Desperate Zimbabwe Moves to Lure Back White Ex-Farmers
Monday, May 15, 2006
KWEKWE, Zimbabwe -- The end of a century of farming for the van der Berghs came in December, family members said, when a man brandishing an official-looking letter and voicing threats of violence demanded they abandon their 1,300 acres of land, the final remnants of what had been vast holdings more than a dozen times larger.
But rather than flee the country, as thousands of other white farmers have done, the van der Berghs moved to the nearest major town, the pleasant, tree-lined community of Kwekwe, in central Zimbabwe, and tried to resume their lives.
Taking advantage of a new government initiative that offers the possibility of returning land to some white farmers, the van der Berghs submitted an application for a long-term lease. At least 200 other farmers have done the same, according to the Commercial Farmers Union, and each day dozens of others call or visit the group's headquarters in Harare, the capital, to inquire about the program.
"We can't just sit here," said Nicholas van der Bergh, 59, a large, muscular man with a crushing handshake hinting at a lifetime of clearing brush, tilling soil and harvesting crops. "We are farmers, really. We need to make a living. We are Zimbabweans. We think we belong here."
Other former farmers have treated the government's offer with suspicion bordering on contempt. President Robert Mugabe encouraged landless black peasants to invade commercial farms beginning in February 2000. He portrayed the longtime white owners -- about 4,500 farmers who owned most of the country's best agricultural land -- as thieves who had deprived the 12 million black Zimbabweans of their birthrights.
The white farmers, whose families were encouraged to settle here by British colonial rulers and later a white-supremacist government, had for decades enjoyed large profits, low labor costs and little interference.
Now only a few hundred white-owned farms remain.
Tens of thousands of black Zimbabweans have been given the land, but most received no support, such as supplies of fertilizer and seeds, much less training in how to manage what had been sophisticated, export-oriented agribusinesses.
Many of the farms turned brown and weedy. Giant irrigation machinery sat idle as poor rains combined with chaos in the agricultural industry to turn Zimbabwe into one of Africa's neediest recipients of international food aid. Inflation has reached 1,000 percent, and a catastrophic shortage of hard currency has severely limited the availability of clean water and electricity and access to health care.
Government officials blamed bad weather and sanctions by Western countries such as Britain and the United States, which have opposed Mugabe's increasingly ruthless authoritarian regime. But this year, with rain plentiful and agricultural production still paltry, Zimbabwean officials have begun speaking publicly of reclaiming underutilized land and leasing it to qualified commercial farmers without regard to race.
Information Minister Tichaona Jokonya said in a recent telephone interview that land policy had moved into a new phase and that significant numbers of long-term leases would be issued before summer planting begins in August. No new farms, he said, would be given to poor blacks.
"What the government is saying is: Those who genuinely want land, whether white or black, let them come forward," Jokonya said, speaking from his own farm, south of Harare. Referring to the government's land redistribution program, he said, "The resettlement is complete."