Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

***The views expressed in the articles published on this website DO NOT necessarily express the views of the Commercial Farmers' Union.***

Plight of Dispossessed Farmers

Plight of Dispossessed Farmers

3 AUGUST 2019 • 1:43PM


One night last month, a colony of giant cane rats decimated the vegetable patch behind Joan Harrison’s modest Harare flat. It was a far cry from the terrifying night 15 years ago when she and her late husband packed up what they could carry and fled their farm in southern Zimbabwe amid violent land grabs. But with her family on the breadline, the rat invasion was crushing in its own way.

“Sometimes it is not worth carrying on, is it,” she reflected as she weighed up what she would feed her son and grandson one afternoon last month. “You just go through hell all the time.”

More than 4,000 white commercial farmers were forced to abandon their homes and businesses after former leader Robert Mugabe launched the land invasions in 2000. He described the campaign as a righting of historical injustice, and settled about 300,000 black families, mostly his supporters, on the vacated land, which is now largely fallow.

But the programme decimated Zimbabwe’s economy, so dependent on agriculture, and soured relations with Britain and the United States.

While a few wealthy farmers were able to sell assets, like farm equipment, or fall back on savings, those who had ploughed everything into their farms were left destitute.

Now in their seventies and eighties and facing a retirement in poverty, many are clinging to a faint hope.

Joan Harrison’s family were evicted from their farm in 2004 CREDIT: TSVANGIRAYI MUKWAZHI

President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who ousted Mugabe in a 2017 coup, has sought to draw a line under the issue as part of a broader attempt to emphasise a break with the Mugabe era.

During his election campaign last year he met white farmers’ groups, promised an end to land seizures and recognised that some compensation for those evicted was necessary.

In November, the Zimbabwe finance ministry announced it would make a one-off interim payment of 55,000 Zimbabwe dollars to some farmers, to cover the costs of improvements that had been made on their farms, though not the value of the land itself. That was worth around US $55,000 at the time. In April, the government identified 739 “vulnerable” farmers eligible for it.

But payments have been slow to materialise and many of the applicants are still anxiously waiting to hear if they will receive it. Having since introduced a new independent local currency, and with inflation pushing towards 200 per cent amid an economic crisis, the value of the payouts has already dropped to around US $6,000 at the interbank exchange rate.

Some have not lived long enough to see even that.

Ron Hawkins, 76, passed away in a shabby state hospital in Harare on July 3, several weeks after applying for the interim payment. His widow, Ann Hawkins, who moved to Harare from England in the 1950s, said the couple had been unable to pay for medical care, including a bone biopsy that might have diagnosed his cancer earlier.

The Zimbabwe government has acknowledged delays in payment, and says it is trying its best to expedite them.

The land seizures began under Mugabe in 2000 CREDIT: BOJAN BRECELJ/CORBIS

George Guvamatanga, permanent secretary in the finance ministry, attributed the “unfortunate” delay to bureaucrats demanding detailed state valuations of each farm.

“That process… was taking too much time, but that has now been removed from the process. I do expect if you call again, it will all be working better,” he told The Telegraph.

“The interim compensation is a way of protecting vulnerable former farmers, those who are aged and not doing well. Zimbabwe is still home for them, so it is very important for us to provide interim relief,” he added.

Farmers’ groups have cautiously welcomed the move as a humanitarian gesture and an acknowledgement that a fuller settlement must one day be paid.

“Compensation has been due for 19 or 20 years,” said John Laurie, the 82-year-old former farmer who heads the Valuation Consortium, a committee former farmers set up to coordinate their claims for compensation.

“But the government deserves to be complimented for what it has done so far. Especially given the situation in the country. As you know, they are broke,” he added.

Since the beginning of the year, Zimbabwe has plunged into an economic crisis that has left  its 16 million-strong population struggling to survive, amid power cuts and shortages of essentials including fuel, bread and running water.

John Laurie, 82, heads a committee of former farmers to coordinate their claims for compensation CREDIT: TSVANGIRAYI MUKWAZHI

Mr Laurie says about 3,500 dispossessed farmers are seeking a collective $9.1 billion in compensation for immovable assets and land. But it is a colossal sum that the Zimbabwean government is in no position to pay without assistance, and is likely to reopen old quarrels with Britain.

Mugabe always insisted that the British government should compensate evicted white farmers for loss of their land. Many Zimbabweans, including some evicted farmers, believe the former colonial power has shirked its historic responsibility.

A spokesperson for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office said Britain “welcomed” the Zimbabwean government’s compensation scheme, but added: “Our policy on this is clear: the UK accepts no liability for compensation for the fast-track land reform programme.”

Rusty Markham, an MP with the opposition MDC Alliance, pointed out that even a settlement for farmers would leave many other people impoverished – including more than 200,000 predominantly black farm workers who lost their livelihoods during the land takeovers.

“They have lost 20 years of their lives. And there is also this tendency to think of commercial farmers as white farmers. I know of several black commercial farmers who lost their farms in the takeover – they must also be compensated,” he said.

The Zanu PF government is “playing with peoples lives,” he said. “But I also strongly feel they just don’t have the money.”



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