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JOHANNESBURG, May 5 2006 (IPS) - Recent moves by the Zimbabwean government to allow white farmers whose land was confiscated to resume farming, have drawn a variety of responses.
“They killed people; they threw them out of their farms, they destroyed the economy. Now they want us to rescue them,” Gerry Whitehead, whose land was seized in 2002, told IPS.
However, Doug Taylor-Freeme – president of the predominantly white Commercial Farmers’ Union (CFU) – said there appeared to be “a conducive environment to progress with this matter.”
In a statement issued last month inviting farmers to apply for land, he said the CFU felt “the timing (was) right to build up a database and forward submissions of all those farmers who may wish to consider the option of applying for land.”
Flora Buka, the minister of state for special affairs responsible for land, land reform and resettlement, confirmed to the state-controlled Herald daily last month that all Zimbabweans – including white commercial farmers – could apply for land. So far, she said, 500 white farmers had done so.
According to a 2005 report by Justice for Agriculture, a non-governmental organisation based in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare, the number of white commercial farmers active in Zimbabwe is estimated to be less than 500. This is down from some 4,300 at the end of 2000, notes the document: ‘The Zimbabwean Farming Crisis’.
From the early months of 2000, veterans of Zimbabwe’s 1970s war of independence and other militants spearheaded occupation of white-owned farms to rectify racial imbalances in land ownership that dated back to the colonial era. These invasions later crystallised into an accelerated land redistribution programme under which millions of hectares were confiscated.
The farm invasions began in the run-up to the 2000 parliamentary elections, the first poll in which the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) faced a credible opposition challenge. This sparked allegations that the invasions were a government-sponsored ploy to use the emotive land issue to shore up support for the poll. The 2000 election was further marred by human rights abuses and alleged ballot rigging – as was a presidential poll in 2002.
In its report, Justice for Agriculture states that a number of Zimbabwean farmers have since sought their fortunes elsewhere in the region: 35 to 45 in Mozambique, 130 to 150 in Zambia – while approximately 50 went to Malawi. Others left for South Africa and Botswana; 12 to 15 had even traveled to Nigeria.
Joseph Made, Zimbabwe’s minister of agriculture, denies that government’s land offer amounts to an admission that the reform programme has failed.
However, the Justice for Agriculture report paints a different picture. “Once farms have been taken over by the government hierarchy they tend to fall apart quickly. It’s like a game of musical chairs: as one is destroyed, they move on to the next,” it says.
“There is no security of tenure – no recognised leases, so tenure was not bankable or transferable for tillage and inputs and they (resettled households) were totally dependent on the state. And there is virtually no seed, maize or fertilizer supplied.”
In addition, there are allegations that certain properties have been taken over by leading ZANU-PF officials and other influential figures, rather than landless persons.
Once considered the bread basket of Southern Africa, Zimbabwe now faces acute food shortages – something attributed in part to drought, and the effects of accelerated land reform. More than four million of the country’s estimated 13 million people require food aid, according to the United Nations World Food Programme.
In a March 2006 report, the Harare branch of the U.S.-funded Famine Early Warning Network said Zimbabwe’s overall food security situation would remain critical this year due to poor harvests.
“With generally normal to above normal rainfall in the 2005/06 (period), preliminary indications of maize production this year are for improved production compared to last year’s harvest of 550,000 tonnes, but well below the 1990s average, and well below national consumption requirements…” the report observed.
The situation is compounded by HIV/AIDS, which has undermined agricultural production; according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, HIV prevalence in Zimbabwe stands at just over 20 percent.
The farm seizures have played a part in Zimbabwe’s economic decline, which has resulted in acute shortages of fuel, other basic commodities – and the foreign exchange needed to buy seed, fertilizer and agricultural equipment. Triple-digit inflation has become the order of the day: according to official statistics, inflation rose to 913.6 percent in March from 782 percent the previous month.
Daniel Molokele, head of the Johannesburg-based Zimbabwe Combined Civil Society Organisation, sees cause for optimism in the government’s latest overtures.
“They are now accepting that they made a big blunder by chasing the white farmers away,” he told IPS. The organisation is an umbrella body for non-governmental groups.
But, Whitehead said that instead of taking up the land offer, Zimbabweans should “work hard until this government disappears.”
He urged farmers to wait until they could negotiate with a caretaker administration tasked with organising an internationally-supervised election to return Zimbabwe to the rule of law.
“Three of my farm workers were shot dead in 2002. There was an attempt to shoot me too, that night,” he recalled. “As far as I am concerned, I will get my farm back when this government goes.”
Initially farmers whose properties were seized went to court to challenge the legality of the exercise, but government ultimately changed the law to accommodate confiscations. Many acts of violence on farms have never been investigated.
Under the new land policy, farmers will get 99-year leases.
“It would require at least four years for commercial farming to have an impact on Zimbabwe,” a farmer who requested anonymity told IPS.
He cited the need for new roads to be built on the farms, piped water to be restored – and electricity poles erected.
“Once that’s done; you have other challenges. Farmers will need fertilizer, irrigation equipment and chemicals – (the) shops (which provide these) have all closed.”
What worries Whitehead more is the lack of trust between farmers and the government: “There have been broken promises. The government has reneged on all its promises – we can’t trust it.”
Racially-charged debates about land ownership are also taking place in South Africa and Namibia, where there are growing pressures to expropriate land from white farmers and distribute it to landless blacks.
In South Africa, the government wants to put 30 percent of farmland confiscated under apartheid in black hands by 2014 – but land campaigners say this process is moving too slowly. So far, government has distributed just less than four percent of the intended amount of land to blacks.
Namibia’s government plans to resettle about 250,000 landless persons, and has started expropriating white-owned farms as part of this initiative.
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