'Enemies of the state' shun vital auctions as fear spreads

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The Independent Online

"I am calling it a false start," said big Pat Devenish bravely yesterday, after Zimbabwe's international tobacco auction floor opened.

Looking at the prices being flashed on to his screen in the offices above the auction room, Mr Devenish, the auctioneer's managing director, tried not to be gloomy, even though only half the tobacco usually expected turned up and then fetched a mere US95 cents a kilo, compared to $1.23 on the first day last year.

Others were less diplomatic. "It is pathetic," said Red O'Connell, a metal salesman, on what ought to have been a bullish day for the tobacco industry. According to Mr Devenish, Zimbabwe is enjoying its highest ever yield and possibly best ever quality.

But any farmer who could afford to stay away yesterday did. Those that did attend rattled around in the cavernous hall traversed by trains of tiny trolleys, many completely devoid of bales. Only 50 white commercial farmers turned out along with a couple of hundred of small scale black farmers - less than half of the usual auction crowd.

Political disaster looms as the campaign of violence waged by President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party against the opposition Movement for Democratic Change sweeps the country.

Yesterday just confirmed to Mr O'Connell that economic disaster is riding in its wake. His company, Metal Sales Group, has seen a dramatic downturn in demand for metal used by companies supplying farm irrigation equipment. "I have never known a worse time than this," says Mr O'Connell, who moved to Zimbabwe from Ireland 25 years ago. "Every other company connected with agriculture is in the same boat. Farmers are just not investing in their land."

Small wonder when they do not know how much longer they will own it if the government presses ahead with a redistribution programme after the current land grab. At an emotional memorial service on Tuesday for David Stevens, one of two white farmers who was killed in the recent violence, farmers made it clear that they would not be rushing to market.

Some blame the delays on Zanu-PF attacks on farm workers and farmers. But after being branded enemies of the state by Mr Mugabe, some are clearly in no hurry to sell a product that brings in the bulk of Zimbabwe's foreign currency and so replenish the government's empty coffers.

Mr Devenish said farmers were holding off in the hope of a currency devaluation to combat the dire economic situation. The auctions last until October and tobacco is not highly perishable. But with the banks anxious for loan repayments and the possibility that further land invasions could lead to tobacco being burned by war veterans before it leaves the barn, some farmers will be unable to delay sale for long.

Yesterday the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association advised farmers to delay bringing their tobacco to town until early May. But Mr Devenish warned that international buyers might be even slower to auction. After it is purchased, tobacco takes months to process before being shipped to the purchaser. Some buyers could decide that a worsening political crisis may mean they will never see the tobacco they have paid for.

Mr Devenish believes the current political turmoil is almost as great a disincentive to early sale as the desire for devaluation. "This country is on the verge of anarchy," he said.

While whites with huge farms can hold off, small scale black farmers have few options. Godfrey, 45, farms just eight hectares of tobacco, 300km west of Harare. He is successful in his own modest way, having started a shop and a transport company with his tobacco profits.

"I had to sell today just to live, though I too would prefer to wait for a devaluation," said the father of four. Would he also like some more land, as the government is promising a disenchanted electorate? Sure, he says. But he does not need to grab it from whites. "I already farm on redistributed land and I rent from others already granted land [which they are] uninterested in farming. There is already a lot of idle land owned by the government. We should make proper use of that first."

But would the return of land Zanu says was stolen by colonialists win the party his vote? Godfrey pulls down his baseball cap and squints left and right to make certain no one is listening. "No," he says. "For the main thing is corruption, not land. Whatever the government says, not everyone can farm. Land was not given to those of us who had showed we can farm but to the friends of politicians."

He says his community, like others, is being intimidated. Zanu, he says, has tried to stamp out support for the opposition after its local officials were recently humiliated when no one came to a rally they organised. Although Zanu has always controlled rural areas like his, an MDC rally attracted 300 the same week, despite Zanu attempts to disrupt it.

Godfrey did not fight the liberation war but his brothers did. He says that the notion that war veterans are leading the campaign against white farms is ludicrous. "My brothers are embarrassed. Those men are not war veterans but thugs. People are just hungry for change," he said, his voice rising despite the danger. "But they are frightened as well. In our local townships, soldiers have suddenly appeared. Not many, but enough to make people fear a war if Zanu loses."