Zimbabwe: Mugabe offers up farms to pay off his political debts

Zimbabwe's rich white farmers are being threatened with land seizure and eviction. Mary Braid visits the prosperous tobacco belt, now drowning in despair.

Ahead, the dense bush shimmers in the fierce heat of the Zimbabwean midday sun. "Oh man, just look at that," says Warwick Evans, 37, brimming with pride.

It is 10 years since Mr Evans bought his farm in Trelawney, the prosperous tobacco belt, an hour's drive west of Harare. It was whispered then that the cocky newcomer had paid too much. But Mr Evans, full of energy and vision, has quadrupled the farm's output and become one of Zimbabwe's farming high flyers.

Soon all he has worked for could disappear. For Mr Evans is one of 1,500 commercial farmers - mostly white - whose land has been listed for compulsory seizure by the Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe.

After almost two decades of black majority rule, President Mugabe says land stolen by white colonials must now be handed over to poor blacks.

President Mugabe's rhetoric is crude, ignoring for instance, that many "listed" farms are not colonial inheritances but were bought on the open market in the last 25 years.

But a man fighting for political survival has no use for detail. This week, 50,000 war veterans, who brought President Mugabe to power, are expecting the fulfilment of a long-overdue presidential promise; a one- off combat reward payment of 50,000 Zimbabwe dollars (pounds 1,635) and a Z$2,000 (pounds 64) monthly pension.

The veterans have already rioted and President Mugabe is terrified of a coup. Just where he will find the cash is hard to say. In a country riddled with corruption, the veteran pension fund has already been looted and years of economic mismanagement have sent the currency into freefall.

Last week millions staged the country's first national strike to oppose new taxes to fund the veterans' payout. The strike, a week after 50 ministers were each issued with a Mercedes Benz and a Jeep, unleashed an outpouring of anti government sentiment.

The state's response was brutal. In Harare the police attacked demonstrators with tear gas and sjamboks. The following day, trade union leader Morgan Tsvangirai was found unconscious and savagely beaten on the floor of his blood-splattered office.

With few cards left to play, President Mugabe has returned to two old favourites; racial division and the land issue - most of Zimbabwe's commercial farmland is still owned by white farmers. The government is trying to create a smokescreen for political failure and hopes veterans can be bought off with land.

Farmers are now scapegoats in a political gamble which threatens the entire economy. They are Zimbabwe's highest earners of foreign currency and employ hundreds of thousands of people. The majority of Zimbabwean businesses depend on the agricultural sector. Months of uncertainty have already halted farm investment; the whole economy is suffering.

At Trelawney's farm machinery workshop, Felicity Pentland-Smith, farmer's wife and grand-daughter of Winston Field, a former Rhodesian prime minister, accuses the government of inciting racial hatred.

Thousands of workers recently stoned farmhouses and beat up farmers during their first strike over wages. Mrs Pentland-Smith was trapped in the shop by a mob of 200.

"Mugabe constantly talks about indigenous people," she says. "I am a Zimbabwean. We have invested everything we have in this country. If we leave we leave with nothing."

Her neighbours are also bitter at being targeted after years of "reconciliation" rhetoric. At another farm, the owner of inherited land, also listed, cannot sleep for worry. "We will trash this place before we leave," says his wife.

But while the farmers are undoubtedly whipping boys, ingrained white racism - particularly among the older generation - only strengthens the president's hand.

In Trelawney the old colonial ways are preserved. In magnificent farm houses, with manicured lawns, tennis courts and swimming pools, whites still live like kings served by silent armies of deferential blacks. The racial divide is strictly observed. White conversation is casually and intensely racist; and there is no shame.

Mr Evans, the local farm union representative, is part of a younger, more enlightened generation. He has built a school, a clinic and three- bedroomed pre-fab houses for 150 workers and their families.

He lives in considerable style and makes no apologies but says his workers must share in the prosperity. Not everyone in Trelawney appreciates his attitude, arguing he is forcing them to improve working conditions.

Dinosaur racism lives on. But the farmers can justifiably point to farms previously acquired by government which now lie derelict or have become holiday homes for ministers.

One of the few black commercial farmers to have broken into Trelawney's once all-white club agrees land redistribution, as proposed, will be a disaster.

The farmer, who prefers to remain anonymous, was involved in previous programmes to resettle peasants on commercial land. He says lack of money for training and investment guaranteed the peasants remained subsistence farmers.

Dismayed to find himself on the land grab list, he says that even if his colour wins him a reprieve the purchase of surrounding farms will have a disastrous effect on business.

Mr Evans still hopes that reason will prevail. He believes in Zimbabwe. "We can be an African tiger," he says. "But Mickey Mouse money [the falling Zimbabwe dollar] means Mickey Mouse government."

It will be nothing short of criminal if a Mugabe crony is soon taking in the view from Mr Evans' front porch.

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