President Emmerson Mnangagwa is facing a paradoxical situation with a whole cross-section of Zimbabweans questioning his decision to pay compensation to white commercial farmers.
“Our government’s repeated stance that we are paying only for 'improvements' and not the land itself does not make sense,” said Moses Chikowero, a Zimbabwean who is a professor of African History at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
He was reacting to an announcement by President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government that it would shortly start compensating some of the 4,500 white commercial farmers of European ancestry that fell victim to the violent farm seizures of Robert Mugabe’s government nearly two decades ago. The controversial compensation is for improvements the farmers made on the seized farms.
“What are improvements on stolen property that the thieves proceeded to extensively exploit for over 120 years, utilising chibharo (forced labour) to grow commercial crops using destructive pesticides and fertilisers that have polluted underground and overland water sources, vegetation, animal life, and denuded the soil?” Chikowero asks.
“Is such undeserved gain not a debt to the generations of owners of the land that the Rhodesian farmers must pay, not the other way round?”
Precious Shumba, Director of the Harare Residents Trust, a civic society group, said Mnangagwa should slow down on the land issue, accusing him of trying to endear himself to some Western capitals.
“Compensating white commercial farmers who lost the farms they had illegally occupied during colonisation is not the best policy for Zimbabwe,” Shumba said.
“The strategy being adopted by the Zimbabwe government of pleasing the Western world at the detriment of Zimbabweans is misguided and should be rejected as a reversal of the gains made on the land resettlement programme.”
This sums up the general attitude of most Zimbabweans towards the plight of the white former commercial farmers who fell victim to what they see as a just reversal of a previous land grab.
After British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes conquered the land that is now Zimbabwe in 1890 and eponymously named it Rhodesia, he formed a Loot Committee that wantonly stripped the locals of their land, cattle and all rights. Some 110 years later, Robert Mugabe – with the same measure of violence – chased the white farmers off the disputed land and started dishing it out to more than 300,000 landless indigenous blacks.
It seemed like the equation had been finally settled. But it was not. The Zimbabwean land grab became a global issue that has dragged on since Mugabe started the land seizures in the year 2000. For many years, the issue of compensation was out of question for the hardliner Zimbabwean leader who eloquently argued that payment of any form of compensation was the responsibility of Britain, the former colonial power.
Some of the affected farmers emigrated to neighbouring countries such as Zambia, South Africa and Mozambique, while others went as far as Nigeria, Australia and New Zealand.
There was, however, a gradual climb-down from this intransigent position over the years, resulting in the inclusion in the country’s 2013 Constitution of clauses the possibility of compensation payments to the former farmers for developments made on the land, but certainly not for the land itself.
When Mnangagwa took over from Mugabe after the popular November 2017 coup, he promised to uphold these constitutional provisions by paying off the former farmers,
and in pursuit of this promise his government set aside the equivalent of $18.5 million in this year’s budget to pay off some of the now aged and sickly former farmers.
In a recent joint statement issued by the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development and the Ministry of Lands and Agriculture, the government announced that it “is committed to finalise compensation to all former farm owners who were affected by the Land Reform Programme,” as per the country’s constitution. The process of registration and the list of farmers to receive compensation was to be “completed by end of April, 2019”, according to the statement.
It is this announcement that infuriated a whole cross-section of the Zimbabwean public.
“These former colonisers robbed our parents, looted our cattle, displaced our parents, exploited our minerals, and over-used our fertile lands from 1890 to 2000,” fumed ZANU-PF Youth Leader Godfrey Tsenengamu.
“Whatever developments they now claim are because they exploited our parents through forced labour. They forced our parents to pay huts, dogs and cattle, and many other taxes. We are the victims and must be the ones to be compensated, instead of directing the scarce resource towards looters, robbers and enslavers,” Tsenengamu added.
So emotive is the matter that some members of Mnangagwa’s ZANU-PF party have since started a campaign to push for a constitutional amendment to remove the clause that provides compensation to these former farm owners.
Gilbert Bwende, Secretary General of Tajamuka/Sesijikile, a militant pressure group that lead violent protests against Mugabe, warned that Mnangagwa is getting his priorities wrong.
“Mnangagwa is daring to compensate white farmers as part of his reform agenda,”
Bwende said. “The government has no money, yet it wants to compensate the white commercial farmers. Hospitals and medical practitioners are under-equipped, yet the government chooses to spend money on a group of white commercial farmers, most of whom are harboured within the comfort of their native countries.”
Farai Maguwu, Director of the Centre for Natural Resource Governance, said the idea of paying compensation appears just, but in reality, it would only burden ordinary citizens who have never benefitted from the land reform programme.
“This land reform issue benefitted ZANU-PF officials and their supporters. To take money from treasury to pay for a ZANU-PF project is a great travesty of justice,” Maguwu told TRT World.
He said developments on the land, the farm houses, the dams, the irrigation infrastructure, the dip tanks, road networks and such went to benefit ZANU-PF members and senior military personnel, only for the bill to be passed on to the ordinary tax-payer.
Joe Mange, a Zimbabwean based in Australia, is also opposed to the latest move on account that in the past the land issue has been used as a conduit to siphon public resources for the benefit of the ruling elite.
“Through the farms, ZANU-PF could give free tractors, free fertiliser and indeed money to its loyalists. This meant that the rest of the people, especially those in urban areas, were overtaxed to keep the lavish lifestyles of the bigwigs going,” Mange said.
A number of land audits have been carried out to establish who actually benefitted from the country’s controversial land reform programme, which ironically turned Zimbabwe from being the breadbasket of southern Africa into a basket case, but the findings have never been made public. Also kept under lock and key are the names of the individuals that benefitted from billions in cash as well as farming inputs and implements doled out by the state in the name of supporting these new farmers.
Last year state media reports revealed that former president Mugabe owned 21 farms in contravention of the government’s one-man-one-farm policy. The same applied to several high-ranking members of the ruling party and the military.
The other opposition to payment for improvement on the land is premised on the argument that most of these developments were financed through loans obtained by the Rhodesian government, which were later passed on to the new government during independence in 1980, meaning ordinary Zimbabweans had contributed to these developments in a convoluted way.
By the time Mugabe was deposed, he had quietly paid up to US$134 million to some of the farmers, making the US$17.5 million that is infuriating Zimbabweans seem like nothing in comparison.
The total bill payable to the ex-farmers in debatable as it ranges from US$1 billion to US$9 billion and goes even up to US$30 billion depending on which of the several groups representing the farmers one talks to.
Commercial Farmers’ Union President Ben Gilpen says some farmers actually bought the seized farms and would therefore naturally want that factored into the overall compensation. He said from individual farm valuations done by the Valuation Consortium they expect compensation of not less than US$9 billion.
“We are not looking for consequential payment which would make the bill much, much higher, but I guess US$9.5 billion is what the composite figure for land and improvement has been done by professional evaluators on our side,” said Gilpen.
Hardliners who want consequential costs factored in see the final bill reaching up to US$30 billion, an amount that taxpayers in this impoverished southern African nation not only do not have the capacity to pay, but also don’t want to for moral reasons.
Mnangagwa, who was Mugabe’s right-hand man for four decades, has vowed to revive the country’s ailing economy by lifting agricultural production and attracting foreign investment.
Ian Scoones of the United Kingdom-based Institute of Development Studies says settlement of the land issue with the displaced farmers is key to getting the Zimbabwean economy back on its feet.
“Mnangagwa has no option, but to tackle land reform if he’s serious about getting Zimbabwe’s economy back on track. This is because agriculture continues to play a significant role,” Scoones said. “The long-running issue of outstanding compensation payments has meant that international donors and financiers have not engaged with land reform areas, missing out on supporting major development opportunities.”