BY Eddie Cross
IN 1999, Morgan Tsvangirai launched the Movement for Democratic Change. The launch was held in Chitungwiza and I was in a small group of white Zimbabweans who sat in the stands with several thousand others to watch and listen.
Morgan spotted me and the result was an invitation to join the party later that year and to participate in the campaign for the referendum on the new Constitution in March and then the elections in June.
The political situation in Zimbabwe at the time, was that we were effectively a one-party State with one of the African liberation heroes and strongmen, Robert Mugabe, in total control.
All efforts over the previous 20 years to challenge Zanu PF and the late former President Robert Mugabe had failed. The launch of the MDC was greeted by Mugabe with a sarcastic comment to the effect that “what can a train driver and a textile worker do to run the country?”
Morgan responded by saying: “We can at least keep the trains on the tracks.”
The rest is history, the MDC won the referendum and then went on to nearly defeat Zanu PF in the subsequent elections.
The ruling party woke up to the fact that their grip on power was, for the first time, under real attack. They conducted a careful analysis of the two votes and came to the conclusion that the towns had voted heavily for the MDC and were probably a lost cause, the communal areas had voted solidly for the Zanu PF and that the “swing” vote had been the 600 000 voters on commercial farms.
The commercial farming industry had a long history in Zimbabwean terms. The first settlers arrived in 1893 and the majority came for the dream that the country was a replica of South Africa where the great fortunes based on gold and diamonds were being made. After settling in and winning the war against indegenous resistance, the settlers found that the gold was not as plentiful and there were no easy pickings. They turned to agriculture and were encouraged to do so by the colonial administration who offered land grants to those who wanted
Although the climate and environment was not an easy one for agriculture, the country was in the Sterling Zone and had free access to the markets of the United Kingdom and access to their financial institutions — at that time the richest in the world.
The UK was, at the same time, the largest import market for food in the world. Over time Zimbabwe became a substantial source of agricultural products — the third largest tobacco producer in the world, every mother in the Second World War in the UK got a small allowance of orange juice from the Mazoe Estates, at that time the largest in the World.
We became one of the largest producers of white maize and if you drank Japanese Saki it was probably made with maize from Zimbabwe. If you went out for a meal in Europe, you might have been given a really decent steak that came from our farms.
At Independence in 1980, after 15 years of international isolation and sanctions and a civil war which killed tens of thousands and many of the farmers on commercial farms, the commercial farmers — at that time 6 000 in number on 16 million hectares of land, were generating half of all our export earnings, employing a third of the national workforce and supplying 60% of the raw materials for industry.
We were also totally self-sufficient in all foods at prices set below regional economies. There were about 20 000 white citizens working and living on these farms with 350 000 permanent workers and perhaps 200 000 seasonal employees and about two million people in all.
In the next 20 years, the industry changed gradually, by 1997 the total area occupied by commercial farms was down to 12 million hectares. The rest having been purchased by government and settled with small-scale farmers. But farm production had continued to grow — in fact, the farm industry was the major contributor to gross domestic product (GDP) growth throughout this time.
Also, the racial composition of owners had begun to change with 1 200 new black commercial farmers farming alongside their white counterparts. The number of white farmers was down to about 4 800. In addition to this — many farmers employed black managers and these would have, over time, become independent farmers on their own just as many white farmers had come into the industry. Agriculture was 25% of national GDP. Compared to 6% in South Africa and 3% in developed
It made little difference to Mugabe; the retention of power was the absolute priority. Like Stalin and the Kulaks in the Soviet Union in the 1930’s, they had to be eliminated.
The process began almost immediately and became known as the “Fast Track Land Reform Programme.” some 4 800 white farmers and many of their black counterparts who were not Zanu PF supporters, were driven off their farms, many through violence.
Some farmers who resisted or whose staff tried to protect them, were killed and beaten. Most left their beloved properties with very little and broken hearts after a lifetime of work. Over 80% of all the farms involved had changed hands since Independence with a certificate of “no Interest” which meant it was not required for resettlement.
The consequences for Zimbabwe were catastrophic. Farm output — in all farming areas, commercial and communal, fell by over 70%. By 2008, Zimbabwe was importing the majority of its food needs, 70% of the population was on food aid, life expectancies had halved and five million adults had left the country for greener pastures.
The collapse of the industrial base built up over 100 years of enterprise, was virtually closed down. The local currency crashed and what was left was destroyed by hyperinflation.
The purpose of the land reform programme had nothing to do with agriculture or population pressure — the population density on farms was much the same as in the communal areas. It had everything to do with political control, and in that respect, it was highly effective. MDC was restricted to the urban areas and Zanu PF maintained its dominance and control — although with considerable difficulty.
By my calculations, the loss of assets controlled by the dispossessed farmers was about US$30 billion. The United Nations include in such calculations the following: Land, improvements, moveable assets, loss of future income, the cost of relocation, compensation for any damage or injury and interest on the total from the day of dispossession.
After a number of years, the farmers who had been dispossessed took their case for compensation to the Courts. They got no satisfaction from the courts system in Zimbabwe and turned to a regional legal institution created for matters like this in Windhoek, Namibia. This was the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) tribunal — a panel of senior judges drawn of Sadc of 14 countries. In a shock judgement, the Tribunal ruled in favour of the farmers receiving compensation.
Regional leaders simply responded by dissolving the Tribunal and ignoring the judgement. But the farmers persisted and took their case to international courts where they won a succession of judgements some of which have actually been executed.
But the main body of people whose constitutional and legal rights had been violated, remained uncompensated and in dire and sometimes, abject poverty. The injustice of all this was apparent to all except those who benefitted.
In 2017, when Mr Mugabe was forced to resign and a new government was installed, the new President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, issued a statement that fair compensation for the farm nationalisation would be negotiated and paid. Eventually this was agreed and the vast majority of the affected farmers accepted compensation of US$3,5 billion — 12% of what they could have recieved from a court of law.
Now it is just all about how to find the funds to settle this new liability. So far little or no help has been forthcoming from any quarter. All major countries recognised the agreement as a major step forward.
The IMF issued a statement that it must not be allowed to collapse. But the Americans renewed ZDERA Act in March effectively cutting off the country from any multilateral assistance. The British simply turned their backs on the problem, even though it affected hundreds of families who had settled in Zimbabwe with the help and encouragement of the United Kingdom.
By my calculation 1 100 white families on farms were the offspring of men who had fought with the British in the Second World War – most as pilots and aircrew. All had come out to take up post war offers of land for settlement.
Just one more postscript. I went to primary school with a friend who went farming and eventually bought a small irrigation property in the South East of the country. He built this into a major enterprise with a pack shed for export fruit and other products.
He owned his own aircraft, raised a family and had a lovely homestead. I went down to stay with him as he was being evicted in 2002. He was alone in the house and his farm was being systematically stripped of assets. He finally shot his much-loved dogs, closed the door to the house and we drove away in convoy.
As we did, I passed a police officer who was standing watching the looting. He died three years ago and we had to contribute to buying him a coffin. His last payment to the bank for the purchase price of his farm was one month before he was evicted.
- Eddie Cross is an economist. He writes here in his personal capacity