Zimbabwe’s land grabs

In early 1994, less than two months after I had started working as a professional journalist, rumours began to circulate in Zimbabwe’s farming community that land bought from white commercial farmers by the government and earmarked for redistribution to subsistence farmers was being handed to cabinet ministers and other prominent officials. At the Daily Gazette, Zimbabwe’s first privately owned daily newspaper, that instantly struck a chord as a story that would go to the heart of an issue that divides Zimbabwean society and played a part in causing the country’s civil war in the 1970s – who rightfully owns the land? Brian Latham, the editor of the Daily Gazette at the time, assigned Basildon Peta, the newspaper’s most prominent reporter at the time, and myself to dig deeper. First, we drove 70 kilometres east of the capital, Harare, to the fertile farming district of Wedza where we investigated a farm that had been bought by the government under the so-called willing buyer, willing seller programme for the supposed resettlement of 33 families. Instead, it had been leased to Witness Mangwende, the education minister.

The property, Bath Farm, was a sorry sight. While golden tasselled maize stood 2m tall on adjacent farms, Mangwende’s crop had been planted late and was ankle height, a rookie mistake by an inexperienced farmer. Workers at the farm, who had been retained by the minister, said that some of their colleagues had been retrenched because the crop would yield little money. We spoke to farmers in the district and then confirmed the arrangement with a source at the land ministry who said that the farm has been leased to the politician under the so-called Tenant Resettlement Programme, which had not been publicly announced. We published the story on 3 March

Over the next few weeks Peta and I traversed Zimbabwe’s prime commercial farmlands across the north central area of the country. We drove west to Chegutu, north to Mhangura and Matepatepa. We spoke to farmers, snooped around farming districts and spoke to workers and people who lived in the areas, picking up hitchhikers and spending time in rural villages where the new landowners were the main topic of conversation. When asked difficult questions by security staff, Peta and our driver passed themselves off as civil servants, while I was assumed to be a German aid worker. To many of those we spoke to, the programme was seen as a betrayal of the ideals for which the liberation war had been fought. Rather than the transfer of land from white colonists to disenfranchised poor black Zimbabweans, farms had ended up in the hands of a politically connected elite. Public money had been spent on fertile and costly farms that, while originally destined for resettlement, were now controlled by senior civil servants, army and police officers and politicians.

Beneficiaries ranged from Charles Utete, secretary to the president and cabinet and Airforce Chief Perence Shiri and a one-time mayor of Harare, Tizirai Gwata. Reports surfaced of heavy-handed treatment of small-scale farmers whose livestock strayed onto farms now held by the new owners and excessive hunting of wildlife with automatic weapons. For the most part, the farms were seen as considerably less productive than they had been under their previous owners. The new owners paid occasional visits and had little farming experience. Crops were planted late and withered. With our series of stories, dubbed the ‘Land Grab Scandal’ by our newspaper, it wasn’t long before the international media followed and President Robert Mugabe was forced to defend the policy at international forums. As the protests grew, the pressure on the government increased and eventually Mugabe was forced to declare a commission of inquiry into the programme. That effectively brought it to an end.

In March 1995, Peta and I jointly won the News Reporter of the Year award, a competition backed by Reuters, for this work. It was the first time the award had been given to journalists working for a private news organisation. While our stories stopped this programme of land seizures by government officials in its tracks, the victory was only temporary. In 2000 the programme of violent land seizures began, leading to the ruin of the Zimbabwean economy. And while much of that land has ended up in the hands of poor black citizens, many properties were soon, once again, occupied by politicians and senior civil servants.

Designated Farm Leased to Mangwende
Anthony Sguazzin and Basildon Peta, Daily Gazette, 3 March 1994

WEDZA: A commercial farm here, that was originally acquired for the resettlement of 33 families, has been leased to a cabinet minister for five years. The property, Bath Farm, that had been planned as a Model A resettlement farm for the families to grow crops and rear cattle, is now under the control of the Minister of Education and Culture, Mr Witness Mangwende. A senior official in the Ministry of Land, Agriculture and Water Development confirmed the lease of the 1,232-hectare farm on Tuesday. The official said the lease between the State and Mr Mangwende had been reached under the provisions of the ‘tenant resettlement’ scheme. The tenant resettlement scheme, the official said, had been devised by the government late last year and entailed the leasing of State farms, acquired for resettlement, to individuals for fiveyear periods or less.

‘There are now two types of resettlements, that is communal resettlement and tenant resettlement. The latter is aimed at promoting indigenous commercial farmers through leasing State farms to individuals,’ the official said. She said it was in this context that Bath Farm had been leased to Mr Mangwende for a five-year period and other individuals who she could not reveal. ‘There is nothing sinister about the lease. It was leased under a specific and noble programme by the government to assist genuine black farmers regardless of their type of current employment,’ she said.

Mr Peter MacSporran, vice-president of the Commercial Farmers’ Union (CFU), said that his organization had never heard of the tenant resettlement scheme. As far as they knew, Bath Farm had been acquired to make available for 33 settlers. He said the CFU would be following up to inquire about this new scheme. However, sources within the CFU have previously stated that the replacement of one farmer by another on a property was abuse of the resettlement programme which was supposed to broaden the number of landowners and thus alleviate the chronic shortage of land … When a Daily Gazette team visited the farm, some farm labourers, who had served under the original owner before the acquisition, said Mr Mangwende had been running the farm since last November … ‘We requested him (Mr Mike van Menerty, the previous owner) to help us be part of the families to be resettled so that we could start developing our own villages and fields here,’ one labourer said.

‘We were assured that this would be possible but the next thing we heard was the farm was no longer for resettlement and someone would come to occupy. Mr Mangwende then came in November and we are very grateful that he retained us’ …

Utete also got Govt farm
Daily Gazette, 23 March 1994

Although the government has declined to name senior government officials who have benefitted from the tenant resettlement programme, the Daily Gazette has, through painstaking investigations, uncovered a number of these leases. Today we confine ourselves to some of the leases in the fertile Doma farming area near Mhangua. However, the Daily Gazette will be publishing details of other State-leased farms to senior government officials in a series of articles in due course.

The secretary to the President and Cabinet, Dr Charles Utete, has taken over the 4,000-hectre Rudziwe Farm in Doma, which was allegedly under-utlised by its former owner, a Mr Potgieter, whose family had been on the farm for 19 years. Dr Utete acquired the lease for the farm in 1991, almost three years before the government went public about the ‘tenant resettlement programme’. In the same area, the deputy permanent secretary for Industry and Commerce, Mr James Chinanga, has acquired the 3,000-hectare Wilderness Farm …

Resettlement farm given to Air Force boss
Daily Gazette, 25 March 1994

The commander of the Air Force of Zimbabwe, Air Marshall Perence Shiri, is now leasing a farm in Matepatepa near Bindura, which was bought by the state in 1989 on a willing-buyer, willingseller basis for resettlement … The 2,832-hectare property, Audrey Farm, known locally as Rufa Falls, was sold to the state by Mr Roger Desa and is considered one of the best farms in the district. The firm has a well-developed irrigation system and potential, with a half share in a dam with 1,400-million-gallon capacity. A former owner, Mr Pat Johnson, who preceded Mr Desa, was once the biggest individual burley tobacco grower in the world. Since the sale of the farm to the government, a farmer has been leasing it on a yearly basis because it was understood the government was not ready to resettle families on the property … The farmer was required to leave the farm in the first week of last November …

Reports of excessive hunting on the farm, which has a high population of kudu, have surfaced since Mr Shiri took over. Relentless efforts to get a comment from Mr Shiri were unsuccessful …

New twist: Tenants already owners
Daily Gazette, 7 April 1994

In a new twist to the ‘tenant resettlement’ scandal, the Daily Gazette has established that government has leased commercial farms originally acquired for resettlement to prominent people already in possession of other private farms. Examples of such beneficiaries are former army commander General Tapfumanyeni Mujuru and the first black mayor of Harare and current Zanu (PF) councillor in the capital city, Dr Tizirai Gwata. Dr Gwata, who is a specialist physician, recently acquired a lease on the 4,000-acre Meadows Farm I Concession, about 50 kilometres north of Harare. The former mayor already owns Pamberi Farm in Ruwa, which he bought. Dr Gwata also owns a private clinic along Fife Avenue in Harare and a number of surgeries in Harare. Dr Gwata is married to Dr Charles Utete’s sister. Dr Utete, who is the Secretary to the President and Cabinet, has already benefited through ‘tenant resettlement’ by acquiring Ruziwe Farm in Doma.

When contacted for comment yesterday, Dr Gwata did not want to commit himself or reveal the details on his new lease … ‘It is wrong to say I benefited from a scheme because this is a simple and straightforward thing that has been occurring for years …’ When asked to comment on Pamberi Farm in Ruwa, he could only say ‘that small plot’, but Gwata declined to disclose its hectarage…