Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

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In Land’s Bounty, a Political Chip

In Land’s Bounty, a Political Chip


Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Residents celebrating after receiving checks. As President Robert G. Mugabe pushes for new elections this year, the drive to put more wealth into the hands of black Zimbabweans is seen by allies as a politically popular path to victory.

BINGA, Zimbabwe — More than a decade after Zimbabwe’s government began seizing sprawling white-owned commercial farms, a new fight is brewing here over who will profit from the nation’s vast bounty of platinum, chromium, nickel and diamonds.

In a move rooted in politics, the party of the aging president, Robert G. Mugabe, has begun pressuring companies operating in the country to comply with a law requiring that black Zimbabweans own more than half their shares.

Mr. Mugabe has ruled the country since its independence in 1980 but has seen his popularity recede considerably in recent years. He won fewer votes than the opposition in the 2008 election and was forced into an awkward power-sharing government in the violent aftermath.

As Mr. Mugabe pushes for new elections this year, the drive to put more wealth into the hands of black Zimbabweans is seen by allies as a politically popular path to victory.

Senior officials of Mr. Mugabe’s party, ZANU-PF, say that foreigners operating inside the country must not be allowed to profit at the expense of indigenous, or black, Zimbabweans.

“Am I going to assign another man to make my wife pregnant and get a child?” asked Savior Kasukuwere, the ZANU-PF minister overseeing the process known as indigenization. “Zimbabweans must be masters of their own destiny. Indigenization is a core feature of the values of our party: freedom, equality, peace.”

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change, along with many independent economists and analysts, says that the law, which was passed in 2010, but only widely enforced in the last year, spells disaster for the country’s economy just as it is beginning to expand after years of withering.

“Our position is empowerment, yes,” said Morgan Tsvangirai, the prime minister and leader of the opposition. “But we are more concerned about the state of employment. How do we encourage creation of more jobs rather than destroying the few jobs we have?”

Zimbabwe’s economy has been making a slow recovery after more than a decade of political and economic crisis brought on by the seizure of commercial farms. The introduction of the United States dollar eliminated the hyperinflation that made life here impossible, and investors are slowly returning to a country that is richly endowed with natural wealth.

Much of that wealth is folded within a geological formation known as the Great Dyke: a 340-mile-long river of stone formed 2.5 billion years ago by molten rock that pushed up from the earth’s core through the Zimbabwe craton, an even more ancient chunk of continental crust. Over millenniums the rock folded and twisted back on itself, and within its layers lie rich deposits of valuable elements like platinum, nickel, copper and chromium.

According to Zimbabwe’s indigenization law, black Zimbabweans must own 51 percent of shares of foreign companies operating here. About 20 percent of the shares are supposed to go to community trust funds, which in theory will pay for local development projects, and company employees. The rest must go to black Zimbabweans.

But exactly how these aims are to be achieved is unclear. Many of these companies are publicly held, and their shares are not the companies’ to give or sell. On top of that, few black Zimbabweans have the means to buy large numbers of shares at market value.

Still, a handful of companies have already agreed to comply, under intense pressure from Mr. Kasukuwere, a 41-year-old former official of Zimbabwe’s fearsome Central Intelligence Organization.

In March, the South African mining company Implats — whose subsidiary, Zimplats, mines platinum in Zimbabwe — said it would give community organizations interest-free loans, to be repaid from dividends, for their shares, and do the same for employees.

But it said it expected full market value for the other 31 percent of shares required under the law, an amount few private investors in Zimbabwe could muster. Officials from Implats and other companies affected by the new law did not respond to requests for comment.

Government officials say that they will not pay a cent for those shares.

“Our contribution is the platinum they are taking from our soil,” said George Charamba, Mr. Mugabe’s spokesman. “They will get nothing more.”

Mr. Mugabe, at the age of 88, is rumored to be in poor health. In April, rumors spread in Harare that he was on his deathbed in Singapore, but he appeared at the country’s independence day celebration a few days later, looking fit as he walked around a soccer stadium under a blazing sun for 30 minutes unaided to review a military parade.

But after three decades with one man at the helm, Mr. Mugabe’s party is riven by infighting over who will succeed him, and party leaders are eager to hold elections soon while Mr. Mugabe is still able to campaign. The opposition argues it is a mistake to rush the process while important reforms remain undone.

Many here worry that the already wealthy supporters of the ruling party will reap almost all the benefits of the law. That would be a replay of the land seizures, which led to huge farms being handed over to people who had no expertise in commercial farming and left them fallow, further hobbling the economy.

“What they seek to do is transfer wealth from rich white people to rich black people,” said Tendai Biti, Zimbabwe’s finance minister and a leader of the Movement for Democratic Change. “You are not creating any wealth, you are not creating any new jobs.”

It is also unclear whether the community trusts, which are trumpeted as the main way ordinary people will benefit, represent new funds or simply a replacement for existing corporate social responsibility programs.

“It is all political smoke and mirrors,” said Derek Matyszak, an analyst at the Research and Advocacy Unit, a research institution in Harare, who has closely examined the existing indigenization deals. “So far, no one has actually parted with a brass farthing as far as I can tell.”

But for ZANU-PF, which under the power-sharing agreement retains control of the most powerful levers of government — the army, the police and the intelligence service — indigenization could be a powerful political tactic.

On a recent Saturday morning, Mr. Kasukuwere demonstrated just how useful the policy could be in drumming up support, boarding a rattling police helicopter for the hour-and-a-half trip to Binga, a remote and impoverished town on Zimbabwe’s arid western edge.

He had arrived with a stack of four giant checks for local community groups drawn from a fund set up by Old Mutual, an insurance company that has already begun to comply with the law.

Over a squealing, distorted amplifier, a master of ceremonies called out the names of the organizations receiving loans to start fishing businesses.

“To the Tutambule Kapenta Fishing Cooperative, 25,000 United States dollars!” the M.C. shouted. The cooperative’s members rushed to the front of the crowd, hooting and hopping like contestants selected for “The Price is Right.” They danced in a joyous circle around Mr. Kasukuwere, holding their oversized check aloft.

“Who stands for the youth? Only Kasukuwere!” the assembled crowd sang. “Who can empower the people? Only Kasukuwere!”

Andrew Muleya, a 31-year-old carpenter, said there were few jobs available in this remote corner of the country and he was grateful to Mr. Kasukuwere for coming to Binga to inject some cash into the community.

“ZANU-PF will win this election because they are helping the poor people,” he said. “People are getting something for the future.”

Heavyset with a powerful, cleanshaven head, Mr. Kasukuwere stood out from the wiry villagers who had gathered to watch his presentation. Dressed in a blue blazer with brass buttons, and with a Mont Blanc watch on his wrist, he presided over the proceedings like a young prince who hopes to be king.

The son of a liberation war veteran and a former intelligence official, he is a rising star in the party. He is also one of more than 100 senior Zimbabwean politicians under European Union sanctions, accused of participating in violence against opponents of Mr. Mugabe’s rule.

After a particularly energetic song and dance performance by a group of local children, Mr. Kasukuwere pledged them a gift of $50. When an old man rushed up to him to offer some crudely carved animals for sale, he handed the stunned man a $100 bill.

“No change,” Mr. Kasukuwere said with a shrug as he ambled back to the helicopter.


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