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Zim's black farmers boost yields, but whites still live in fear

29 October 2015, 07:47Sinikka Tarvainen, dpa

Mazowe, Zimbabwe - When Zimbabwean farmer Baldwin Mazango shows visitors around his farm, he glows with pride.

Maize and potatoes grow in neat rows against the backdrop of green hills. Cucumbers are maturing in three greenhouses.

The 30-year-old also grows onions, soybeans and keeps dozens of cattle, goats and chickens near Mazowe, about 30km north of Harare.

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"The former white owner of this part of his land used it for cattle grazing," Mazango says. "We cleared out the bush."

Mazango is one of the beneficiaries of President Robert Mugabe's controversial land reform, which redistributed more than 13 million hectares of land, owned mostly by 6 000 white farmers, to more than 260 000 black families. The process started in 1980.

'Willing buyer, willing seller'

The reform was first based on a "willing buyer, willing seller" principle. But from 2000 onwards, white-owned farms were expropriated, sometimes violently, with about 10 farmers killed.

About 300 white farmers remain. Some are still being pressured to leave, according to the Commercial Farmers' Union (CFU), which represents them.

"This was our land, and we were pushed away," Mazango said about farmland in the former British colony, which was under independent white minority rule from 1965 to 1980. "I'm not ashamed to be on this farm."

Only about 200 of the expropriated farmers received any compensation for what was often their life's work, CFU Vice President Peter Steyl said.

The eviction of the experienced farmers, who helped Zimbabwe earn a reputation as southern Africa's breadbasket, contributed to the 1999-2008 recession, which cut the economy by half, turned Zimbabwe into a net food importer and damaged relations with the West.

Critics also say the land reform favoured Mugabe's cronies, with hundreds of people connected to the ruling Zanu-PF party grabbing large farms on fertile land. Some took several farms, despite a ban on multiple plots.

'Tool of political patronage'

"The reform was used as a tool of political patronage," said Obert Gutu from the main opposition party Movement for Democratic Change.

Mazango's 100-hectare farm was carved out of a white owner's 800-hectare farm, which was divided between nine beneficiaries.

When the family received the land in 2001, Mazango knew little about farming. The government sent advisors, a tractor, diesel, seeds, fertilizers and herbicide.

"We had lots of failures. But we have been learning as we go."

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Mazango now has six permanent employees, an irrigation system, a house and a car.

Stories abound about black farmers not receiving training, selling equipment given by the government and leaving their land idle.

A plunge in maize production will leave an expected 16% of the rural population dependent on food aid in drought-hit 2015, according to the UN.

Even before the land reform, maize had been produced largely by small-scale black farmers, but the reform made them lose access to cheap fertilizer whose prices had been kept down by its mass production for the white market.

Title deeds

Dairy production, meanwhile, stands at only about 20% of the pre-reform level, according to CFU.

Other sectors, however, are doing better.

The production of tobacco - the main export crop - has reached levels close to those prior to the land reform. Its quality, however, has deteriorated, economist John Robertson said.

Sugar production is only 15% below the level before the reform, while sorghum and millet are well above, according to Professor Sam Moyo from the African Institute for Agrarian Studies in Harare.

Zimbabwe has started exporting peas and sweet corn to Europe, said Paul Zakariya from the Zimbabwe Farmers' Union, which represents smallholders.

But smallholders face the problem of having no title deeds to the nationalised farmland, which makes it difficult for them to obtain bank loans. "I want to produce strawberries for export, but get no funding," Mazango complained.

About half a dozen white farmers have meanwhile left their land in the past five months, according to Steyl.

Threat of violence

"If I get chased off, I will lose everything my family and I have worked for, and my employees will be homeless and jobless," says a large-scale white farmer who does not want his name or location published.

Several white farmers have already left the area - some under the threat of violence or through court action, while others departed after new owners came to claim their farms, he said.

The farmer believes he has been able to stay partly thanks to contributions such as building a school and setting up a loan fund for his employees.

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He knows he could lose all he has created - "but I don't think about it too much and continue investing in the farm, our home".

Analysts say the pressure on white farmers could ease after the death or retirement of Mugabe, 91.

Co-operation is meanwhile developing, with dozens of partnerships where whites advise blacks, run their farms or help them obtain credit, according to Moyo and Steyl.

"I'm not bitter," said Steyl, who lost several farms. "This is a phase we will go through."



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