16 January 1998

ONE LIST THAT NOBODY

WANTS TO FEATURE ON

Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe is about to evict

1500 white commercial farmers from their farms, yet the

move looks likely to devastate the countrys important

agricultural economy. Catherine Slocock spoke to one

farmer who summed up the anger of a whole community

WHEN I meet Geoff Fenton, he looks utterly miserable. He is poring over a seemingly endless list of names in the Zimbabwean daily paper, identifying friends and acquaintances who have lost their farms under the terms of President Robert Mugabes Land Acquisition Act.

In total, 1503 white commercial farms feature on the list of properties that are to be handed over to veterans of the war of independence and to rural peasant farmers.

Geoff tells me how he first heard the news he had been fearing for years. "A representative from our farmers union, the Commercial Farmers Union, came round a few days ago and advised us that our farm was on the list for compulsory acquisition. He explained to us that weve got until the Dec 28 to write to the government with an evaluation of the fixed assets and improvements on our farm.

"The government will get back to us by Jan 28 with its own evaluation and weve been told that the next day the ex-combatants who fought in what they describe as the liberation struggle against us Rhodesians can move in. We wont receive any payment for the land itself because Mugabe says our forefathers stole it."

Geoffs family, which is of Scottish descent, has been farming on a property 60 miles from Harare since the early 1900s. Until six years ago they also owned another two farms but, as Geoff terms it, they "off-loaded" these because families owning more than one farm were known to be a prime target for land seizure. On the remaining farm they raise beef and sheep and grow maize, soya and wheat.

Flowers-for-export

Unlike many other white farmers who over the last few years have been reluctant to risk investing in major development, the Fentons have recently also become very involved in the highly lucrative flowers-for-export business. Not only does this venture earn valuable foreign exchange, but, thanks partly to the relatively labour-intensive nature of horticulture, the farm is also a big employer. There are approximately 2000 local Zimbabweans living on the property, comprising 400 labourers and their extended families.

I ask Geoff what he felt when he learned that all of this could soon be nothing but a memory. "Its the same as some arbitrary fellow coming up to you in London after your parents had lived in the same property for 60 years and saying, youve got 60 days to make a plan, were taking your house. How would you feel? This is our home. Theres a lot of confusion and a lot of unhappy people.

"Where do we go? What do we do? All we know is farming. Our mothers and our wives in particular feel very insecure. My mother cried for three days when she heard. My parents are in their sixties. We want to stay in Africa, but to start a new life further north in Africa would be a completely new ball game. They couldnt do it. Most countries further north are totally corrupt. And we cant go south to South Africa because we feel they have got similar problems coming up in the years to come."

Just as indigenous

At the end of the day, Geoff and his counterparts feel the whole land acquisition process is totally unjustified. "We feel as third-generation Zimbabweans we are just as indigenous as black Zimbabweans are. And my forefathers didnt steal the land, they paid for it."

Such statements are destined to fall on deaf ears. As Mugabe made abundantly clear in his speeches at the Zanu-PFs annual conference in the first week of December, in his eyes the land issue is black and white. "We fought the liberation struggle to get our land back and now we must get it back," he announced to a delighted audience.

Charged with the task of attempting to defend the white commercial farmers interests, the chairman of the Commercial Farmers Union is in an unenviable position. According to Geoff, the chairman was only recently granted an audience with Mugabe after three or four years of trying and the eventual meeting was completely fruitless.

Similarly, the government promised to approach the CFU prior to the publication of any land acquisition lists. In the event the union was kept completely in the dark and could only advise the farmers to take one day at a time.

Many commentators see the land acquisition as inevitable and expected it years ago. Mugabe is finally honouring promises he made to the war veterans in the early 80s when he first came to power. The president is playing the card at a time when his political strength is ebbing badly, and as a quick fix solution it works. It will get the increasingly troublesome war veterans off his back and will gain him a mass of support from the countrys 10m peasant farmers. In the long term though, as Geoff puts it, Mugabe is not just shooting himself in the foot, but in the head.

Down the tube

"If we go, hell eventually go. If the commercial farmer leaves the land then the whole economy will go down the tube. To start with theres all the on-going development involved in farming, big irrigation projects and so on. The farmers have borrowed a lot of money from the banks in long-term loans, some of them for up to 25 years. If were not on the land carrying on with our work how are we going to be able to pay? In laymans terms, Im afraid the banks are going to be told to push off."

South Africas Financial Mail estimates the sum the white farmers owe to be over £230m and this would be only one of many costs that the expulsion of the white farming community would entail.

"We have an agri-economy in Zimbabwe," explains Geoff. "The manufacturing sector in the main centres like Harare and Bulawayo is fully reliant on the commercial farming sector to make money. If we have a bad season, you can see the effect it has on those centres." The CFU estimates that if the white farmers leave, farm production and exports will drop by nearly 40% and nearly 150,000 jobs will be lost. The shock waves that such a dramatic decrease would have on the nations economy as a whole would be nothing short of devastating.

For an insight into what is likely to happen to the land itself once it is handed over, Geoff does not have to look very far afield. "Weve got an example both north and south of our farm. North of us the land is owned by a senior member of the Land Reclamation Committee. He owns one farm where nothing has been grown since 1982. Most of the trees have been chopped down for wood; a number of times his labourers have gone four or five months without being paid.

"South of us the land is now owned by somebody high up in the District Development Fund. They are supposed to go round advising small rural farmers what to grow and what not to grow and ploughing their land for them at the beginning of each season. Its not being done. The tractors on his farm plough for him and thats where it ends. Also the carrying capacity on his farm for beef cant be more than 120 head of cattle – its a small farm. At the moment he must be running in the region of 600 head. Over the last two years weve noticed soil erosion setting in, and that will eventually lead to desertification.

Little comfort

Knowing that their departure may spell doom for the nation as a whole is little comfort for the white farming community in Zimbabwe. They are determined to continue to struggle for what they consider to be their basic human rights to be there and the CFU is looking into employing British QCs to help them fight the case in the courts.

"We feel we have been let down terribly by the international community," says Geoff. "I would go as far as saying let down by the British and by Tony Blair.

"We dont fully understand what happened recently at the Edinburgh Commonwealth Conf-erence; it didnt get a lot of coverage in our Press and were not politicians, were farmers. But we feel that if our land is going to be taken we must be paid out in foreign currency, either sterling or dollars, so we can carry on elsewhere. Tony Blair has said no to this.

Above and below: FW columnist David Richardson accompanied a farmer tour of the country and remarked on Zimbabwes considerable efficiency in growing fruit, veg and flowers for export.

Am I on the list? Its the question that farmers have been asking themselves.