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Eviction Day Arrives For the White Farmers

4 minute read
Simon Robinson

For nearly 3,000 white Zimbabweans, the day of eviction had finally arrived. Hundreds of farmers and their families jammed clothes and linens into boxes and lifted refrigerators onto pickup trucks. At a homestead on the outskirts of Harare, a farmer kneeling in the middle of her kitchen floor wrapped crockery and glasses less than 24 hours before the Aug. 8 deadline. “I can’t cry anymore,” said the woman, who, fearing for her safety, asked that her name not be published. “I just don’t have any tears left.” Most of the farmers, however, decided to defy the government deadline–a move that government officials warned they “would live to regret.” Some 300 took impromptu vacations, while others vowed to stay until it became clearer what the government intended to do.

The farm evictions–timed to coincide with Heroes Day, which commemorates those killed in the liberation war that brought Zimbabwe independence in 1980–are central to President Robert Mugabe’s controversial land-reform program, which helped him win re-election last March in a poll marked by violence and allegations of vote rigging. The President says redistributing Zimbabwe’s best agricultural land, most of which is owned by whites, and giving it to black peasants is the only way to right past injustices and balance the economic scale. But critics, who include the main opposition party, former colonial power Britain and the U.S., say much of the land already reallocated has gone to Mugabe’s cronies and ruling-party supporters. Land redistribution has been marred by violence. Government-sponsored thugs have beaten and killed white farmers and black farm workers.

The redistribution project has so far produced less justice than waste. Zimbabwe had long been known as the breadbasket of southern Africa. But agricultural output has declined nearly 75% in the past three years.

“Mugabe is returning the country to a feudal system, just like Pol Pot did in Cambodia,” says John Robertson, an economist based in Harare, who predicts that Zimbabwe’s economy will shrink 12% this year, which would make it the worst performer in the world. Says U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker: “Mugabe has taken a country that should be prospering, that should be benefiting from its natural resources, including the resources of its own people,” and has plunged it “into economic chaos and ruin.”

The economic uncertainty has exacerbated the effects of a searing drought in southern Africa. Without food aid, 6 million Zimbabweans will risk starvation in the coming months, according to the U.N. World Food Program. The hardest hit are poor black Zimbabweans, the very people Mugabe professes to be helping. The opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (M.D.C.) and U.N. insiders accuse Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union- Patriotic Front (Z.A.N.U.-P.F.) of using food as a political weapon–giving it to card-carrying Z.A.N.U.-P.F. supporters and denying it to M.D.C. members. “If you cannot prove you are a member of Z.A.N.U.-P.F., you are a second-class citizen,” says M.D.C. spokesman Renson Gasela. The government denies this.

The country’s high court offered the farmers a reprieve late last week when it ruled that the state could not seize farms mortgaged to banks without first informing the lender. But the government has ignored court rulings in the past. And many farmers are ready to leave, no matter what happens next. “Now that we have left the farm, we can’t wait to leave the country. Life here for my wife and daughter has become unbearable,” says a farmer who requested anonymity.

Still, there are those like Paul Hanly, 36, a third-generation white Zimbabwean who plans to plant his tobacco seedlings on Sept. 1, as he has every year. Last week he was building an irrigation system to water a maize field to feed his workers, who have been left hungry because of the food shortages. Though he too was instructed to vacate his farm, Hanly is convinced he will be allowed to remain–and that a more peaceful solution to redistribution can still be found. He paused for a few seconds. “We must be a country of great believers.”

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