The last white farmers of Zimbabwe

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by Jan Raath

Harare – It started 125 years ago with the dispossession of native-owned land to colonial freebooters. Native inhabitants demanded the return of their land and they turned to war. Thousands died for it.

It was declared won in 1980. “The land is ours,” they cried.zimababwe-white-fa_3374256b

Then another35 years passed and a native was dispossessed of his land so that it could be given to a colonial freebooter, but no-one seemed to notice.

Perhaps because the “native” in this case is a third-generation Zimbabwean who was a white farmer, a tobacco grower named Phillip Rankin in the northern district of Centenary. The “colonial freebooter,” Dr Sylvester Nyatsuro, was born in Zimbabwe, but became a British citizen about 10 years ago. He lives in Nottingham where he runs a busy slimming clinic.

Why someone like Nyatsuro would want a farm in Zimbabwe; why he should even be considered a suitable applicant; and what hope there is that he could possibly run a highly technical tobacco operation with no background in farming – on a farm that is not even listed for state acquisition – are questions that do not occur to the official issuers of “offer letters,” the corrupt and hugely abused instrument that confers occupation to the beneficiaries.

The raison d’etre of President Robert Mugabe’s political life was the struggle against the British (not so much the Rhodesians) for the return of Zimbabwean land to its people. That a chunk of it can be gifted to a Briton underlines the vacuity of a political charade that has corrupted a nation which had the brightest prospects in Africa, and the monstrous greed that drives it.

At intervals since 2000 when the lawless seizures were launched, Mugabe’s party has undertaken perhaps five audits of “land reform.” None have been published, but leaks in the local press said the reports detailed a political elite grabbing the best farms, and that, to a man, they ran them into the ground.

The coalition government between ZANU(PF) and the pro-democracy MDC party from 2009 to 2013, was supposed to hold one, but Mugabe blocked it. It was also a priority for the current ZANU(PF) government’s programme, but that too has dropped out of sight. So no great triumph there.

The collapse of the agricultural industry, arguably the most productive and efficient in Africa, is a textbook case as the world’s most dramatic economic collapse, outside a war situation, in the last century. Production figures limp along at the same rate against what they were when Mugabe unleashed terror and chaos on the farms in early 2000: maize – one third of what it was; wheat – one-sixteenth; dairy – one-third (considering that dairy farmers were supposed to have received an amnesty from invasions, because the industry was adjudged “too technical”), and so on.

The only crop where output staged a recovery was with flue-cured tobacco, and it was dramatic. From one of the highest ever of 234 million kg in 2000, it crashed to 49 million kg in 2008 as skilled white growers were hounded off their land. Then it surged to 216 million kg last year.

Shocked at the disappearance of one of their biggest producers, international tobacco companies had launched a concerted offensive to bring peasant farmers into tobacco. They sent armies of extension officers to deliver intensive coaching, as well as seed, fertiliser, chemicals and finance. They provided plans for simplified barns for the new growers to cure their tobacco in the hot, humid chambers that draw out the chemicals that make the flavour. In return, the growers sold their leaf to the companies.

It was a stunning success. A drive through the new growing areas now shows brick houses where before they were mud, tin roofs instead of thatch, often a vehicle, even a tractor. Tobacco broke the grim cycle of families ploughing in the hot pre-rains season, planting maize with the first rains and then, almost inevitably, watching the leaves of the plants wither to bluey hue as dry weather beat down. In 2014, tobacco production was 216 million kg, back to where it had been.

Mugabe’s and his ministers shared in this rare success, although they had nothing to do with it. They appear also not to have grasped that there are two kinds of tobacco, “filler style,” the low grade leaf produced by peasants and used as the bulk in cigarettes, and “ripe flavour style,” the specially cured high nicotine content in the leaf that is supposed to provide the flavour of cigarette smoke (although the term “flavour” is probably a cynical euphemism for its addictive qualities).

Zimbabwe has been prized by international cigarette companies since the 1930s for being able to provide a blend of the two tobaccos, and attracting high prices. White commercial farmers have traditionally specialised in the complex and expensive production of high nicotine leaf but the government has a deliberate policy of picking them off and giving their farms to non-farmers.

The country has already lost much of its reputation as a flavour tobacco source, and before long it may become negligible. If it loses its niche product, Zimbabwe will be able to supply only filler tobacco, which can be bought cheaply almost anywhere else in Southern and Central Africa.

There is also a terrible cost to Zimbabwe’s tobacco renaissance. Large-scale growers with towering brick barns use coal for their furnaces, but peasant growers have access only to firewood, almost all of which is supplied by the heavy, long-burning, slow growing indigenous miombo woodland. It takes 10 kg of wood to cure a single kg of tobacco. With 100,000 growers, it works out to 13,000 ha of woodland each year. The sight of rolling landscapes of almost completely denuded forest left in growing areas is a withering experience.

The industry points out, however, that woodland in these areas was vanishing before tobacco farming took off. But without firewood, the peasant growers couldn’t produce tobacco. In the last year a 1.5 tonne load of rural firewood in Harare has gone from US$5 to US$17.

So tobacco companies are funding an urgent campaign to plant fast growing eucalyptus trees that is expected to begin meeting demand for firewood in seven years. “It’s late,” says Andrew Mills who runs the industry’s Sustainable Afforestation Association, “but at least we’ve started now.” Which is more, in two years, than Mugabe’s government can claim to have done in 35 years.

Even more ominous for the new tobacco men and women is the situation of world oversupply, of 5 million tonnes. Prices on the Harare tobacco floors fell 14 percent in the season just finished. Seedling sales for the coming season are 30 percent down on last year, and merchants are predicting the crop size next year to fall by half.

Zimbabwe’s white farming community has established itself as highly skilled, committed and a unique asset to the country’s economy. Mugabe’s campaign of licensed violence, cruelty, and dispossession against them can be counted currently as the world’s worst system of legalised discrimination.

It has managed to reduce their numbers from 4,500 in 2000 when the land grab started to some 300 now. Any other similarly persecuted community would have packed up and emigrated long ago. That tiny number, reduced mostly to small plots around the country, is still doing its damnedest to farm.

Five of them displayed their goods at the annual agricultural show in the eastern city of Mutare this month, for the first time in years. Provincial minister Mandi Chimene welcomed their return thus: “Undesirable elements in the province, dairy farmers or no dairy, I will eliminate you.”

Ironically, the farmers who own their farms as freehold title – inviolable almost anywhere else – are the most vulnerable, being white. The production of an “offer letter,” forged, photocopied, obtained under bribery, is sufficient to see them off. High court orders for eviction of invaders are routinely ignored by police, as Phillip Rankin knows well. Only the political embarrassment of having a Briton allocated to his farm may save him.

A small ray of light appeared for many of the farmers in April this year, when vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa announced that the government was ready to issue offer letters to “a few whites.” But two weeks ago lands minister Douglas Mombeshora said that he was carrying out “thorough vetting” of the whites recommended for offer letters, to see that they had “loyalty to the interests of Zimbabwe,” i.e., never.

Some of the farmers are reported to pay protection money – none will admit it – to big wheels in ZANU(PF), but it is a dangerous game that can hardly provide security, considering the snakes offering it. Farmer Trevor Dollar knew the pitfalls when Martin Dinha, another provincial minister, demanded US$60,000 from him. Dollar set a trap for him and, amazingly, Dinha, a close associate of Mugabe’s wife, Grace, is facing charges of extortion.

The most successful strategy is to lease land from blacks with freehold title to their own farms. Mugabe has grudgingly given his approval to this.

The new tenants’ presence is unmistakable. There is a national park a short distance from Harare where a judge of the supreme court has been in occupation for about 10 years since the white owner was kicked off. Year after year since then, there have been signs of a little tilling of the soil and a few etiolated shoots. I was there in about July this year and the entire farm was under bright green shoots of wheat being sprinkled by a huge centre pivot. Guess who.

Then there is the practice of blacks who have been resettled on “liberated” land formerly owned by whites, and leasing it to white farmers who have lost their own land elsewhere. It has been fiercely condemned by Mugabe. However, his rage is impotent. Top officials of ZANU(PF) are among the chief offenders, they are well paid for their rent and they are not about to give it up for Mugabe’s “principles.”

Why does this shrinking, threatened society persist? The following was a telephone conversation I had with a 40- year-old white farmer growing tobacco on a black-owned commercial farm, and is a variant of what I hear over and over again:

“I can only say it’s love of the land. It’s a calling. I’m standing in my lands now (it was 7.30 pm) and the power has just come on (after a day-long power cut) and I’m trying to get my irrigation up and running.

“Nothing is too hard. I get huge job satisfaction from growing crops. The whole world is my office. I’m living with nature.

“There are days when you question, what the hell am I doing? But tomorrow morning I am up again at 4.30.”

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