August 07, 2020 at 12:09PM
Zimbabwe’s white farmers are promised a speck of compensation
TWO DECADES after President Robert Mugabe began to steal most of the 5,000-odd farms owned by whites in Zimbabwe, an agreement to give them a morsel of compensation has been struck—on paper. Whether it will add up to a sheaf of tobacco leaves or go up in a puff of smoke is too soon to say. “If we got something, that would be wonderful,” says Miki Marffy, who, after being dispossessed of his farm, took as much of his staff and machinery as he could, resettled in Zambia to the north, and started up all over again. “And if we don’t, or they try to do a currency-conversion trick, then we will just continue to hang on to our title deeds: nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Twenty years ago Zimbabwe was a breadbasket of the region, with the most sophisticated farm-based economy in Africa, bar South Africa. This was thanks mainly to a clutch of efficient white farmers who still owned most of the best land. Three-quarters of their farms had been bought after independence in 1980, with Mugabe’s government issuing “certificates of no present interest” to signify that at that stage it had no desire to buy more than token chunks of farms for landless black Zimbabweans. The commercial farmers kept the economy ticking over nicely, kept themselves out of politics, and paid the bulk of the country’s taxes.
But in 2000, after he had been humiliated in a referendum in which he wanted to grant himself more power, Mugabe lost his temper with the farmers. Some of them had helped a freshly minted opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which was violently—and thereafter repeatedly—prevented from wresting power from Mugabe’s increasingly corrupt, thuggish and incompetent Zanu-PF at the ballot box.
In the ensuing years, violent invasions of land and confiscations were relentless. Thousands of white farmers were evicted, often beaten up, sometimes killed. But instead of their farms being handed to the landless poor, most were given to bigwigs and party cronies, while 350,000 black farm workers and more than a million of their dependants were thrown into penury. Farm output slumped, hyperinflation took off, the entire economy collapsed and it has never recovered.
Soon after Emmerson Mnangagwa, regarded for many years as Mugabe’s bloodstained chief hatchet man, had ousted his ageing boss in a coup in late 2017, he signalled his intention to lure back enough white farmers to please Western governments and persuade them to refinance his efforts to revive the agriculture-based economy. A deal was eventually signed on July 29th granting compensation of $3.5bn to some 4,800 farmers. The cash for this is to be raised in 30-year bonds on the international market. Half the sum would be distributed within a year, the rest paid out in tranches in the next four. A farmers’ compensation committee had previously valued the farms at around $9bn. But this deal includes no movable assets—tractors, pumps, irrigation sprinklers, and so on. Only “improvements” and buildings. Above all, the land itself will not be paid for. And there is no question of the farmers getting it back, except possibly in joint ventures and in some cases under leaseholds. Never mind. As Mr Marffy, now 64, says, if real money arrives, it will be better than nothing.
Before that happy event, a string of obstacles has still to be overcome. Some key details of the agreement have yet to be nailed down; a fleshed-out document has yet to be published, which has stirred suspicion. International bankers will be loth to buy the bonds before the IMF, the World Bank and other creditors endorse a wider plan for the government to clear arrears and enact vital reforms. Above all, the farmers must be sure that compensation is paid in American dollars, not Zimbabwe’s bogus version, whose value has dived from a proclaimed equal value when it was created four years ago to 362 Zimbabwean dollars to one greenback at last count. Meanwhile, inflation is running at more than 700% a year.
The omens are not good, even though the deal clearly specifies that compensation will be paid in US dollars. Earlier this year the Supreme Court opined that a contractor who was owed a debt in US dollars by a big Zimbabwe coalmining company should be repaid only in the increasingly worthless Zimbabwean currency. In another long-running case before the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes under the aegis of the World Bank, a German-Swiss family whose large estate had been confiscated in 2005 was awarded $240m; a Zimbabwe government appeal against the verdict was rejected in 2018. But the von Pezold family has yet to receive a cent. Under the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, America cannot endorse any World Bank or IMF recovery programme until Zimbabwe improves its human-rights record and clears arrears to its major creditors.
Moreover, few white farmers will be lured back by Mr Mnangagwa unless they can acquire freehold rather than leasehold, as the government insists. Without ownership of land they will not be able to borrow against it. But a free market in land still goes against the grain of Zanu-PF, which sees it as its own disposable commodity.
“How do they think they can pay off the farmers when they can’t pay doctors or nurses?” asks David Coltart, a lawyer and MDC veteran, echoing his party’s scepticism. Meanwhile, he says, “the human rights situation is catastrophic—and it’s got dramatically worse,” with journalists and MDC people still being regularly detained and tortured.
The MDC says dozens of its officials have been arrested or forced to hide in the past few weeks. An MDC MP, Joana Mamombe, who was arrested and beaten up in May, is on bail. The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, a local monitor, says that more than 60 people have been arrested in the latest repression of civil-rights activists, including briefly Tsitsi Dangarembga, whose latest novel is a candidate for this year’s Booker prize. An investigative journalist, Hopewell Chin’ono, has been in jail since the middle of July. Another prominent journalist, Mduduzi Mathuthu, who reports on government corruption, is in hiding.
On the very day the compensation deal was signed, the minister of agriculture, Perrance Shiri, died of covid-19. It was he who commanded the army brigade that carried out the worst atrocities in the 1980s, near the start of Mugabe’s reign, leaving up to 20,000 people dead in Matabeleland, an opposition stronghold. In the fevered world of Zanu-PF, where Mr Mnangagwa’s authority seems to be ebbing, rumours were soon circulating, albeit so far with no evidence, of foul play.
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