Colin Freeman, Telegraph (London), June 26, 2011
Driving through land his family have tended for half a century, Colin Cloete stops to inspect a harvested tobacco field, rows of green stumps sprouting from a terracotta soil.
As a seasoned professional farmer, he knows the field needs to be reploughed before pests infest the weedy growths left behind. As a tired political campaigner, however, he knows it is no longer worth his while.
“We should be replanting these fields now, but I don’t know who is going to benefit from the next harvest,” he says, shaking his head. “I will probably do it anyway, but I do wonder whether it’s worth it.”
After an 11-year struggle in which their ranks have been murdered, beaten, jailed and bankrupted, the last of Zimbabwe’s white farmers are finally facing defeat in their efforts to resist President Robert Mugabe’s land-grab programme.
Despite the introduction of a power-sharing government two years ago, state-backed farm seizures have continued, and earlier this month, Mr Cloete lost a final appeal at Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court to keep his one remaining property.
Next Monday, he will appear before a local magistrate to answer a charge of trespass, for which the only way to avoid jail will be to pack up and start looking for a new house in Harare, an hour’s drive away.
With his departure will also go the hopes of some 300 other white farmers–all that remains of a community that was once 4,000 strong–for whom similar legal challenges had offered some last chance of protection, or at least a stay of execution.
“They will probably give me about 24 hours to get off my land, as they will say I have dragged things out through the appeal process already,” sighed Mr Cloete, whose fields supply British American Tobacco, makers of Dunhill’s and Benson and Hedges.
“To be honest, I don’t really fancy the idea of moving to Harare, and the idea of giving up farming is heart-rending. If I was going to serve a couple of years in jail and then get the farm back, it might be worth it, but that’s not how it is.”
A former head of the Commercial Farmers’ Union, Mr Cloete has spent tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills fighting the land reform programme, which put Zimbabwe on the path to economic ruin a decade ago when black squatters were first encouraged to “invade” white-owned farms.
Purportedly to redress the injustices of white colonial rule, its effect has been largely to create a new landlord class: the pick of white-owned land has gone to Zanu-PF cronies, leaving an agricultural sector that was once the pride of Africa in the hands of people with no experience of farming.
Hopes that Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC might use their presence in government to halt the programme have proved premature, with the party fearing that vocal support for farmers could allow Mr Mugabe to portray them as the stooges of British rule.
However, the prospect that the MDC might still curb the programme should they win the next elections has encouraged Zanu-PF supporters to continue to grab the remaining white-owned farms while there is still a chance.
“Morgan knows that the land issue is too sensitive to broach because everything is tied in with the liberation struggle,” said Mr Cloete, who lives on the farm with his wife Charmian, 57. “But do hope that at some point, we will get a new government and there will be a change of stance.”
Mr Cloete’s central claim to the Supreme Court was simple: he argued that as had bought the farm after independence in 1980, it could hardly have been considered the booty of a white colonial overlord, and therefore should be exempt from land-grab laws.
That the judges rejected it, though, came as no great surprise to him or his Harare-based lawyer, David Drury.
Zimbabwe’s courts are dominated by Zanu-PF judges who are often beneficiaries of land-grabs themselves, says Mr Drury, while the few judges who find in favour of white claimants often end up losing their jobs.
Mr Drury, though, says the intention was not to triumph against odds that were always stacked against them, but to stage what he calls a “show trial”–a record of events that some post-Mugabe government may use to help rectify matters.
“It is a chance to provide a record of the injustice, in the hope that some sort of sanity will eventually be restored to cloud cuckoo land,” he said.
“I am the first to support genuine land reform, and to support people who have been marginalised to become productive. But handing land to people on the basis of party connections is completely illogical.”
In similar fashion, the Zimbabwean government has also chosen to ignore what should have been a legally binding 2008 ruling by a tribunal of the 15-nation Southern African Development Community, made in response to a petition by 77 white farmers, that the land reform programme was inherently racist as it operated purely on the grounds of colour.
Legal challenges by a few other white farmers are due to be heard by the Supreme Court in July–with some claiming, for example, that they hold their land as a company rather than an individual–but the way every other case has so far been struck down means lawyers are already advising them to prepare to leave.
Even farmers who thought they were on solid legal ground have had no protection.
South African Dirk Visagie, another Chegutu farmer, has suffered constant harassment from farm invaders intent on grabbing his land, despite it supposedly being protected under a bilateral investment agreement between Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Mr Cloete, whose parents first came to Chegutu in 1955 and still live nearby, is in many ways typical of the white farmer’s dwindling breed.
He wears the standard attire of khaki shorts and bush shirt, follows cricket keenly, and contrary to Mr Mugabe’s narrative of white farmers as uncaring feudalists, shows a country squire’s concern for the welfare of his black farm workers.
His mother, he says, built the 700-pupil local school, his father sat on the local council, and whenever his black neighbours need helping out–be it a fellow farmer borrowing a tractor, or the local police borrowing fuel for their cars–it is his door on which they knock.
“There is a perception that we had an elitist, privileged lifestyle, and just took advantage of our workers,” he admits.
“And yes, I agree that there are some difficult farmers about–I learned that while dealing with them as head of the CFU. But there is never any talk about the schools we built, the clinics we built. We have never tried to live in isolation from the community.”
He has already handed over another farm he owns to a group of black settlers who turned up in 2006, since when, he says, he has done his best to be neighbourly.
He helps prepare the land for cultivation and offers advice when they need it, although driving through his estate, it is clear that some of what is now in black hands is being used for little more than subsistence agriculture.
Such goodwill, however, counts for little when groups of club-wielding “war veterans”–ostensibly men who fought in Zimbabwe’s war for independence, but in practice often just hired thugs–turn up to demand a farmer’s departure, as they last did with Mr Cloete in late 2009.
The men, who he suspects were sent by Colonel Norman Kapanga, the retired policeman who has claimed his second, 450-acre farm, wielded clubs and lit a fire in his front garden, although they eventually left without further confrontation.
What stung more, though, were the “Go back to Britain” slogans they shouted–meaningless to a man who is in fact of French Huguenot stock, has only ever held a Zimbabwean passport, and has nowhere else to go even if he wanted to.
Infuriatingly, the view that he has no longer a citizen of his own country is shared by the black prosecutor who will oversee his trespass case next week, who has described him in previous court appearances as merely a “visitor”.
“I have never viewed myself as anything other than Zimbabwean, and that is what hurts me most,” he said.
“We are not being looked at as citizens of this country, yet my father was born here before Robert Mugabe. What future do we have when you are fighting people of that mentality?”