By JOHN CHIMUNHU
Now Daily Special Assignment
- Two men stand at the gate of a farm they invaded.
Over the last couple of months, I have been travelling extensively around Zimbabwe’s occupied farms, assessing the extent of failure of the country’s chaotic and often violent fast-track land reform programme. My interest was triggered by the government’s launch in 2016 of what officials said was a $500 million project curiously dubbed ‘Command Agriculture Programme’. The name conjured images of Soviet Russia and communist China where dissidents and others who offended the authorities were shipped off to state farms to be worked and starved to death. Zimbabwe’s programme is not too different, as I discovered. Slavery, human trafficking, corruption and violence are the order of the day, amid minimal production.
While vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa was claiming that half a billion dollars had been secured for the programme and Zimbabwe would stop importing maize after three years, on the farms little is happening to show that this will actually happen. Apart from using the programme to feed Zanu PF militias, it is not clear how the nation will benefit from this poorly planned scheme.
I visited the farms initially at the invitation of some war veterans in Mashonaland East province, who were threatened with eviction by Grace Mugabe, president Robert Mugabe’s wife, for their perceived support of sacked vice president and now opposition leader Joice Mujuru. This being the province where the powerful former army commander General Solomon Mujuru, who once threatened to shoot Mugabe if he did not give up power, had set up his base, it was natural that many of the former ‘freedom fighters’ or ‘comrades’ as they preferred to be called were under siege from the Mugabes. And then, of course, I was also after getting more information about Mujuru’s death in a mysterious fire in August 2011.
I arrived at Derbyshire farm to be greeted by scenes of dilapidation and disuse at what was once one of the most productive farms in the province. The gate and wire fences had been removed, like many of the other fittings, to be sold to scrap metal dealers in Harare. There was no farm guard at the entrance and people were just going in and out, some carrying loads of poached firewood and truckloads of sand extracted illegally.
At the main house, I found three youths with menacing looks sitting at the rusty gates drinking beer, smoking marijuana and talking loudly about girls.
My host, who preferred to be known by his nom de guerre Comrade Gandanga Ziguru, told me he was going fishing.
“The government has not given us any inputs for the command farming programme. There’s nothing to do,” Ziguru said.
That was the middle of November, before the onset of the rains, but a time by which serious farmers would have prepared their fields. A tour of local farms revealed a similar pattern of disuse. Under the previous owners, the fields would have been planted by then. But failure to access bank loans had rendered the fast track land reform programme a failure. Attempts by the Mugabe government to arm-twist commercial banks into giving unsecured loans to the farmers failed. The farmers’ hopes now hinged on the promises by government to give them inputs.
Nightly on Zimbabwe television, we were bombarded with stories that the command agriculture programme was a ‘success’. Old videos of healthy crops from previous seasons accompanied the reports in a propaganda blitz that could make Kim Jong Un envious.
Over time and after much haggling about my role as a journalist, the war veteran began to trust me and opened up. As we sat drinking at a local hotel one night, he explained to me the politics at play. War veterans have put their weight behind vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa, he said, as a possible successor to 93 year-old Mugabe who has been clinging to power for 37 years and now wants to be in power until he dies.
“This is wrong,” the war veteran said. “Comrades who died during the war did not die so that one person and his wife can rule forever. The economy is collapsing. People are dying unnecessarily due to curable diseases because there are no drugs in hospitals. There is no money in the banks and there are no jobs, yet Mugabe wants to hold on to power just for the sake of it. We will go back to war if this continues. ”
War veterans have rejected Mugabe’s candidature at the 2018 presidential election. The war veterans have vowed to sabotage Mugabe’s campaign, demanding that Mnangagwa takes over as the ruling party candidate.
“Mugabe is too old to be president,” said Ziguru, a senior member of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association. “He is too old to be commander-in-chief of the defence forces. Where in the world have you seen such an old person heading an army? Nobody can command an army at that age and that is why there is confusion and corruption in the security forces.”
Mugabe is the world’s oldest president. He has been in power in this southern African country since independence from Britain in 1980 in a reign marked by terror. He faces a tough challenge from former prime minister and Movement for Democratic Change Zimbabwe leader Morgan Tsvangirai as well as his former deputy Mujuru’s Zimbabwe People First outfit that enjoys the support of rebels expelled from Zanu PF at the height of tensions over her unceremonious removal.
Mnangagwa enjoys the support of the military and intelligence services who scuppered a plan by Mugabe to remove him on fabricated coup attempt charges in 2016. Mnangagwa’s popularity has been boosted by his leadership of the ‘command farming’ programme to empower farmers resettled under the violent land reform programme also known as the ‘Third Chimurenga’.
- A Zanu PF militiaman burns crops on an invaded farm.
It was not long before I realised I was in militia country and that the so-called command farming programme was probably a cover for Zanu PF to mobilise its troops in preparation for the next general election set for 2018. I met the local Zanu PF party youth chairman, a widely feared man who went under the name Shumba, meaning “the lion”. As we drank beer at a local bar, he told me his story.
“I used to work for the white farmer who ran this place as a foreman,” Shumba said. “When the farm invasions started, we were organised by the whites into farm militia. I was given a gun, motor-bike and a radio for communication. I used to go around the farms distributing pamphlets to the farm workers and mobilising them to resist the invasion by the war veterans.”
Shumba said the country had descended at that time into a state of war. Farm workers, many of them migrants from neighbouring countries or poverty-stricken villages, had been worked into a frenzy about the possibility of losing the only life they knew as farm labourers.
“We formed our own militia. We would be ferried in trucks to farms in other districts where we would beat up the farm invaders. We burned the shacks they had set up and where possible we chased them away,” Shumba said. “I was the local chairman of the newly formed MDC. I kept a large number of MDC T-shirts which I distributed to the farm workers. We would go and meet (MDC president) Morgan Tsvangirai and update him on what was happening on the farms.”
Trouble for Shumba and his colleagues started when the farm owners started leaving, unable to withstand the violence which had claimed about 200 lives countrywide, including five white farmers. The brutal killing of farmer David Stevens by war veterans in Macheke changed everything for the white farmers who had been holding steady in the hope that the invasions would end. Stevens was chased by militants who attacked his farm and took refuge at Macheke police station. The war veterans followed him there and shot him dead, right in front of the police. It was then that the farmers realised they were on their own and that token assurances of government protection were false.
The courts were equally powerless to prosecute the ruling party militants on the warpath. Recently, chief justice Godfrey Chidyausiku revealed that the farm occupations had divided the judiciary, rendering the courts sterile in the face of some of the worst state-sponsored murder and mayhem seen in the country since the army-led Gukurahundi genocide of the 1980s. The issue was further clouded by Chidyausiku’s open support of the farm invaders and antagonism towards fellow judges who opposed the illegal land takeovers.
Left on their own following the departure of the whites, farm workers became a prey for the Zanu PF militias. Shumba was captured and brutally tortured. He was ‘re-educated’ through brutal treatment, which included the rape of his wife by war veterans as he was forced to watch. To save himself, he joined Zanu PF and turned in his former MDC colleagues. The real test came for him during the epic political violence of 2008 which followed inconclusive elections in which Tsvangirai had won the first round.
“We were ordered to round up MDC supporters and lock them up in this tobacco barn,” Shumba says, showing me a large room normally used for storing tobacco. “We tortured the MDC people and some of them died. We would then put rocks in sacks, tie them to the bodies and throw them into the river so they would not float.”
Tensions remain high on the farms. I was surprised to discover that there were deep divisions among Zanu PF supporters who occupied the farms. Many of the occupants are disgruntled that the government has failed to assist them with inputs and that there is corruption in the distribution of the few resources available. In fact, there is anger that senior party and government officials who seized the best land and equipment from the whites have failed to make an impact.
In hushed tones they talk bad about Mugabe and some secretly hope that he will defeated at the next election, not by Joice Mujuru but by Morgan Tsvangirai.
“Do you know that Tsvangirai won the 2008 elections in this area?” said a dreadlocked militiaman spotting an old Mugabe campaign T-shirt tells me in a confidential voice, wary that he might be overheard and killed by his fellow party supporters. “Tsvangirai won that election but we rigged him. We beat up his supporters and they fled. Next year, I will not beat anyone for Mugabe because he forgot us. We thought we could work for the war veterans but they have treated us worse than the whites.”
A visit to a number of farms confirms the militiaman’s story of abuse by the ‘chefs’. Most of the farm workers I interviewed said they were underpaid or not paid at all. They were not given food, health services and decent accommodation as required by labour laws. Most of the buildings on the farms have fallen into disrepair. To cap it all, many of the workers are subjected to regular beatings.
“I don’t blame the whites for beating up workers. Some of these people are very lazy,” Ziguru said.
It is evident that the failure of the land reform programme is because of the government’s failure to plan for the workers.
Shumba told me that the gains that farm workers had made in terms of welfare have now been lost.
“Through the ZCTU, we had negotiated good conditions for the workers,” said Shumba, who works for Ziguru as a tractor driver. “We were paid on time and given proper food and housing. Our health and safety needs were taken care of. Farm health workers were sent for training and if anyone was ill they would get sick leave. All this is gone,” Shumba said.
Eventually, Ziguru’s inputs came but they were only a fraction of what was agreed under what is officially known as the ‘Zimbabwe Programme for Import Substitution through Maize Production’. The maize seed was the wrong type, more suited to farmers with irrigation facilities. Of the 20 tonnes of fertiliser promised under the contract, only one tonne had been supplied by mid-January. Although the new farmer had received 3 000 litres of diesel, the tractor he seized from a departing white farmer was old and kept breaking down, costing him time and money and consuming more than the 40 litres per hectare allocated by the government.
It is not hard to see why the land reform programme and the command agriculture scheme is such a monumental failure. Most of the farmers could not afford to hire skilled workers and blamed the authorities for failing to factor the critical labour element into their plans. Many farmers lacked management skills for such an enterprise. Ownership disputes were rampant, with many of the new farmers saying they did not have the vital 99 year lease agreements with the state, making their stay on the land uncertain.
In fact, Zanu PF seems to prefer this situation where there is uncertainty and chaos, to keep the land occupiers dependent on the ruling party.
Many of the people who received the inputs sold them on the black market, ignoring warnings from Mnangagwa that they could be prosecuted for the offence.
The failure of the command farming project is closely linked to faction fighting within the ruling party. It was apparent that those with the right connections were getting supplies, while those without political clout were excluded from the programme.
“Grace Mugabe’s supporters in the government are sabotaging this programme. They want it to fail so that they can blame Mnangagwa,” said Ziguru. “It’s all about succession politics. If the programme succeeds, Mnangagwa will be a hero and Grace Mugabe doesn’t want that.”
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