Zimbabwe: New Eviction of White Farmers Stirs Memories

21 September 2020

The recent eviction of one of the few remaining white commercial farmers in Zimbabwe stirred memories of violent seizures of white-owned farms in the southern African nation.

Martin Grobler, a tobacco farmer, woke up last Saturday to find his property surrounded by officials from the High Court's Sheriff Office, a truckload of police and a woman demanding that he immediately vacates the property.

The contracted farmer had 400 hectares of the cash crop's seedbed on the farm he had occupied for more than two decades, nearly 20km out of Harare. He said he tried in vain to stop the eviction, lamenting that US$500,000 had been injected into the project.

Tobacco is Zimbabwe's second largest earner after gold, accounting for nearly US$1 billion in export revenue.

"We were caught by surprise," Mr Grobler told the Nation.

"We pleaded with the lady who evicted us to give us a few days so that we could pack our goods and leave, but she refused."

His wife, Debbie, was distraught. "We have no plan and we don't know where we are going," she said.

Sliding back

The eviction raised fears that the southern African nation could be sliding back to past invasions in which thousands of white farmers lost vast tracts of land to indigenous Zimbabweans.

For Zimbabwe, the land reform was a political move to correct colonial legacies.

Mr Grobler's eviction comes just over a month after President Emmerson Mnangagwa signed a US$3.5 billion agreement with former white commercial farmers in what was seen as a signal that Zimbabwe was ready to break with the past and uphold the rule of law.

Under this agreement, Zimbabwe's government committed to compensate the farmers whose land was compulsorily acquired for resettlement and are entitled, in terms of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, to compensation as provided for under the Bilateral Investment Protection and Promotion Agreements or Bilateral Investment Treaties.

For authorities in Harare, the signing of the Global Compensation Deed on July 29, 2020, represented a major milestone in the restoration of trust and cooperation between the former farm owners and the government of Zimbabwe. The agreement was also done in the context of moving the Vision 2030 agenda forward and therefore, to ensure its timely realisation through increased agricultural productivity, among other initiatives.

Turning point

The agreement was a turning point in a dispute that tipped the southern African nation's economy into free-fall by slashing food production and export income and prompted sanctions from the US and the European Union.

The government plans to sell a 30-year bond on international markets to pay for the compensation, according to the agreement it signed with the farmers.

"Today marks a huge milestone," Andrew Pascoe, president of the Commercial Farmers Union that represents the white farmers, said after the signing ceremony in Harare. "As Zimbabweans, we have chosen to resolve this long-outstanding issue."

Experts and political observers, however, differ on whether this will resolve the issues once and for all.

University of Western Cape researcher, Dr Philani Zamchiya, said compensation of the farmers was Harare's gimmick to push for re-engagement with the international community.

The southern African nation faced international isolation after it carried out the land reform programme at the turn of the millennium, which saw the seizure of land from the white farmers. Zimbabwe, which is battling rising inflation, high unemployment and political intolerance, owes US$8 billion to creditors who include the World Bank and the African Development Bank.

The pariah state tag on Zimbabwe forced former President Robert Mugabe to turn to China to counter western isolation.

"The issue of land is very important, not just in Zimbabwe, but also in South Africa. Quite often, debate around this issue becomes polarised and it is difficult to get solutions," said Dr Zamchiya.

"It is important to say that land was the central aspiration of the liberation struggle. But there were other aspirations such as human dignity. For me, the Global Compensation Deed is a political strategy and I don't agree that it is about the need to comply with the Constitution. The government has not been complying with the Constitution even in situations where it does not need money. So it's part of the strategy to try and reengage the West, to try and bring in the much-needed capital to Zimbabwe and I don't think it is going to work on its own."

We experienced what it was like to be at the receiving end of President Mugabe's war.

Ben Freeth, a former commercial farmer who lost his property during the land invasions, recounted how his peers were tortured when they approached the South Africa Development Community (SADC) Tribunal seeking recourse.

"President Robert Mugabe declared that 'we are at war'. As a farmer, we experienced what it was like to be at the receiving end of President Mugabe's war," he said.

"We saw people being murdered, we saw a lot of violence being meted out. We ended up going to the SADC Tribunal, which was formed as a human rights court for southern African countries. It was quite a battle and two weeks before the hearing, we were abducted and tortured and ordered to withdraw our case," claimed Mr Freeth.

The SADC Tribunal ruled that the invasions were against international law and the rule of law. Zimbabwe challenged the ruling.

Property rights, Mr Freeth said, had resulted in the establishment of strong infrastructure in the agriculture sector.

Zimbabwe's Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube said failure to resolve the land issue had created "dead capital" as new owners are yet to get titles for the properties.

"We have created a dead asset in the form of land, and we need to turn it into a productive asset. One of the issues that needs to be dealt with is the issue of 99-year leases, there is still some work to do to close that off. Because without 99-year leases, we can't create enough cover in terms of property rights for banks to extend credit to farmers," said Mr Ncube.

Mr Freeth said evicted farmers of United Kingdom or the United States citizenship would find it hard to be protected by international treaties because Zimbabwe has not ratified treaties with these countries.

Investment analyst Victor Bhoroma, said Mr Grobler's eviction had sent the wrong signal to the international community.

"The incident sends worrying signals to potential investors, as on one side, the government is compensating white former commercial farmers and returning land to those protected by bilateral treaties, yet farm seizures are still happening on the other. This will definitely rattle foreign investment, investor relations and bring about the property rights violation issues," said Mr Bhoroma.

"Even though the matter had been before the courts since 2003, the government would have sought an amicable solution that gives idle land to the new farmer while protecting the investment made by the existing farmer, his property and crops. There is lack of policy consistency and clarity on land tenure in Zimbabwe. Remember other white farmers were saved by the government from eviction (For example the Lesbury Farm and Farfell Coffee Estate) because of the role they play in export growth, food security and employment in the communities they farm. The same principle would have been applied here to bring a win-win solution to both farmers."

Zimbabwe's efforts to resolve long-standing disputes over the land reform programme suffered a major setback last week after an international appeals court - the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) dismissed Zimbabwe's application to annul an award granted to a white former commercial farmer by the court.

The ICSID, based in Washington DC, USA, is an international arbitration institution established in 1966 for legal dispute resolution and conciliation between international investors. It is part of, and funded by, the World Bank Group.

In July 2015, the ICSID awarded the Bernhard von Pezold family the return of their property in Manicaland, plus their full legal costs and interest, or alternatively the Zimbabwean government was to pay the family US$195 million in damages.

The court ordered Zimbabwe to return the property in 90 days or face the alternative consequence.

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