development Community, representing regional countries, has ruled in favour of ousted farmers in land ownership disputes and is threatening action against Zimbabwe for refusing to recognize its decisions. Zimbabwe’s High Court has likewise rendered verdicts acknowledging rightful ownership of property. South Africa’s ambassador intervened successfully on behalf of its nationals who were tossed off farm they owned here. The German embassy this month forced Zimbabwe to back off its eviction of a huge farming enterprise owned by a German citizen, threatening to withhold $50 million in humanitarian assistance.

Theron estimates it would cost upwards of $12 billion to compensate white farmers evicted from their property. “The government doesn’t have that kind of money.”

Zimbabwe’s prolonged economic derangement and the resultant collapse of the country’s social infrastructure has been entirely self-afflicted. The government is in staggering debt yet continues to discourage the foreign investment acutely needed to get off its knees. Recent legislation now requires that large foreign-owned companies sell a majority share interest to indigenous Zimbabweans, described as “formerly disadvantaged”. That kind of unfriendly investment climate has put Zimbabwe–which pulled out of the Commonwealth in 2003–on the wrong side of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The international community also has watched with dismay as Mugabe has thwarted key provisions of the Global Political Agreement that forced power sharing on Zanu-PF–promises to conduct a thorough land audit, to reorganize security forces, to appoint MDC governors and to end arbitrary detentions of political opponents and activists.

Meanwhile, farm seizures continue unabated.

Zimbabwe cannot possibly begin to heal itself as long as the agriculture sector remains in such colossal disarray.

Yet Theron, among others, is hopeful.

“We can still turn this around. Look at the way we stopped the runaway inflation, when all the shops were empty, no food on the shelves. The people did that, by refusing to use Zimbabwe dollars anymore and that forced the government to change their policy.

“I believe we can get back on our feet again pretty quickly, with some decent governance. The agriculture industry will come back. This has always been an agriculture-driven economy–agriculture and foreign investment.”

Salvation might be just a heartbeat away–Mugabe’s heartbeat. He’s 86-years-old. And he’s almost single-handedly holding the widely discredited Zanu-PF together.

“He still has a great deal of respect throughout Africa,” says Theron. “He’s stood up against all the odds. Absolutely, he’s a great patriot. But nobody else in the party has that kind of immunity.

“His death will change everything.”

Then, Theron offers a sheepish smile.

“I am a Zimbabwean. If you’re going to remain in this country, you’ve got to be an optimist.”