Zimbabwe's feudal past unravels down on the farm

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The Independent Online

Piers Nicolle has a wife and two sons and controls 54,000 acres of prime farmland. Shakespeare Tome has four wives, 28 children and five acres. The gulf of understanding between the two men matches the discrepancy in acreage. But both agree that only Britain, the former colonial power, can solve Zimbabwe's crisis.

Mr Tome, 65, is among a group of 300 supporters of Zimbabwe's ruling party who have been occupying for 10 days a piece of the Nicolle familyland farmed by Piers' son, Derek.They say they will stay until they are each given land. Piers Nicolle calls it invasion, or squatting.

The Nicolle family - including Piers' two brothers and their sons - farm a total of 54,000 acres in the area, employing 1,200 people, each Mr Nicolle estimates, with seven or eight dependants. "Of course the land situation needs to be resolved,'' said Mr Nicolle. "But the government has shown itself to be so corrupt that only pressure from Britain or the Commonwealth will make a difference.'' At a farmers' lunch meeting in the town of Banket, 50 miles from the capital, Harare, the idea of sanctions against Zimbabwe was mooted.

Down the road, at the encampment of straw huts and tarpaulin tents put up by Mr Tome and the other supporters of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), Britain's role is also foremost in minds.

Isaac Gambo, one of two independence war veterans heading the group, said: "We want to tell Tony Blair ... we have been patient ever since liberation [from white rule] in 1980. Queen Victoria and her whites stole our land and now we want it back. He should just send an aircraft and take all his people away from here.

"We are prepared to stay here for ever. We have nothing to lose ... We will do what the party instructs us to do."

Mr Tome, who is from Zvimba, President Robert Mugabe's home area, 40 miles away, added: "After independence, we were given some land but ... it is just sand. I would like to grow tobacco, like these whites do. But all that grows on my five acres is maize. I have children to send to school. A bag of fertiliser is Z$600 (£10), which I cannot afford.''

Mashonaland has a gently rolling landscape of trees, fields and dams, harnessed tidily with modern combine harvesters, top-grade seeds and fertilisers. The commercial farmers here, almost all white, see themselves as business people on whom depends the survival of the economy. They grow maize, soy and winter wheat.

The Banket farmers' meeting, at the bowls club, has never been as well attended as this month. Around the country there are sit-ins at 400 commercial farms - out of a national total of about 4,000 - and 700 have been occupied at least once since mid-February.

"It could happen to you any day,'' Derek Nicolle tells the 60-strong, all-white meeting. "And when it does, you will feel so scared and so isolated. I just do not know how to get these guys off. First there were 30, then another 50 and now they are 300. They came to me with a piece of paper asking me to sign an agreement that I would give them half my land. My advice to you is, do not agree to anything," he said.

Occupations have spread across Zimbabwe - including tobacco farms, whose crops earn the country £180m a year - since President Mugabe lost a referendum last monthon a draft constitution. This, apart from entrenching the president's power, would have legitimised uncompensated land acquisition from commercial farms.

Land was central to the Zimbabwean independence war. A resettlement programme was worked out, with Britain agreeing to pay £44m, mostly to white farmers who wanted to leave anyway. Britain pulled the plug on the scheme in 1988, on the basis that it was not benefiting the poor: out of 2,000 farms taken over by the government, 420 went to the élite - ministers, judges and academics loyal to Zanu-PF. The Commercial Farmers' Union says two million acres of that land is lying fallow. An alternative scheme devised by donor countries in 1998 to give grants to help farmers start up has not been implemented.

Now, with land still at the forefront of all Zimbabwean minds and with Zanu-PF having lost the referendum, Mr Mugabe wants parliament to push through a constitutional amendment to legitimise the land-grab. He hopes it will secure a Zanu-PF majority in parliamentary elections expected in May.

Zanu-PF has 149 of 150 seats in parliament, 30 of them appointed directly by the president, but the ruling party's hold on power has slipped and the referendum defeat was a boost for the new opposition party, the Movement For Democratic Change (MDC), led by the trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai. The MDC, which is widely supported by industry and the commercial farmers, believes it can win more than the 76 seats required for a parliamentary majority.

Yet even with a change of government the gulf between Mr Nicolle and Mr Tome will remain enormous.

Commercial farming methods are paternalistic, even feudal. Typically, white farmers talk of "my blacks''. They do, in a sense, own their workers, providing housing, schools, clinics - including condoms and Aids education - in a country where the government has, over time, neglected the majority of the 12 million people.

Consequently, though the occupations have been peaceful, the commercial farmers are in a panic and those setting up encampments on their land are confident and feel strong.

Chenjerai Hunzvi, leader of the National Veterans' Association, believes "we are at war again but this time it is a war of the minds, with no guns''. Working with Zanu-PF's young militants, he believes land occupations are the best weapon. He will only admit that giving farms to ministers was "a mistake''. He said: "We did not fight for the willing buyer, willing seller approach. We fought for equitable redistribution of land and that war is now continuing. Britain needs to understand that simple fact.''

David Hasluck, director of the Commercial Farmers' Union, believes the solution lies not with Britain, with which "relations have never been so poor'' but in a "viable approach'' to land reform and a new government. "There is a new generation of politicians coming through."

At 76 years old, Mr Mugabe is not going to change. The government already has the right compulsorily to take over land. It made a list of 800 farms but did not act on the plan and spent the money going to war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mr Hasluck said: "Tsvangirai believes the priority is to put the country back on its feet ... As for land reform, the World Bank has $7m [£4.3m] ready to spend.''