Dogs and Fences

When I attended Gwebi Agricultural College in the early 60's the faculty told the students that we should watch out for two features when on a farm visit - the state of the fences and the nature of the dogs. The first would suggest what sort of farmer we were about to visit and the second would indicate what sort of an employer he or she was. It was amazing how often these two simple features of ordinary farm life projected accurately the type of farmer we would encounter.

Today we can apply the same criteria to the whole country. The state of our farm fences is such that they no longer contribute in any serious way to the management and control of our livestock. They are either falling down or non-existent. As for the dogs - well the only kind of dog seen on most properties today are thin emaciated animals of dubious pedigree! They survive by scavenging - like many of the rest of us.

We have now reached the stage where squatters of various descriptions occupy 90 per cent of our large-scale commercial farms illegally. There are, we are told, 129 000 small scale squatters - about 500 000 people in all and some 12 000 larger scale squatters. Most of the latter are not resident; they are bank managers, doctors, and business persons with interests in towns and civil servants. Many are army officers and members of the Police. After 4 years of chaos, we have about 600 000 people partially settled on 12 million hectares of land that once supported 2 million people. The same land now employs about 60 000 people in paid jobs - where once we employed 350 000 and incomes have plummeted from about three times the national average to well below the national average income per capita.

Before the chaos called "land reform" we were the third largest exporter of tobacco in the world, we were the largest beef exporter in Africa and were major producers of cotton, milk, sugar, fruit and horticultural products. The industry generated a third of Zimbabwe's national employment, half its exports and fed a population of 11 million.

Today we have 75 per cent of our population dependent on food handouts or imports; we are unable to supply our needs for vegetable oils, milk, meat and fruit. Our food prices have risen to the highest in the region from being the lowest in Africa in 1997.

And the madness goes on - just this past week at least two farmers per day were being systematically evicted from their land - by force and without any legal basis. People need to understand what happens as it still seems to me to be totally bizarre and how anyone, anywhere, can call this "land reform" or defend the practice, is beyond me.

Let me give you one example from the past week. A tobacco farmer - one of 200 who were still on their land and were encouraged to grow a crop this year by the authorities, living in a homestead he built in the bush after many years of living in ramshackle conditions while he became established. Having given away three quarters of his farmland and trying to make a living for himself and his 100 farm workers on the remainder, is giving a birthday party for his 89 year old father who has been on the farm for 50 years. A convoy of luxury vehicles arrives and men and women in dark glasses and imported shoes arrive at the gates and inform the farmer that he has 24 hours to leave. The convoy departs leaving a Police detail to ensure that no assets are removed when the family departs.

In the ground are 35 hectares of tobacco, weeks away from reaping and other crops that are grown in rotation or as supplements - a bit of irrigation. The inputs for the crop - fertilizer and chemicals are in the sheds as are 4 tractors and several trailers and all the other equipment you need to farm. By Monday morning the farmer and his family are with friends in Harare and the farmer is desperately trying to get the people he is contracted with for the tobacco to persuade someone to get him permission to go back and finish his crop - to no avail. The ZTA hold an emergency meeting with the Governor of the Reserve Bank and he calls in the army and the Police and demands action to protect the crop - to no avail.

The farmer and his family have been "allowed" to take three quarters of their furniture and their personal effects. There was even a squabble about the farm pick up - the 7 tonne truck was a no go.

This farmer was - with several others in the District, helping hundreds of small growers who were trying to grow tobacco on the farms they occupied. He had grown seedlings, helped with advice and even held a field day on his property when the crop was in and growing. Now they sit shattered by the loss of a lifetime of hard work and sacrifice. Their children bereft and the old man confused. When they had bought the land in the early 50's it had been 1200 hectares of wild bush. They had cut the road for 15 kilometers from the nearest Council road. Built a pole and dagger hut to live in and grown a tobacco crop to get started. Everything they earned they put back into the farm. They survived the liberation war and helped build up the industry again after 15 years of mandatory UN sanctions.

All they have to show for this now is some money in a bank, some shares in agro industry and their clothes and some worn furniture that has raised three children. They have their memories and are now deciding what to do with the rest of their life. They get phone calls from friends in Zambia and Botswana - come and join us here. But do they trust Africa again? How about a fresh start in Australia - they find they are too old. The UK? No real links in that direction. South Africa? From the frying pan into the fire!

And the tragedy of it all is that these guys were the best farmers in Africa. They took marginal land and a variable climate and no help from anyone except a hard-nosed bank and built up an African empire with real African expertise. Now it's all gone and all that remains are a few mangy dogs and broken down fences. It will take a long time to put it all back together again.

And for those people who try to justify this racist, illegal, unbelievably short sighted action, I say what about the consequences for the millions who now suffer and who have no external options or havens of safety? If we are going to allow such actions simply because a few of the victims are white - then we have really lost the plot altogether.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 20th December 2004.