Tue, Dec 05, 2017 - Page 9 News List

As Mnangagwa takes reins, Zimbabwe’s white farmers see opportunity for change

By Ben Sheppard  /  AFP, BEATRICE, Zimbabwe

Illustration: Yusha

Standing outside the gates of the farmhouse from which he was evicted in 2008, white Zimbabwean Deon Theron knows he will never get his land back.

However, he does believe that former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s fall after almost 40 years in power could lead the new government to encourage white farmers to play a part in reviving the country’s key agricultural sector.

Thousands of white farmers were forced off their land by violent Mugabe-backed mobs or evicted in dubious legal judgements, supposedly to help black people marginalized under British colonial rule.

However, the farms were often allocated to Mugabe’s allies and fell into ruin, leaving tens of thousands of rural laborers out of work and sending the economy into a tailspin as food production crashed.

“I was evicted after intimidation, violence and court cases,” said Theron, 63, who now runs a guesthouse in Harare, and a dairy processing business.

“I don’t expect my land to be returned, but I do think the government will explore getting people who have the skills back on the farms — and that means younger people from evicted families,” Theron said.

Days after Mugabe’s fall on Nov. 21, Theron took reporters back to Zanka, the 400-hectare farm that he bought in 1984, and where he built his own house and lived for 24 years with his wife, raising three children.

“It was given to a top official in the reserve bank,” he said, looking through the locked wire fence at the house and abandoned tennis court in Beatrice, Mashonaland East province, two hours south of Harare.

“I blocked out a lot of memories and have tried to move on,” he added, close to tears as he recalled how his foreman was beaten to death in 2005, apparently while in police custody during the height of the evictions.

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who came to power late last month after the military forced Mugabe to resign, is a veteran hardliner from the ruling ZANU-PF party.

However, he does not appear to share Mugabe’s ideological hatred of white farmers and has prioritized agriculture to revive the moribund economy.

Mnangagwa used his inaugural speech to stress that the land seizures would not be reversed, vowing instead to compensate evicted farmers and to put the vast tracts of idle land back into production.

“My government is committed to compensating those farmers from whom land was taken,” he said, pledging to “ensure that all land is utilized optimally.”

Agriculture is “central to national stability and to sustained economic recovery,” he added.

Heidi Visagie, who was evicted in 2012 from a farm she and her husband bought from the government outside the central town of Chegutu, said that Mnangagwa’s rise offered “a glimmer of hope.”

“The new president is a practical businessman, so we are cautiously optimistic,” she said.

As Zimbabwean vice president, Mnangagwa oversaw Mugabe’s “command agriculture” policy of recent years, designed to tackle severe food shortages.

Two sources told reporters that, under the policy, Mnangagwa had quietly encouraged evicted white farmers to lease new land — as long as they did not return to their old farms.

“Farmers want the opportunity to farm,” said Visagie, 45, whose business used to employ 300 workers growing asters and other flowers for export to the Netherlands.

“Our workers all lost their homes and the school for their children. We drive past and see the greenhouses smashed and the water pumps all sold,” she said.

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