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Fleeing the Farm: The Zimbabwean Land Crisis

JULY 14, 2000

A man wearing an old (but quite nice) grey, v-neck, sleeveless sweater walked into the backpacker's hostel where I was staying in Nelspruit, South Africa. His sweater covered a smart navy blue shirt and he wore tan trousers and a worn, blue baseball cap with a single "A" sewn on the front. He had a long face and a protruding nose, white but colored by the sun. His hair was dark and shaggy, but still not touching his collar. He talked incessantly, first about trivialities, the weather and the like. Some friends and I had planned a braii, a South African ritual similar to the American BBQ, but much richer in tradition. As we sat by the small swimming pool, the sun went behind the subtropical palms and bush-covered hills while the coals in the fire emitted a soft, warm light.

It didn't take long to learn that our friendly new companion, Paul, came from Zimbabwe. He had a certain longing in his eyes, as if something had happened that would never be made right. He was a quick-talker, as if he had something very important to say but didn't quite know how to say it. Having recounted our own travels over the past few days, my friends and I sat back, happy to listen, while this traveller unravelled his tale.

His talk soon moved past the weather we found ourselves listening intently. As the chill of a winter breeze crept into the air, Paul told of his struggle as a white farmer in Zimbabwe. His farm, located between Masvingo and Bulawayo in southern Zimbabwe, had been in the family for years. Having been born in Scotland, he moved to what was called Southern Rhodesia in the mid 1960's, when he was two years old. The country had recently gained independence from Britain. But, the white minority still governed and suppressed the black majority.

Over the next decade, as Paul grew up, tension and conflict brewed in Southern Rhodesia. Black political parties and revolutionary groups fought for freedom. On 4 March 1980, the first democratic election was held in what would now be called Zimbabwe, a Shona word meaning the great house. Robert Mugabe won the elections by a landslide. The black Zimbabweans had finally found freedom after years of oppression. The majority of the country was filled with joy and energy as Zimbabweans looked towards the future.

Twenty years later, Mugabe still has power. Some have likened his rule to that of a dictator. National law proclaims that there must be a framed photo of the president in every public place in the country. Every hotel, restaurant, store and public office is looked down upon by the aging president. The Zimbabweans had hoped that, along with the democracy promised in 1980, would come prosperity and economic change. Now, some wonder if they even have democracy.

As whites still owned more profitable and larger pieces of land, many blacks remained in squatter camps and small villages with little money. Paul explained that, when he first moved on to his grandmother's farm, there were a few squatters camped around the edges. He hired about 150 workers and provided sustainable tracts of land for their families. He said he visited the people in their houses and treated them well. The fact remains, he was able to operate a large capitalist farm, travel overseas, and buy multiple automobiles while the people that worked for him were working to barely sustain themselves, eating what they produced on the land, being paid a small percentage of the profits. There still existed a very distinct division of class and wealth between the 3% white minority and the large black majority.

Earlier this year, Paul noticed that the squatters around his expansive acreage had grown in number. Soon, they grew to be a small village, what he referred to as a "blockade". Proclaimed war veterans (from the War for Independence that ended in 1980), some as young as 15, began to occupy white-owned farms in Zimbabwe earlier this year. They justified their move by saying this land had previously been taken from them. Now they wanted to take it back, as the Mugabe government had done little to promote social change. Paul's farm was one of those farms.

As violence ensued, some white farmers and their families were killed, beaten, or (in Paul's case) chased from their farms. Paul recounted the turn-of-events with a point-blank honesty, which one finds when he has lost something he loves and knows that he will never find it again. When asked if he saw it coming, he replied, with a pause, "No, I can honestly say I did not."

After being chased from his farm, Paul fled to South Africa where the social and political situations were a bit more stable. Finding temporary work in Capetown, he settled for a while. He sent his son and daughter to Scotland to stay while they awaited the next move. Paul's grandmother passed away in June, she lived near the farm, in Zimbabwe. He decided it was time to face reality, to go back home. He flew from South Africa to Bulawayo and walked off the plane with tears in his eyes. The thoughts of his grandmother's death issued the first sorrow. After the funeral, he witnessed the second.

Paul drove out to his farm, wondering what he would find. Once he arrived, armed guards surrounded the gates. He would not be allowed entry on the farm he lived and loved for many years. In the distance, he could see the heartbreaking damage that had been done. His house had been burned to the ground. Two vehicles had also been burned as well as most of the crops. All of the black workers had been chased off as well; some had been injured. Again, he stood crying. Helpless.

Paul returned to South Africa, seeing no other options. Since, he has moved around, unsuccessfully looking for work. He has moved from town-to-town awaiting what the future holds. Like other Zimbabwean farmers who were chased from their farms, he has no idea. The land ownership issues in Zimbabwe will not be resolved anytime soon. Paul retired early as the rest of us stayed up watching the stars and pondering the problems faced by Zimbabwe. When we woke, he was gone, back on the road no doubt, looking for a place to fit in.

-Ethan Huff
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