By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 7, 2009
CHEGUTU, Zimbabwe -- The young men set up camp by a shed on the Etheredge family's citrus farm just as Zimbabwe's new unity government was being sworn in last month. They claimed to represent a senator who for two years has sought to take the property despite court rulings that the family has a right to keep it.
The targeting of Stockdale Farm, where unarmed squatters have done little more than plow one field and hang around, is part of a surge in recent attempts by cronies of President Robert Mugabe to confiscate the last of Zimbabwe's white-owned properties, farmers' advocacy groups say. And some government officials and Western diplomats warn that it shows the volatility -- perhaps even the futility -- of the power-sharing arrangement between Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe for 29 years, and longtime opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
Last week, Tsvangirai demanded a stop to the farm seizures, which he said were illegal. At his 85th birthday gala days later, Mugabe vowed that land redistribution, which he calls a remedy for colonial injustice but which has usually benefited his elite supporters, would continue until all white farmers were gone.
Farmers' groups say the recent incursions have mostly been nonviolent, unlike the invasions of white-owned farms that began in 2000, when ruling party militias beat and killed several white farmers and displaced tens of thousands of farmworkers. The land seizures have driven the destruction of Zimbabwe's agricultural sector, economists say.
Just what the renewed push for evictions represents is unclear. Farmer Peter Etheredge sees hope in the squatters' presence on his land, saying it signals a fear among Mugabe's allies that the new government will soon put an end to their looting.
"A friend said this is the last kicks of a dying horse," said Etheredge, 38, a chain-smoking, blunt-spoken man in aviator sunglasses. "That's exactly what it is."
Others, including some government officials, farmers and Western diplomats, say the farm takeovers signal not panic, but defiance -- a move by hard-liners in Mugabe's party to spoil a power-sharing deal they never wanted, although its success is widely viewed as vital if the country is to overcome economic ruin, hunger and cholera.
"There are people who are not interested in this inclusive arrangement," said an official with Tsvangirai's party, the Movement for Democratic Change. "They would want to make sure they redirect or derail this process."
There have been several signs that the coalition rests on shaky legs.
Last week, Tsvangirai held a news conference at which he lambasted what he deemed "parallel forces" at work and blatant defiance of the power-sharing agreement. Among other things, he accused Mugabe of reneging on a promise to release dozens of imprisoned civic and opposition activists.
Still, Tsvangirai's party says it is committed to staying in the coalition. "You have to fight incrementally," said Nelson Chamisa, a party spokesman.
The Movement for Democratic Change has made some strides. Tsvangirai's finance minister cobbled together the funds to pay civil servants $100 in foreign currency for February, which prompted many teachers, who have been on strike for nearly a year, to return to work.
But it is unclear whether the government can continue such payments. After requesting $2 billion in aid at a regional meeting last week, Tsvangirai got only a promise that the member countries would try to help. Western governments have pledged not to lift sanctions or give development aid until they see evidence of power-sharing and the restoration of democracy and the rule of law.
Money is unlikely to be forthcoming while farms are being confiscated, a fact Tsvangirai acknowledged last week, saying land seizures are "undermining our ability to revive our agricultural sector and restore investor confidence." He said he had commanded the two ministers for home affairs, one each from his and Mugabe's parties, to pursue perpetrators.
But the perpetrators, farmers' groups say, are allies of Mugabe. In recent weeks, they have used government orders and invasions to try to take at least 77 of the 300 white-owned farms that remain, down from a peak of 4,300 in 2000, according to the Commercial Farmers Union.
Most of the farms' owners were plaintiffs in a legal challenge to Zimbabwe's land seizures, which a tribunal of the Southern African Development Community recently ruled were invalid and racially motivated. Zimbabwe's government immediately said the decision would be disregarded, and Mugabe referred to the tribunal last week as a "monster."
"The old regime does not want change," said Deon Theron, vice president of the Commercial Farmers Union. "If money comes into the country, that would bring about change. . . . All they have to do is create chaos, and the money won't come, and they're still in the driving seat."
Farmers in this district southwest of the capital, Harare, said groups of youths have shown up on at least 10 farms in recent weeks. Rob Taylor, who owns a seedling farm and had been caring for a neighbor's dairy farm, said the head of the local grain marketing board came to the properties in January, threatened him and kicked him out.
The neighbor's cows have not been milked or treated for protection against insects since, he lamented in an interview. He said he feared they would soon be dead.
At the dairy farm on a recent afternoon, about eight young men hung out in the muddy driveway, some sporting stylish sunglasses. They said they were the "new owners" and asked a reporter where Taylor was -- they needed him to milk the cows, they said.
"After the [Southern African Development Community] ruling, we should be left alone now," Taylor said. But he expressed little hope that the new government would stop the farms from being taken.
Etheredge, however, said he remained optimistic, despite the troubles his family farm has endured since 2007. That was when Edna Madzongwe, a senator and relative of Mugabe's, first said the government had given her the 50,000-tree expanse that the Etheredge family has owned for nearly 90 years.
Last summer, men who said they represented Madzongwe showed up on the farm and threatened to kill Etheredge, the farmer said. The youths looted his house, he said -- a pillaging he caught on grainy videotape.
Early last month, another band of young men came, also saying Madzongwe had sent them. On a recent sunny day, the men lounged on the ground, their campfire smoldering.
"They just do their own thing over there," said Fraser Chikutule, 58, who runs the farm's irrigation system. Even so, he said, their presence was worrisome. "I've been here for 27 years. We might end up losing our jobs if they try to take over the farm."
Etheredge drove by without acknowledging the group. "The only way to deal with this is through the courts," he said. But so far, he added, the authorities had shown little willingness to get involved -- until last week, when one of the youths accused Etheredge of trying to run him over.
Police slapped Etheredge with what he calls a trumped-up murder charge, the farmer said wearily, dismissing the accusation as just another hurdle in his quest to keep the farm.
"We're not backing down," said Etheredge's brother, James Etheredge, standing on a recent day near an orchard of Valencia orange trees.
"This is ours," said Peter Etheredge, who chalked up the land seizures to "racist" greed. "It's been bought and paid for."