Twenty years after Zimbabwe started grabbing thousands of mostly white-owned commercial farms the government is giving some of the land back.
The partial reversal of Robert Mugabe’s policy is seen as essential if the country hopes to end its pariah status.
Farmers targeted by new regulations include those whose properties should have been covered by bilateral protection agreements with Britain, South Africa and Germany among others, and hundreds of “indigenous” land owners.
The seizures that began in 2000 caused economic chaos from which the former British colony has not recovered. It is suffering its worst drought since independence in 1980, but swathes of fertile land lying fallow are chiefly responsible for food scarcities that have left half the 15 million population facing starvation. The UN food programme said that it needed £170 million to feed the hungry in the first half of this year.
Although Zimbabwe’s main commercial farmers’ union has cautiously welcomed the move, those entitled to benefit represent a fraction of the dispossessed, it said.
About 450 landowners will be entitled to apply for the return of title deeds or compensation, most of them local black farmers and about 150 whose nationalities were covered by bilateral agreements and treaties.
More than 3,500 white farmers, many of them now elderly and still waiting for a settlement, will continue to remain in limbo, Ben Gilpin, head of the Commercial Farmers Union of Zimbabwe said. “New regulations give better rights to many foreigners than locals,” he said. “Land reform legislation has been about discrimination and that needs to end. When Mugabe came to power white farmers were encouraged to stay on and then we became the enemies.”
Each application will be considered by a committee chaired by the department of lands management, which then recommends its merit to a committee chaired by the department’s director.
Tendai Biti, an opposition MP and former finance minister, said he would “put up a fight” in parliament against the new regulations, describing it as “typical of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government to help cronies and white friends”, adding: “This is a reversal of the land reform programme, so it must be clear whether there is change in government policy regarding the repossessing of land. If so, then it is a matter for the constitution.
“We would rather there was an audit and full disclosure, rather than a coterie of the president’s friends being put back on their land with a veneer of legality.”
The rise to power of Mr Mnangagwa, 77, who moved against his former mentor Mugabe in a bloodless coup in November 2017, was initially welcomed by the international community. However, a botched election 18 months ago and military crackdowns on unarmed protesters have left Zimbabwe more isolated than ever. Winning the trust of western governments is essential to opening funding channels to alleviate suffering and reboot the economy.
The South African government, whose farmers form the majority of those affected by the failure to respect past bilateral agreements, said many had lined up funding to return to their land. The details of any restitution are still to be set out but it is likely that returning farmers may have to accommodate those who settled on their land.
Born in Zimbabwe to Italian parents who had bought land in the northeast, Janusz Negri and his family were given 24 hours to leave their farm in 2001 and have never been back.
Mr Negri, 60, is hopeful that he may yet return to his 12,000 acres at Maryland Farm to “start all over again”. Italy is one of the countries that had bilateral investment agreements with Zimbabwe before violent land grabs began.
“We could have gone to Italy but I am an African at heart and want to do the job I was trained for and loved to do,” he said. “My wife thinks I am mad and I am not as young as I was but I have one last project left in me.”
Mr Negri said that one of his three sons had expressed an interest in going back to work their farm in Mashonaland East.
Mr Negri, who studied at the Royal College of Agriculture, as it then was, in Cirencester and is fluent in Shona, a Zimbabwean language, employed 2,000 farm workers to tend his beef cattle and grow maize and tobacco.
He and his wife, Diana, 58, had built accommodation, a school and a clinic for their staff and were named runners-up in Zimbabwe’s maize grower of the year for 2001, months before they were forced to flee.
Since losing his land, Mr Negri has worked in seed development and lives in Harare, the capital. The area around the town of Macheke, where he owned three properties, was the scene of some of the most violent land grabs. “We just left with the clothes on our backs and our car, we lost everything else,” he said.
Tractors and irrigation equipment were left and in recent years 63 subsistence famers and their families have settled there to work a pocket of land. “If I could go back, I would give them jobs, or buy from them,” Mr Negri said. “Certainly, they could stay.” – The Times.