Zimbabwe : White farmers offer olive branch

Zimbabweans are poised to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a new draft constitution this month. Elections will follow later this year. In the meanwhile, the mainly white commercial farmers union has come up with a proposal that could draw a line under the land redistribution issue and begin a revival of the the countrys agricultural […]


Zimbabweans are poised to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a new draft constitution this month. Elections will follow later this year. In the meanwhile, the mainly white commercial farmers union has come up with a proposal that could draw a line under the land redistribution issue and begin a revival of the the countrys agricultural sector. Report by Tom Nevin.

A cocktail of forgiveness, understanding, compensation and cooperation has been proposed by the mainly white Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) as a way to rescue and stabilise Zimbabwe’s stricken agriculture industry. Such a restructuring, they say, would start the process of underpinning the Zimbabwe economy and rebuilding it from the ground up.
Key to the plan is to transform the country’s 15m or so hectares of farming soil into a proper land bank with accessible value as viable financial feedstock. Now the parties need to sit down and find a solution in a process of dialogue and compensation for the former farm owners whose land was confiscated without recompense by the government starting 13 years ago.
To achieve this end, under the CFU’s proposal, bonds would be issued and managed by a recognised accounting firm.

A land bank would be created to handle the more than 5,000 title deeds held by former farmers, to be ceded to the bank. The bonds would be assigned a value and would be offered for sale to the current beneficiaries on the land.The CFU believes its affected members would be able to reinvest in the economy and mentor the new beneficiaries and help to guarantee food security.

The land bank, the proposal says, will receive initial financing from donors and international finance institutions.
“What we want is to go forward in a pragmatic way,” says CFU president Charles Taffs. “We do not wish to turn back the clock. At the moment we do not have the total value of the land as it is a complex matter. We have to agree on the methodology and create a comprehensive

The game-changing proposition comes as Zimbabwe prepares to hold a referendum in March on a new constitution (see box), a precondition for general elections later this year to decide on a new government and a president to run it. How the saga of the farm seizures unfolds depends largely on the formation of the next administration, although all parties are categorical that there will be no return of farmland to its previous owners.  

The land dispossession created a diaspora of Zimbabwean white farmers, some settling in such African countries as Zambia, Tanzania and Nigeria, others in Canada, Australia and South America.
One ex-Zimbabwean, now farming in Zambia, when asked by African Business in a telephone interview if he would return to farming in Zimbabwe if he could, said, “No, I don’t think so. Zambia has been good to us. It’s one of Africa’s most stable nations. It respects the rule of law and its economy is developing positively all the time. I know quite a few of my former Zimbabwe colleagues in various parts of the world would return, and I hope it works out if it happens. It would be good for everyone.”

No giving farms back to whites
Could it happen? “That depends entirely on the make-up of the new government,” he says. “But all parties contesting this year’s election have made it clear that there’ll be no giving farms back to the previous owners. Can a blend of the old and the new be a solution? I hope something can be worked out. Without agriculture leading the economy, nothing much will happen there.”

In the past few years, Zambia has exported, ironically, its surplus maize, most of it to Zimbabwe. The notion of reversed roles of white farmers helping new black owners was introduced with varied levels of success in some South African farming regions.

Many new owners, unfamiliar with commercial farming, invited the former owners back to work the farms on a profit-sharing, skills-transfer basis. Reportedly many such schemes in South Africa have been successful while others have failed.At stake in Zimbabwe is roughly 15m hectares of arable agricultural land. Independent Zimbabwe economist Vince Musewe calculates that about 4m hectares were bought by serious black farmers on a willing- buyer, willing-seller basis before 2000 and around 11m under the control of the government “have become fallow and have no commercial value”.

Musewe believes the problem is complex and the solution is simple.
“Nothing of much good will happen to the Zimbabwe economy until the agriculture industry is back on its feet and producing enough food to feed the people,” he says, adding his voice to the generally held view on Zimbabwe’s economic roots.“Our agricultural revival is the trigger for creating a virtuous cycle of wealth creation not only in Zimbabwe, but in the SADC region as a whole. It is difficult to imagine the value we’re sitting on, and how quickly we can correct the current situation. It’s time to be proactive.”

‘Black Zimbabweans must own a majority’
“I agree with Mugabe’s principle that all black Zimbabweans must own and manage a majority stake of agricultural, mineral and industrial assets,” says Musewe. And that’s possible, insists the CFU, if Zimbabwe’s farming folk, black and white, can work together to have the fields, the bank accounts and the economy green once again.
“We must revive these dead assets first by ascertaining their fair value through a land audit and compensating the holders of the title deeds for the improvements they did on the land,” he says. “This must be independently ascertained and if necessary, arbitrated upon. That is the right thing to do, despite our anger and the harshness of our colonial history.”

The next step would be to fund this new black-owned farmland. Essentially, value must be created through land tenure legislation that allows the new farmers to borrow against the land they occupy. “And lastly, we must capacitate the new farmers, and draw on the expertise of experienced white and black farmers, so that we can accelerate the productive capability of this dead asset in the shortest possible time,” postulates Musewe.
He points out that billions of dollars in funding are waiting to flow into a stable and democratic Zimbabwe. Property and asset values would increase, creating access to new credit for property owners, and commercial and industrial enterprises, he says, and employment and liquidity would recover – backed by disposable incomes in the economy.

“Zimbabwean blacks will own a significant and productive portion of the economy in agriculture and related sectors. We’ll be able to feed ourselves and the region once again.” Agriculture is therefore the ‘red button’, for re-launching the Zimbabwean economy into the stratosphere. n

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