Desperation stalks Zimbabwe’s white farmers

Ben Freeth's farm was gutted by fire, as was his father-in-law's.
A desperate Zimbabwean farmer fighting to hold onto his land — a year after the country’s political rivals pledged to govern jointly — fears he will eventually lose to politics and violence.

The power-sharing agreement included an undertaking by both parties to ensure property rights are upheld but farm attacks and invasions continue unabated in Zimbabwe. Charles Lock is one of an estimated 400 farmers who have remained in the country despite President Robert Mugabe’s policy of redistributing white-owned farms to landless blacks. “Why do they want to remove me when I’ve complied with everything they want What more do they want other than for me to pack my bags and leave and if that’s the case, then admit that that is the policy. Pass a law: no whites are allowed to farm. Then it makes it clear,” Lock said. Since 2000, Mugabe’s controversial land reform program has driven more than 4,000 commercial farmers off their land, destroying Zimbabwe’s once prosperous agricultural sector. “When the land reform program began, we decided we were not going to have a confrontational attitude; that we would actually go along with this program because it was the only way that this whole thing would be sorted out. So I voluntarily gave away my own farm and moved onto my father-in-law’s farm,” Lock said. That was in 2002. A year later the government came knocking on his door again, he said, demanding more land. Lock told CNN he eventually gave up 70 percent of his father-in-law’s farm, which he then owned. Now an army general is demanding Lock’s remaining 30 percent. When Zimbabwe’s new unity government was formed — with Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change — in February this year, the general allegedly posted soldiers on Lock’s farm. The farmer said he stopped farming and trade at gun point. When CNN visited Lock’s farm this month, workers were standing idle. Maize and tobacco, which Lock said is worth more than U.S. $1 million, lay in storage. “They’ve switched off our irrigation system, taken out keys and stop our trucks if we want to deliver maize,” he told CNN. So Lock had to sneak into his own property like a thief by cutting open the gate leading to his store room. He took a few valuables from his workshop suspecting that his whole place will soon be looted. With the formation of a unity government farmers were hoping for some protection but Lock said: “Nothing is happening here. There is no land audit happening, no one comes out here to check, to see. We are just left vulnerable.” On another farm, Ben Freeth’s fight for his land has just escalated to another level. Freeth has been repeatedly beaten, arrested and harassed. Now his farmhouse and that of his father-in-law have been gutted by a mysterious fire. See the destruction the fire caused Freeth could not say for sure that this is arson but told CNN that the group of ZANU-PF youths who have occupied his farm have repeatedly threatened to burn his house. “One time they came round with burning sacks at night and they started making a huge noise and ringing a great big bell and shouting and screaming. They were going underneath the thatch saying we are going to burn your house down if you don’t get out,” he said. Freeth and his father-in-law Mike Campbell are among a group of Zimbabwean farmers who won the right to remain on their land at a southern African tribunal. But Mugabe has declared the ruling null and void and pulled out of the tribunal. Farmers cannot contest land issues in Zimbabwe and approaching international courts has thus far not worked either. When CNN interviewed Mugabe’s minister of state, Didymas Mutasa, about the disregard for human and property rights on the farms, he blamed the farmers for the violence, saying landless blacks are getting frustrated with their refusal to relinquish their land. “Human rights are beginning to be seen now because they benefit the whites, and when they were affecting blacks badly as they did the likes of us, it didn’t matter and nobody raised anything about those human rights. “And sometimes we say, good heavens, if that is the kind of human rights you are talking about, you better keep them away from us; we don’t want to see them,” he told CNN. But it is black farm workers who are caught in the cross fire. They continue to bear the brunt of the land reform program by repeatedly being beaten and intimidated. Some have even been killed. Tractor driver William Kale said it is farm laborers working for white farmers who are targeted. “They actually say you the workers, you are ones that are supporting the white farmer. That is why he is carrying on farming and we refuse to go because we have nowhere to go,” Kale told CNN. Many farmers and farm workers we spoke to say they are in a worse position now under the unity government than they were before. Lock said: “When ZANU-PF was in power, you had hawks and doves in government and the doves were approachable and often helped us. But now that these positions are being shared with Mr. Tsvangirai’s MDC, Mr. Mugabe has only appointed hawks to his cabinet who insist on continuing the land reform program. And when it comes to the MDC, the land issue seems to be a hot potato they do not want to touch. I have asked Mr. Tsvangirai to intervene but nothing is happening.”

Prime Minister Tsvangirai refuted that. “That is not true,” he said. “We initiated to find out who is being affected, the few remaining white farmers. Let’s be frank here, we are talking of farmers as being white, but to me any destruction of farm production affects the whole viability of agriculture. There should be no disruption of any farm activity.” To those under siege these words are little comfort as they continue to fight a battle they are unlikely to win.