What future for Zimbabwe’s Commercial Farmers’ Union?

Nov 9, 2011

From being one of Zimbabwe’s most powerful and influential non-governmental bodies, the Commercial Farmers Union struggles to be heard at all today. Most of its members have been unceremoniously dispossessed of their farms, leaving the representative body of the country’s large-scale white farmers struggling for relevance. Is there much of a future for the CFU?

As the body speaking for a sector that underpinned much of Zimbabwe’s economy, the CFU was a powerful political and economic force well into independence, despite the perception of them as being an integral and important part of the old colonial order. The post-independence government of Robert Mugabe interfered little with the operations of white farmers, and for many years talk of land reform did not go far beyond just talk.

Having backed a losing pre-independence political horse and system, and aware that they were considered suspect after independence, the CFU scrupulously lay politically low, and its members economically prospered.  

All this changed when they openly threw their support behind Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC party in the late 1990s. The MDC was the first party to seriously threaten the hold on power of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party. Mugabe did not take lightly the perceived betrayal by the CFU of their informal agreement for white farmers to be allowed to carry on as before, as long as they steered clear of politics.

Mugabe’s backlash against the CFU went far beyond what anybody could have predicted. Today active white farmers are said to number a few hundred, down from 4000 as recently as a decade ago. The land reform that the CFU had perhaps begun to think would never be a serious worry for them took place suddenly and viciously for the organization’s members. It seemed to have been carried out not just to redistribute land ‘to correct colonial imbalances,’ but to humiliate the CFU’s members as well, for daring to break the unspoken rule for it to stay apolitical.

Despite the international uproar and the calamitous effects on Zimbabwe’s economy, over several years from about the year 2000, a calculated policy of ruthlessly stripping the CFU of their dominance of the country’s landholdings and agriculture took place. It is reportedly still continuing against the few remaining white farmers.

What then is the future role of the CFU? Can they survive? If so, for what purpose, having utterly failed to prevent the decimation of the livelihoods of its members?

None of the CFU’s gambits to protect its members made the slightest bit of difference in stopping or slowing the aggressive land redistribution of the Mugabe government.

The title deeds of the white farmers were made worthless under a new rule of law that turned land ownership to the State. There was talk of compensation ‘for improvements, not for the land,’ but that was only going to happen in some hazy future, when the government was financially in a position to do so.

Initial arguments about the unfairness of the dispossessions to the farmers and the effects on the economy did not at all move the government. Finding relatively little popular sympathy for its members, long considered by many as arrogant and racist, at some point the CFU then invoked the effects of the radical ‘fast track’ land reform on their newly unemployed farm workers and their hundreds of thousands of dependants. This changed nothing.

Court challenges didn’t work, as the Mugabe government undertook a wholesale change of the make up of the judiciary, along with key elements of the law code that might have previously protected the white farmers. A fundamentally new rule of law was in place than that which had obtained a few years before.

What was seen in shocked, horrified Western circles as persecution of white farmers sealed Mugabe’s fate there as an irredeemably bad man in a way none of his previous actions had done. But by then Mugabe was past caring about Western approval. None of the threats that might have made someone else in is position reconsider his policies had the slightest effect on Mugabe with regards to land reform. If anything, he seemed to revel in his new role as bad guy in the West, ‘‘because they want to protect their local kith and kin and are opposed to African empowerment and the reversal of colonial wrongs.’’ Mugabe played this for all it was worth, with considerable propaganda success.  

Although none of the CFU’s arguments against the form of land reform protected its members, one of the effects served as a strong indictment against Mugabe’s actions. That was that for many years after it began, it didn’t seem to serve its claimed raison d’etre of ‘empowering landless blacks.’’

Black Zimbabweans got possession of formerly white-held land, but none of the support necessary for them to have any chance of turning it into a productive asset in the way the white farmers had been able to build up to doing over many decades. Crop production declined and the country went from being a net food exporter to being dependent on food handouts.

So whatever the ideological justifications for radical reform as it was undertaken, the CFU could rightly claim, ‘‘but look at the results, it has been a disaster.’’  No excuses for post-land reform agricultural decline could ever work as well as simply showing the effort to be paying dividends.

Having largely given up many of the legal, diplomatic and other efforts on behalf of its members against a tone-deaf Mugabe government, for many years the CFU simply continued to press home the figures of declining production in many sectors of the country’s agriculture. There was no prospect of this making the government reverse its path, but it was effective way for the CFU to say, ‘‘rather than empowering black Zimbabweans, look at the stark figures of how it has instead impoverished the country.’’ 

For a while this seemed to become the CFU’s full time role: pointing out all the things that had and were continuing to go wrong in the country’s agriculture. However true those statistics of decline were, this new role only seemed to serve to make the government even more hard-hearted in its attitudes to the CFU.

The CFU continued to talk at (not to) the government in these farming terms when for the government, the attitude to the CFU had long gone beyond regarding them as producers/farmers, to primarily seeing them as a political problem. Furthermore, it was not a political problem to be negotiated with, but to be decimated. Almost anything the CFU said was regarded as a sign of their being relics of an old order that was no longer relevant to the country’s farming future.

In the desperation of some of the CFU’s members to hold on to their farms, some went to file legal appeals to the SADC Tribunal in Namibia. ‘Mugabe and the White African’ was a film that depicted a white farmer’s efforts to keep his farm, casting him as a kind Christian paternalist to his African workers.

None of these and other gambits by the white farmers to win international support for their cause helped their situation at home, even if it won them sympathy before some foreign audiences. The only thing that had any prospects of relieving their plight was some sort of political engagement with the Mugabe government. But the CFU was poorly equipped for this task, and the government no longer saw the CFU’s members as indispensable to Zimbabwe’s farming future.   

And now there have begun to be sectoral improvements in Zimbabwe’s radically re-ordered agricultural sector. The small and medium scale black farmers who now form the bulk of the country’s agriculture have begun to find their feet in the growing of basic crops like maize and tobacco, even though particularly specialized sectors like horticulture continue to flounder.

For the first time in a decade, there are beginning to be signs of strong recovery in parts of Zimbabwe’s agriculture, despite many continuing problems. This recovery is taking place under a black-dominated farming sector in which the CFU plays a small and declining part, and is taking place in a time of relative international economic isolation for Zimbabwe. There is a good likelihood of continued improvement in coming years, at least in those farming sectors accessible to small and medium scale farmers.

The CFU continues to catalogue the many negative factors in Zimbabwe’s agriculture. But in so doing when there are also the first signs of post-land reform progress, they stand the risk of sounding like sour grapes, and of politically moving further to the fringes of the discussion about Zimbabwe’s farming future. 

An MDC electoral victory would be the biggest break for the CFU since land reform begun. It probably is no longer possible to contemplate wholesale reversal of land reform, and the MDC has said it would not push for this anyway. But there is little doubt that an MDC government would open up favourable possibilities for CFU members that are currently closed off. At the very least, the chances of internationally-funded compensation for dispossessed white farmers would presumably significantly improve under a Western-friendly MDC government.

But a strong MDC government is no longer absolutely assured. Land reform is popular in Zimbabwe even among those who agree it could and should have taken other forms, so there would be severe political consequences of an MDC government being seen to be seeking to ‘reverse the gains of the revolution.’ So an MDC government would put the CFU in the best bargaining position in a decade, but even under such a government, it is not likely to ever regain its previous power and influence. 

Is there any hope for the CFU as their still-farming members continue to face harassment and insecurity of tenure on their reduced landholdings? Given all the water that has gone under the bridge, is there anything the CFU could do now to re-engage politically with the Mugabe government and negotiate a place for its members in Zimbabwe’s farming future?  

Are there enough remaining CFU members who appreciate that their plight (and its possible discussion/solution) is overwhelmingly political? Figures of farming decline and derelict former white farms will at this stage of the game do nothing to advance the cause of CFU members who are viewed  more in political than farming terms by the Mugabe government.

The question for the CFU is no less than whether it can re-invent itself and seek re-integration into a social and political milieu that in many ways is radically and permanently different from that of ten years ago. Does the CFU see this, and is it up to the challenge of doing what is necessary?

Would ZANU-PF listen, or has the CFU’s mystique so diminished that a political decision has been for a CFU-less farming recovery?

These are the hard questions facing the CFU.



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