Half a million workers ask: Where do we go when Mugabe seizes farms?

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The Independent Online

Weeds thrive in Alistair Keith's neatly ploughed fields. He should be planting his tobacco seedlings now. Instead, he is expecting landless peasants to arrive any day to peg out his farm for themselves. "Who in his right mind would go and plough one million Zimbabwe dollars (£12,000) into the ground without knowing if the land is still theirs?" he reflected.

Weeds thrive in Alistair Keith's neatly ploughed fields. He should be planting his tobacco seedlings now. Instead, he is expecting landless peasants to arrive any day to peg out his farm for themselves. "Who in his right mind would go and plough one million Zimbabwe dollars (£12,000) into the ground without knowing if the land is still theirs?" he reflected.

Under the "accelerated land distribution programme" currently underway, Mr Keith has every reason to believe that Chikumbakwe Farm, which he bought 13 years ago, is no longer his. Last Thursday, he was served with an acquisition order for 2,000 of his 3,400 acres. On Monday, 200 people arrived to claim them. He sent them away but he believes they will return.

"There is no compensation, just worthless government bonds. I have been told that the farm will be taken even if I appeal. The whole process is being carried out illegally, with the government's blessing," said Mr Keith, 43.

The Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, says 500,000 families - an estimated three million people - will be moved on to 12 million acres of land before the start of the rainy season in October. An initial list of 804 farms, including Mr Keith's, which have been designated for resettlement, is to be expanded in the next few days to 3,041. Apart from the dispossessed owners, farm workers - many of them from Mozambique and Malawi - could find themselves deported en masse.

In common with many of the 4,500 commercial farmers whose tobacco, vegetable, fruit and flower crops yield 40 per cent of Zimbabwe's foreign currency earnings, Mr Keith was born in Zimbabwe and has no other passport. When liberation war veterans occupied his farm in February, he believed he was just the target of a pre-election publicity stunt by Mr Mugabe's ruling party, Zanu-PF.

He said: "The idea was to intimidate the rural population into voting for Zanu-PF. But then, in the June elections, Zanu-PF only narrowly won. Now Mugabe is deploying his supporters for the 2002 presidential elections."

There is vague talk from government sources about starter kits - seeds, fertiliser and spades - for the new settlers, but no word of leases or of formalising the peasants' rights to any of the acquired land. Supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) will not benefit from the hand-out.

To Conrad Kakonye, the 47-year-old farm manager who works for Mr Keith, Zimbabwe's present free-for-all is more frightening even than for his boss. "The war veterans came on Monday and asked me to show them around," he said. "They want to divide the land into 30-acre blocks and they said that three of us staff - two garden boys and the shopkeeper - would be allowed to stay. The rest of us will be moved off.

"My family is originally from Malawi and we will have nowhere to go if the veterans throw us off this land. Mr Keith employs 96 people full-time and if you add our families, that makes nearly 500 people."

The arithmetic of Zanu-PF's resettlement programme is staggering. Not only are the listed farms apparently chosen at random by war veterans and provincial governors but the whole scheme, if carried through, will leave more losers than winners among black people in Zimbabwe.

The General Agricultural Plantation Workers' Union, which represents the country's 700,000 commercial farm workers, estimates that 500,000 people will lose their jobs if the government compulsorily acquires 3,041 properties. The union's general secretary, Phillip Munyanyi, said: "We are looking at millions of people being displaced. While there has been talk of compensating farmers, there has been none about compensating workers."

Yet President Mugabe has the whip hand - he even received the endorsement this week of leaders from neighbouring countries who met in the Namibian capital, Windhoek, under the banner of the Southern African Development Community.

And the President has Britain and the international community over a barrel. When the almost inevitable food shortages start to bite early next year, Mr Mugabe's calculation is that the rest of the world will not be able to sit back and allow ordinary Zimbabweans to starve.

Mr Keith, his wife, Judy, and their three teenage boys do not, at least for now, intend to pack their bags and leave for Australia. He makes a lot of money. His farm has an annual turnover of Z$20m and last week's devaluation of the Zimbabwe dollar will increase his returns on the baled tobacco he is still waiting to sell.

"The uncertainty is awful but on the land that they leave me I will still be able to grow half my crop. My great fear is that the government will come and take the rest of my land but this place is my life's work and Zimbabwe is my home. As long as I can recover my debts, I will stay," he said.

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