Land war in Zimbabwe

Angry and impoverished blacks say they're taking back the farms whites stole in the first place. But are they fighting the wrong enemy?

Published May 1, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

On Friday, armed squatters said they had reached a tentative agreement with commercial farmers in the countryside of Zimbabwe. Since mid-February, landless blacks have invaded more than 1,000 white farms, claiming to be ex-guerrillas from the brutal 1970's war who are simply collecting their just rewards. The squatters said Friday they will remain on the land, but peacefully allow farmers to harvest their crops. International observers are concerned that this latest agreement will not last, given that a similar agreement in April collapsed into bloodshed.

The conflict comes a time when Zimbabweans face a heavy decision about the future of their nation: whether or not to reject the leader who gave them their independence, but who also, many say, has been a party to its degradation.

Reuben Gwatidzo doesn't look like a man who bears grudges. When I greet him in an elevator downtown, he is wearing a dark suit and silk tie and carrying a briefcase. The vice chairman of this capital's chamber of commerce, he has just come from a meeting about opening up Zimbabwe's telecommunications.

But within a few minutes, standing on the landing, we are deep in a discussion about Zimbabwe's powder-keg politics. That's when he tells me his grandparents -- still alive, and nearly 100 -- had taught him, from when he was small, the key tale of the Gwatidzo family: how they lost their land.

Sometime during the 1920's, they had said, a group of white men, working for the government of the then-British colony of Southern Rhodesia, arrived at the gate of the couple's farm. They packed all the couple's belongings and moved them out to a scrap of land that was a lot less fertile. They were barred from returning, and never quite recovered. "They still have very vivid memories" of that day, Gwatidzo says.

In Zimbabwe, land has transformed every life. Acres, not dollars, have long been the real measure of a person's wealth.

Since the farm invasions began this year, about 12 people -- including two white farmers -- have been killed. Almost all of the dead were known supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which is trying to oust President Robert Mugabe in elections that are to be held sometime before August.

The current violence threatens to topple Zimbabwe into anarchy and economic collapse. Three cabinet ministers flew to London Thursday to press British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook to buy white land to redistribute among millions of landless blacks. It is a hugely expensive plan, but it would not be the first time the British government loaned millions for land repatriation in Zimbabwe. Prime Minister Tony Blair's government is alarmed enough to consider loaning about $57 million, on condition that Mugabe runs a clean election and evicts the invaders. Right now, that seems about as likely as snowfall on this steaming countryside.

Exactly 20 years after Mugabe's guerrillas finally routed the whites from power, millions of blacks are now unemployed and desperate for money. Added to that, Zimbabwe now has one of the world's highest AIDS infection rates: about one in four adults, further crippling the economy. Meanwhile, whites -- less than 1 percent of Zimbabweans -- own at least 40 percent of the productive farmland, and earn almost the entire commercial agricultural revenues.

With incredible cunning, Mugabe has managed to deflect the anger of millions of blacks, conveniently placing it squarely with the tiny minority. But observers say the leader clearly shares the blame for his country's sad state. Early on in his presidency, Mugabe gave hundreds of farms to close associates and party faithfuls, who knew almost nothing about agriculture. From there, inefficiency, cronyism and simple intransigence has kept the status quo in place.

In all this melee, what's been drowned out is a sense of how blacks lost their land in the first place.

Through decades of white rule, millions of blacks were stripped of their farmland, mostly without compensation. Now, many of their children and grandchildren earn minimum wages working on the large white farms, while others are eking out precarious livings in the cities. Some, like Gwatidzo, 36, have made it good. But that's rare.

When I ask an ex-guerrilla near Harare what the violence is all about, he shouts at me: "We went to war for land. What did they think we wanted? A country in the air?" "They" are the whites, not Mugabe's officials.

Drive in any direction out of Harare, and you quickly see why whites are the target. On either side of the road, corn, soy and tobacco crops stretch on, sometimes for a mile. Cows graze in sumptuous pastures. Swimming pools glitter in the heat.

One estate is big enough for its name to appear in giant white letters on the lush hill behind it. At the entrance to the dirt tracks off the road, neat boards display the owners' English names. In many places the paint has faded: The owners have lived here for three generations.

Malcolm Norvall, who manages a 300-cow dairy farm outside Harare, tells me his father was 20 when he moved up from South Africa. Norvall's father bought a chunk of farming land during the 1920's (right around the time that Reuben Gwatidzo's grandparents were thrown off their farm). That land was owned by the concession set up by colonial founder Cecil Rhodes. But Norvall's payment was a forgettable token, since white settlement, not money, was the aim of the company.

"My dad knew nothing about farming, but he got a few cows and began," says Malcolm Norvall, 53. He built a thriving business. Eventually, Malcolm and his two brothers took it over, and expanded further, before selling it after Zimbabwe's independence in 1982.

Drive further down the road from the Norvall land and you reach Porter Farm, named for the white family who have long since cleared out. It is now state-owned land, and the site of the country's largest shantytown.

How Robson Machauda and 7,000 other blacks came to live here with no electricity or running water is a story that demonstrates the complexity of the current conflict. When Queen Elizabeth II came to visit Zimbabwe in 1991, Mugabe ordered a cleanup of the city, which by that stage had become a public-relations disaster. And so hundreds of shanties were dismantled, their residents trucked out of town to a vacant plot of land, miles from any source of employment.

"I just sell some bags of meal to survive here," says Robson, 30, who found himself unable to move back to Harare. He has married and had two children in the squatter camp, and doubts he will ever be able to leave. "Even if there were land for us, we have no money to buy it," he says.

Mugabe's supporters in Porter Farm have been busily organizing invasions of the sprawling white estates which surround the squatter camp. Matthew Chadambuka, 54, runs the local branch of Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, and like Robson, was dumped at Porter Farm the week before the Queen arrived nine years ago. Having finally given up waiting for land, he has grouped together people from the camp to occupy chunks of farm land nearby.

Who should pay the farmers for their land, I ask? "The government has no money to buy farms," says Chadambuka. And anyway, why should they? "The land was grabbed from us free of charge in the first place."

Those of us who were born and raised in Africa will never forget the day exactly 20 years ago, when Mugabe's guerrillas won their independence, and dismantled 90 years of white rule. The euphoria was dizzying. Not only had the Zimbabwean battle been grueling, its end also foretold the inevitable demise of white rule next door, in South Africa.

It took another 14 years for Nelson Mandela to come to power. But the path to that moment began in 1980, here on the streets of Harare.

Twenty years later, land -- the promise for which thousands of black Zimbabweans died fighting -- is still unfulfilled. Mugabe has resettled about 70,000 families, a tiny fraction of those whose land was seized, and well short of his own target of distributing land to 162,000 families by 1985.

Down South, there are growing anxieties in South Africa, whose president Thabo Mbeki flew to Zimbabwe on Easter weekend to try defend Mugabe's actions to a baffled world press.

Indeed, Mbeki faces the prospect that his own voters might finally invade the plush white farmlands of South Africa. Of the millions of blacks who lost land under apartheid, only 13,500 families have so far received restitution from South Africa's land court.

Amazingly, only one copycat invasion has taken place in South Africa since February. But if a similar revolt began in a country immensely more powerful and better-armed than Zimbabwe, the entire region could catapult into chaos.

In both countries, history has entangled blacks and whites in a battle over their future.

In Porter Farm, Chadambuka says they have no intention of leaving the white farms, despite a court order for them to evict, and despite Robin Cook's demand in London on Thursday that Mugabe force them off the farms before Britain lends Zimbabwe money to buy land for its people.

"We'll wait for the whites to finish harvesting their crops, and then we'll begin tilling the land," says Chadambuka. Last week, he began handing out parcels of land on the white farms to his group of invaders.

When I visited Malcolm Norvell last week, he had just watched the squatters, next to his milking shed, as they began to stake out bits of land on the farm for themselves. His brothers have left for South Africa. His daughter has emigrated to Texas.

But Norvell, like most whites, says he's not going anywhere. He fought Mugabe's guerrillas for 12 years before independence, and despite the fact that his side lost, he says: "This is my country. I have nowhere to go."

By Vivienne Walt

Vivienne Walt is a frequent contributor to Salon. She was recently on assignments in Russia, Zimbabwe and Iran.

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