Farmers find a new friend

Mugabe is inviting white farmers back after previously pledging to clear them from Zimbabwe's farms

Robert Mugabe is not famed for his tolerance of white farmers, and last year he pledged to clear them from Zimbabwe's farms. But now, in a last effort to help salvage his ailing regime, he is inviting them back.

After six years of land reform in which the number of white farmers fell from 4,500 to 600, Zimbabwe hopes some 300 whites will return to farming by the end of next year. According to the government's land adviser, Professor Sam Moyo: "Most of them will be running commercial farms."

Since November, 19 white farmers who lost their land have been granted 99-year government-backed leases on resettled farms. The land minister, Flora Buka, says the government has received more than 200 applications so far from whites to take up farming again.

"We used to own nearly a thousand hectares; it was confiscated, divided up and then a hundred hectares . . . was given back to us," one resettled farmer explained at his home in Kadoma, 120km outside the capital, Harare. "You have to demonstrate that you have the means to be productive. So we applied for the lease and are waiting for it to be signed." As well as paprika for export, he grows maize, sweet potatoes and tomatoes for the local market.

Government seizure of white-owned farms for distribution to blacks is blamed for a 40 per cent reduction in gross domestic product since 1998 - making the former breadbasket of southern Africa the fastest-contracting economy in the world. The World Food Programme has declared that two million Zimbabweans will need food aid this year. And despite official claims that 150,000 formerly landless blacks have moved on to new farms, reform has been mired in allegations of corruption and cronyism.

"When our land was divided up, some of the best land went to the district commissioner," said one farmer. "The rest went to the police chief."

Nearby, a black neighbour toiled on his maize crop, which looks healthy despite late rains. A former lawyer, he has access to the capital necessary for fertiliser and fuel despite widespread shortages. With inflation touching 1,100 per cent, the great majority of new black farmers cannot afford these vital inputs. Critics say the new 99-year leases won't do enough to boost productivity, as farmers will be reluctant to invest.

"The project is not credible," says the Harare-based analyst John Robertson. "The banks won't accept the leases as collateral."

The about-face comes amid a deepening political crisis for Mugabe who, in order to prolong his 27-year rule, now has to amend Zimbabwe's constitution to extend his term, in what the opposition Movement for Democratic Change has called a "civilian coup".

Now even ruling-party moderates, alarmed at economic meltdown, are opposed to a 2010 term. But as the economy continues to slide, political allegiances are becoming less predictable. Welcoming back white farmers might be too little, too late. As the farmer in Kadoma told me: "We looked at a farm in neighbouring Zambia, too, just to keep our options open."