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Whites Fight Affirmative Farming in Zimbabwe

Seventeen years after black rule began, white ranchers are told to hand over richest land.

In 1980, as Zimbabwe emerged from years of guerrilla war, John Stewart - like many whites born in the former Rhodesia - was thinking of seeking his fortune abroad. A meeting at his old boarding school changed all that.

"These people came down from the new government and said they wanted us to stay," he remembers. "There was a lot of talk about reconciliation and building the future. They said they needed farmers. So I thought, why not stay and give it a go?"

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Starting off with nothing but his education and a bank loan, Mr. Stewart assembled a 49,000-acre ranch in central Zimbabwe.

Now the government plans to seize - without compensation - almost 15,000 acres.

"I feel like I've been conned for the past 17 years," says Stewart, who asked that his name be changed.

Last month, President Robert Mugabe's government announced the seizure, effective next year, of nearly 13.6 million acres - almost half of all commercially farmed land.

The farm owners, nearly all of them white, will receive compensation for buildings, but not for the land itself. President Mugabe says that it is up to the British government, whose agents seized Zimbabwe from the Matebele and Shona peoples a century ago, to compensate the whites.

Asking US to compensate

Britain rejected Mr. Mugabe's suggestion that, as he put it, the British look after their own children. Now Mugabe is pushing for the United States to compensate the white farmers - something considered highly unlikely.

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The end of white rule in 1980 has failed to significantly reduce the whites' grip on Zimbabwe's economic life. Today nearly half of the country's farmland still belongs to 4,400 mainly white farmers, while 100,000 poor black families crowd into the remaining communally owned land.

The government says its new scheme will remedy the land shortage by redistributing farms that are either underproductive, adjacent to crowded communal lands, or owned by absentees.

The farmers, most economists, and foreign observers say it will do nothing of the sort.

The Commercial Farmers Union, which represents most large farmers, claims that few of the farms are eligible for seizure under the government's own criteria. According to CFU president David Hasluck, many of the farms are owned and occupied by one family, and few are underproductive. He believes the government's actions are racially motivated.

"We are not British, we are Zimbabweans, and we want to be treated by our government in the same way as everybody else in the eyes of the law," says Mr. Hasluck, whose farm is among those to be seized. Also on the list are farms belonging to novelist Doris Lessing and Ian Smith, the country's last white president.

If the farmers regard the government's action as unfair, many others see it as deeply unwise. Zimbabwe's stock market, largely dependent on agriculture, plummeted at the news. The CFU claims that farm production, Zimbabwe's biggest foreign earner and the basis of the economy, will fall by at least a third next year. The number of people supposed to be resettled on the seized land - 150,000 - could be matched by the number of farm workers left unemployed.

The government remains confident, however. Minister for Information Chen Chimutengwende says the transition can be managed without any fall in output, and that no one will suffer but the white farmers. He readily confirms that race was a major consideration in the new policy.

"It is a racial problem. When you are fighting against colonialism and it's based on black versus white, reference to race can't be avoided," he says.

Land for Mugabe's cronies?

Many farmers believe that the government and its cronies are simply after the pick of Zimbabwe's farms, but few are willing to go on the record while there is still a chance of appeal.

Since 1980, the government has purchased 8.3 million acres of land from white farmers on a "willing-buyer, willing seller" basis. In 1993, however, a report by the government's own auditor-general concluded that the land thus acquired was being "grossly underutilized."

Prime properties earmarked for needy families ended up instead in the hands of government ministers. A parliamentary report noted that other land was being allocated to people with no training and no resources to make a living from it.

Mugabe's critics accuse him of using the land issue to line his own supporters' pockets while at the same time making populist gestures to shore up his flagging support. If he was serious about land reform, he would draw up a proper plan involving training and financial support for the resettled peasants, they say.

Most observers see the timing of the land announcement as significant: Despite controlling 147 of the 150 seats in parliament, Mugabe's party has lately shown signs of losing its grip.

Veterans of Mugabe's own guerrilla movement are now challenging the government following revelations that leading supporters plundered a fund meant to compensate veterans.

To appease them, the government has promised to give veterans confiscated land and attempted to raise money for a new fund by, among other measures, increasing taxes by 5 percent. The proposed new taxes were unanimously rejected, but still led to the capital's worst-ever riots on Dec. 9. Even the leftist Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions has accused the government of trying to blame the country's 80,000 whites for its own mismanagement.

Near John Stewart's farm lies a 150,000-acre ranch and game farm, once a model of combined agriculture and eco-tourism, now derelict and almost deserted.

Purchased by the government in the 1980s, the ranch was handed over to locals. But without capital, training, or individual title to the land, they were unable to borrow money or maintain the irrigation. Today 22 people eke out a living on a property that once sustained hundreds.

"There are no jobs now and no money, so the people have gone," says a man who emerged from a hut beside the abandoned homestead. "Maybe you have something for me? Five dollars?"

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