Brian van Buuren, a white former farmer in Burma Valley, eastern Zimbabwe, couldn’t hide his anger as he recalled how he lost almost everything during the country’s controversial land reforms.
After investing most of his money in his tobacco farm, van Buuren was left almost destitute when his land was seized by the government in 2010.
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“I lost virtually everything,” van Buuren, 80, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Today, he is one of countless evicted elderly white landowners struggling to make ends meet as they wait for compensation that many fear may never come – since the black farmers expected to stump up the cash say they don’t have it.
In 2001, President Robert Mugabe introduced laws to more equitably distribute land between black subsistence farmers and white Zimbabweans of European ancestry.
The reforms were aimed at addressing colonial imbalances in which a small number of white farmers owned most of the best agricultural land in Zimbabwe.
Earlier this year, the government pledged to compensate all farmers who lost their farms during the land reform programme, in which about 5,000 white farmers were evicted from their land in often violent struggles, and at least 12 people died.
The violence and allegations of rigged elections and rights abuses – all denied by Mugabe – led to Western sanctions.
The sanctions compounded an economic crisis that had worsened since the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and African Development Bank suspended aid in 1999, after Zimbabwe defaulted on debts.
The country’s new constitution, adopted in 2013, included a provision to compensate the white farmers who were evicted, particularly for the improvements they had made on their farms.
In September, Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa said the government had paid $42.7 million to farmers in compensation.
“The government has taken a big step towards compensation of previous farmers,” he said. “The government is expediting the mapping and valuation of improvements on farms acquired under the land reform programme so it can compensate the farmers.”
Chinamasa said land rentals and levies paid by the beneficiaries of the land reforms would be used to compensate the white farmers. Part of the $42.7 million compensation had come from these funds, he said.
But today, many of the black farmers expected to fund the compensation through levies and taxes say they simply don’t have the money, thereby delaying the whole process.
Very few had farming skills when the government resettled them, say experts, and can now barely make ends meet, let alone pay extra levies.
The new farmers’ agricultural output is now a fraction of the level seen before 2000 when Mugabe introduced the land reform.
They are also being hammered by Zimbabwe’s worst drought in a quarter of a century while also toiling under a stagnating economy that has seen banks reluctant to lend and cheaper food imports from the likes of South Africa undermining local businesses.
According to the Zimbabwe Farmers Union, a group of mostly black farmers, compensation for the white farmers must relate to land development and assets, not the land itself.
The executive director, Paul Zakariya, said compensation for the land would be “unconstitutional as it belongs to the state”.
“The new (black) farmers must be levied and this levy should used to pay the white farmers. We don’t want everyone in the country to be taxed and the money used to pay the white farmers but we want those who benefited from the land reform to be levied”.
That the redistributed lands and farms are lying unused or abandoned is a particularly cruel irony for former farmers like van Buuren who put everything into their land, they say.
Having bought the farm in Manicaland province back in 1964, van Buuren turned it into a successful tobacco farming entity and later diversified into banana farming with a local company.
Over the years, he invested in irrigation equipment, tobacco barns, fruit trees, tractors and two dams, as well as other infrastructure and machinery – all of which were seized.
“They took all my equipment and I only recovered two vehicles and a bit of furniture,” he said.
Although he now owns and lives in a modest house in Mutare city, he fears for the future as his savings have run out.
“I had very few savings as I had invested all the money in the farm. We are now struggling to survive. I am worried. We just sit here. We can’t afford to go anywhere,” he said.
According to van Buuren, all 12 white farmers in the Burma Valley area lost their land in the reform programme.
“Many farmers are now destitute,” he said.
GLIMMER OF HOPE
His sentiments were echoed by another farmer, Pieter de Klerk, who had to give up Kondozi Farm, a thriving horticultural export entity in Odzi, also in Manicaland province.
One of de Klerk’s sons, who also lost his land in Zimbabwe, has re-established himself as a cassava farmer in Tanzania.
“My children are now sustaining me,” de Klerk said. “It took me 50 years to build that place but all is gone.”
Another farmer, Schalk du Pless, said: “We are now supported by our children. Had it not been for that, we could have been dead.”
Du Pless and de Klerk, both in their eighties, live at a home for the elderly in Mutare. They are among many white former farmers of their generation who are struggling, said Mutare’s former mayor Brian James, whose own farm was seized.
“Some are destitute, particularly the elderly. Some (farmers) are desperately looking for jobs. Others have left the country,” James said.
However, with Zimbabwe’s unemployment standing at more than 80 percent, the chances of former farmers who are still able to work finding employment are slim.
While some fear the cash-strapped government won’t be able to compensate all of them, others want to see a glimmer of hope.
Van Buuren said his farm, which he says had a value of almost $1 million, could still provide him with enough money for his retirement if the government pays compensation.
“Even given an opportunity to go back on my farm, at my age I couldn’t do it … but I can have some compensation,” he said.
But with no sign that compensation will be paid soon, van Buuren fears he might die before receiving any payment.
“I am 80 years old now,” he said. Soon I will be gone, but will I get the compensation (in time)?”-Thomson Reuters Foundation