Nearly two decades after Robert Mugabe began his ruinous purge of white Zimbabwean farmers, hundreds are returning to the land as tenants of the black beneficiaries of his land seizures.
It may not be the triumphant return some had yearned for, but across central Zimbabwe’s three main crop-growing provinces as many as 800 younger white farmers are once again tilling the soil.
The influx has been discreet, even furtive, a cause for discomfort on both sides of the racial divide.
For supporters of Mugabe, who finally died three months ago at the age of 95, it represents a realisation of his worst fears.
His land grab may have unleashed economic devastation, reducing Zimbabwe to beggary and taking millions of its citizens to the brink of starvation. But he could always blame the wretchedness of his people on the West, with its sanctions and neocolonial skullduggery.
Yet it was harder to blame outside forces if the black recipients of the land, many of them bigwigs in the Zanu-PF party that still rules Zimbabwe, leased it back to the whites.
For Mugabe, it would represent a colossal admission of failure, an acknowledgment that black Zimbabweans could not do the job for themselves. He repeatedly urged them to resist the temptation.
But his administration did little to help those with no education in modern agricultural techniques, who often acquired the highly mechanised farms not because of their agricultural expertise but through their political connections, to take on sophisticated farms. As the economy contracted there was no cash from the state’s land bank for “new” farmers to finance their crops or pay workers they inherited. Commercial banks would not lend to them as there was no security for loans as land confiscated from whites was nationalised. Title deeds were no longer recognised.
Some white farmers secretly started leasing some of their land from beneficiaries a few years after they were forced out and about 200 white farmers had never been evicted but were left with tiny pieces of their original land holding. They too kept a low profile.
But after he was ousted in a coup two years ago, the tide could no longer be stemmed. Much of Zimbabwe’s best commercial farm land lay derelict, and the returns began.
Some of the recent “new” white farmers were children when their parents were often violently forced off the land. They are reluctant to speak openly. In many ways the return of ever more younger white farmers is as much an admission of defeat for them as it is for Mugabe’s supporters. They know they will never own the land they are using.
And they also know that some of older evicted white farmers deride them as “cut and runs” or “mercenaries”, viewing them essentially as accessories to theft because they pay rent to the beneficiaries of “stolen” land. Some call the recent returnees “Born Frees” as these new white farmers were born after 1980 independence.
Yet many of the whites now leasing land were victims of the evictions, too.
‘This is my country’
A 38-year-old farmer whose family was evicted from the the farm on which he grew up recently moved onto land now owned by a black proprietor in the province of Mashonaland Central. He would rather not know the identity of the farm’s former white owner.
“I don’t know who he was or where he is,” he said. “I don’t even know if he is alive. But I grew up on a farm like this, and I am a Zimbabwean. This is my country. I don’t want to go anywhere else.” He even lives on the land he is now using and is restoring one of the cottages on the farm.
Some whites may be trickling back onto the land, but there is no prospect of reviving Zimbabwe’s white farming heyday even if Emmerson Mnangagwa, the country’s president since the coup that ousted Mugabe in 2017, is seen as less anti-white than his predecessor.
All but about 200 of Zimbabwe’s white farmers were forced from their homes and deprived of their livelihoods when armed gangs of Mugabe supporters began invading their property in 2000. Even those who still remain only have access to a small part of their original land holding.
Scores of white farmers and their workers were murdered, injured, arrested, beaten up and forced to flee the farms, sometimes with no more than the clothes on their backs.
White farmers’ production accounted for nearly half of the country’s foreign currency earnings. Their purge essentially ripped the engine out of Zimbabwe’s economy. And ironically, the first class small-scale black farmers who produced most of the staple food, maize, were also decimated by land invasions of their neighbours, the white farmers.
Most white farmers have since died or moved abroad, though some still live in poverty, mostly in Harare, often because they only hold Zimbabwean citizenship and are too old to work. Most whites say they would rather receive compensation than return to the farms from which they were forced without a penny in compensation.
Mnangagwa, hoping to win international aid as his country struggles through yet another financial crisis, has promised to compensate white farmers for “improvements” they made to the land but not for the land which the constitution says must be paid for by the UK, as the former colonial power.
Gone old days
For those returning to the farms, life is a shadow of what it once was. The social scene, with its al fresco Sunday lunches, cricket matches and tennis afternoons at the club, is long gone.
Although one returning farmer says that an effort is being made to revive lawn bowls, today’s reality is lonelier and more tenuous than ever.
Many live in Harare and commute to the farms.
“Life is difficult,” admits one man who is now growing tobacco and maize on a black-owned farm, part of which once belonged to his family.
But even if things are not as they once were, the returning white farmers may still have a role to play in Zimbabwe.
“They don’t own the land and so this is very complicated,” said Andy Pascoe, president of the Commercial Farmers’ Union, which mostly represents the interests of former and remaining white farmers.
“But at the end of the day, let’s grow food for our country.”