The end of white farmers as a Zimbabwean power bloc

May 31, 2011

In its heyday Zimbabwe's Commercial Farming Union was a powerful economic and political block, despite never constituting more than several thousand members.The story of how they have been rent asunder by the government of president Robert Mugabe in the name of correcting colonial balances is well known, as is the controversy over the methods and the effects on the country.

Out of a number once said to be 4000 strong, in 10 years or so they are perhaps down to a few hundred. They are now farming in a radically re-ordered political environment in which they can no longer wield the joint power they once did. Some believe this was as much a purpose of the whole land holding reorganization as any concern about colonial imbalances.

Those racial colonial landholding imbalances have indeed been controversially addressed. But at the same time the Mugabe government has also been quite careful and deliberate in doing so in a way that the new beneficiaries of farms cannot soon again become a political threat through their disproportionate economic power.  

Several articles came out within a few days of each other that more or less serve as epitaphs for Zimbabwe's white farmers as a bloc.

A Swedish writer whose expertise on the subject is described as he "has lived in Africa for the past 25 years" was given prominent coverage in the UK Telegraph for his views, given in a talk he delivered at a British arts and literature festival.
Swedish thriller writer Henning Mankell says white farmers must take responsibility for the plight of Zimbabwe. 

"In the early 1980s, every year Mugabe went and talked to white farmers and said, 'It's necessary for us to sit down and talk about the farms here'. And the reaction he got from white farmers was absolutely none. He tried year after year after year, and the only thing he was met by was arrogance. In the end, it became a very bad situation.

"I think when history is written, the white farmers at the beginning of the 1980s also have to take responsibility and blame for what really happened. Otherwise, when history is written people will believe that Mugabe was always crazy. He was not.

 "Of course, today I hope that someone takes him out of the position he's in because he is destroying the country. But if white farmers had listened to him at the start of the 1980s, I think the situation for Zimbabwe would have been much better."

The writer of the article went out of her way to indicate that these views were highly political incorrect. She just fell short of calling Mankell an eccentric crackpot. 

"The Swedish writer is known for his strident political views and told an audience at Hay that Robert Mugabe should not be painted as the sole villain of the piece," she carped, by so doing asking the reader to forgive the paper for publishing his views and implying that she did not expect them to be taken seriously. 

The Telegraph has been one of the strongest advocates of Zimbabwe's white farmers over the years, and takes a much dimmer view of Mugabe than even most of the British media, which is saying quite a lot.

Mankell may be right to say the white farmers were not particularly amenable to considering land reform soon after independence. But it is also true that Mugabe didn't press the issue, no doubt partly because of how crucial to the economy the white farmers were. Mugabe's government and the white farmers lived in reasonably happy co-existence for many years until the latter decided to support the nascent MDC opposition party. Mugabe became outraged, feeling that this was a violation of his pact with the farmers to stay out of each others' way.

As ruthlessly decimated as the white farming bloc has been, there is a whiff of kicking them when they are down and out in Mankell's comments. Individual white farmers will remain, but as an organised and powerful economic and political group they are history. What they could or should have done differently is really neither here nor there anymore. 

Author Peter Godwin has been quoted extensively (in the Western media, but curiously very little in Zimbabwe's extensive online media). For that western media, Godwin serves as the latest explainer of the 'Zimbabwe crisis' they can relate to.

Godwin has a lot of interesting and valid insights, but his anointment as a sort of spokesperson for Mugabe-brutalised Zimbabweans seems a little odd and contrived. I wonder if that is why so much of the Zim media finds it a little hard to relate to and celebrate him the way the western media has done.

 Speaking in an interview with a South African publication, Godwin says:

I was asked by a white South African, and it was quite a poignant question: ‘Here we are, a minority now in a black-ruled country… Can you tell us, given what’s happened in Zimbabwe, and what happened to white people, can you tell us what you think you did wrong, and what we should be doing down here to safeguard our own future, to be able to live and for our children to be able to live in this country?’’

‘I think… I sort of know what we did wrong, but the awful truth is, was there anything we could have done differently as a community that might have safeguarded us? Or are we just a footnote to something that would have happened anyway?

“I found myself saying that what happened in Zimbabwe, was that there was an implicit social contract once Mugabe came in, which was namely that white people could stay. They could enjoy their nice houses because they were a privileged elite, that wouldn’t be taken away, their farms wouldn’t be nationalised. They would become technocrats. 

Mugabe specifically made that appeal; we were the prototype of the ‘rainbow nation,’ we were going to show that we could do this; and the whites were invited to stay and contribute, and they did, or so they thought. But the implicit social contract was: We could do all that, but we shouldn’t involve ourselves in politics now because we had had our turn and there were historical injustices and imbalances that needed to be figured out. It’s one’s luck that you come along in a cycle of history where your group, for whatever reason, has had some kind of privileges. Now if you lost them tough, you know, bugger off.

“So whites, by and large, became expats. They withdrew into their houses and behind their TVs and their sport clubs and stopped being citizens in the full sense, where you play a very active, full role on every level of the society. Democracy is not something that only happens when you go (and) vote and that’s it. It has to be guarded with jealousy all the time and it is guarded by people participating in it and by being well-informed and by reading about it and by holding politicians accountable. 

(Democracy) has to be policed by citizens. And if you stop, if citizens withdraw, the danger is that you become an isolated ethnic minority, better off than the average person. When there is an economic downturn, the politics of envy can kick in and you become very vulnerable.”
Then there is End Near for Zimbabwe's Last White Farmers. Even the heading of the article sounds sad and melancholic.


...Colin Cloete, a former president of the Commercial Farmers’ Union at the height of often violent land invasions seven years ago...has been arrested, harassed and appeared in court many times, to try to stay on his farm.

Like most surviving white farmers, the cost of going to court to try to fight his eviction has been unaffordable. Looking back over the long and difficult years, Cloete, now 58, said his struggle to remain on his farm did not make economic sense.

“Economically we should have moved off then, at the beginning, as we would have been 10 years younger and that much more energetic,” said Cloete.

Cloete said he had begun looking looking for a house in Harare, not least so he could move his possessions to safety.

He said the land invasions launched after Mr. Mugabe lost a referendum in 2000 had hurt him and Zimbabwe’s economy, and no one had benefited from this except the elite in the ZANU-PF Party.

“We are treated like second-class citizens, we are treated like we are still just visitors to this place. My father was born in this country, before Mr. Mugabe, but I am still a visitor,” said Cloete.

Farmer Ken Bartholomew, who was born on his farm, said if he had known what the future held in 2000, after land invasions began, he would have quit farming immediately.

“I would have moved off and done something else, not what I have gone through, with the stress and the amount of finance we have used to fund courts, lawyers. I would have left,”said Bartholomew.

Commercial Farmers’ Union President Deon Theron said the group has warned farmers of their bleak prospects.

“The writing is pretty much on the wall for us. We have been fighting for how many years now to try and continue to try and find a way of dialoguing to resolve the conflict in an amicable way, but all the doors have been closed on us,” Theron said.

Most of Zimbabwe’s top politicians and public servants, including judges, among them those presiding at the Supreme Court are beneficiaries of white-owned farms.

Most farmers say that without dramatic and urgent political change, the only white farmers who will survive in the short term are those who have made private arrangements with district political warlords loyal to ZANU-PF.

This article was written by Peta Thornycroft, who has been passionate in chronicling the depredations of the white farmers at the hands of Mugabe's government. Through her articles she has always been outraged on their behalf. In the early stages her dispatches for the UK Telegraph and other publications Thornycroft seemed to be full of indignation and disbelief at what the farmers were put through to chase them off their farms. There were times when she got so worked up by the plight of the people she wrote about that she blurred the distinction between being a reporter and an advocate.

In this article Thornycroft plays the role of 'straight' reporter, with remarkably little of her own feelings on obvious display as in many of her previous reports.

There are two telling photos accompanying the article. In the first one a group of white farmers at a meeting, all of them senior citizens, have facial expressions and body language that betray their anxiety at what the future held for them. 

The other picture, taken elsewhere, is a closeup of a grimacing Mugabe, mouth downturned in a pose suggesting the ruthlessness for which the white farmers and many others who have crossed him know him.
The Mugabe of the bottom photo seemed to be saying to the white farmers of the top photo, "You are right to be so worried about what I have in store for you."

The death in April of Mike Campbell also symbolically represented the fizzling out of the efforts of the white farming bloc to resist Mugabe. Campbell's ultimately doomed efforts to resist the taking of his farm played out more publicly than those of most other farmers' struggles. He challenged the takeover of his farm in both Zimbabwean and regional courts, but Mugabe was not going to stop because of mere court rulings.

Campbell was portrayed in western media as a hero for his defiant efforts to keep his farm, which he was careful to say were on behalf of his farm workers as much as for himself. He was the subject of the film Mugabe and the White African, which played well in some sympathetic western audiences but didn't find any traction amongst in the scattered black Zimbabwean media, a sign of the rather different view of the white farmers as a group by many.    

The passing of the era of the white farmers in Zimbabwe is the latest chapter in more than a century of extreme violence between various groups competing for dominance in the country.

The Zimbabwe Review


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