Zimbabwe’s Land Seizures Leave Farm Workers Jobless and Homeless

Redistribution of farm land has created ongoing problems in Zimbabwe since independence. Evictions continue to disrupt lives of farmers, both black and white.

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Zimbabwe’s Land Seizures Leave Farm Workers Jobless and Homeless

Kudzai Mazvarirwofa, GPJ Zimbabwe

Tatenda Bhachila stands in front of his home in Domboshava, a village north of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital city. Bhachila was raised on Sussexdale Farm, where his father was a gardener. The farm was owned and operated by Mark McKinnon, a white farmer, until he and his family were evicted in September 2016.

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HARARE, ZIMBABWE — They show up in numbers, over thirty youths, some armed with large sticks. They’re hired to carry out a mandate, sometimes government-approved, to turn farmers, both black and white, out of their homes.

INSIDE THE STORY: Public insults and private tips marked GPJ reporter Kudzai Mazvarirwofa’s reporting experience when she set out to write about farm seizures in Zimbabwe. Covering two violently opposed viewpoints proved a difficult challenge. Read the blog.

It is a scene that has played out repeatedly, all over Zimbabwe, since the country cast off its foreign rulers in 1980, paving the way for land reform programs that began in the 1990s. For generations, half of the land was reserved for white settlers, who made up just 5 percent of the population by 1945, when those land policies were in full force. When President Robert Mugabe took power, many Zimbabweans were elated at the thought of taking back land for their own use.

But at Sussexdale Farm, locally known as the McKinnon Game Farm — a 265-hectare (654-acre) refuge that was home to cattle, giraffes, zebras and other animals and that grew soya beans, maize and tomatoes — the armed youths who came in September evicted not one but more than 30 families that had for years considered the farm their sanctuary and heritage.

“They came to us and said, ‘Get out of the house you are living in, because it belongs to me now,’” says Tatenda Bhachila, one of the farm foreman’s two sons.

Bhachila is 21 years old and has completed only basic schooling. He had lived at the farm since his birth. His father earned a salary and received rations of maize and game meat.

They came to us and said, ‘Get out of the house you are living in, because it belongs to me now.

“We used to be okay at the farm,” Bhachila says. “My father was a gardener and we had food and a stable home.”

Now, he lives with his older brother, Adam, in a small wood cabin on an unsecured piece of land in Domboshava, a community about 36 kilometers (22 miles) from McKinnon’s farm.

It’s not clear who is living at the farm now. News reports noted that a war veteran claimed it as her own, but knowledgeable people are tight-lipped over whether she lives there now or is the legal owner.

What is clear is that the land has been degraded by illegal gold miners. There are gaping holes in the soil, evidence of amateur mining efforts, and it is in need of rehabilitation if it will ever be used for crops, as it was before McKinnon’s eviction.

Since the Fast Track Land Reform program began after independence, land seizures, shuffling and redistribution have been a power move by government officials to push their own agendas.

Often, land was redistributed to people who claim they’re owed compensation for their military service or other efforts made during and after the liberation struggle. In most cases, war veterans say they were promised land in exchange for fighting, but without that promise in writing, no one is clear as to how much land they might receive or when they might receive it.

Compensation for war veterans has long been a tense issue in Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwe Liberation War Veterans’ Association formed in 1989 to bring together former combatants from two military groups so they could work together to secure better government assistance, and the War Victims Compensation Act was passed in 1993. But the compensation process, which at one point included one-time and ongoing cash payments for veterans, was rife with corruption.

Today, the group of people collectively known as “war veterans,” including those represented by the Zimbabwe Liberation War Veterans’ Association, is a powerful political faction that also carries out many of the land seizures in order to install black Zimbabweans, including some war veterans, as owners of farms once owned by white Zimbabweans.

For generations, half of the land was reserved for white settlers, who made up just 5 percent of the population by 1945, when those land policies were in full force. When President Robert Mugabe took power, many Zimbabweans were elated at the thought of taking back land for their own use.

Details about how much land has been seized and redistributed are hard to come by. In 2002, about 4,500 farmers controlled more than a quarter of all of Zimbabwe’s land, according to a report published that year by Human Rights Watch. That report quoted the Commercial Farmers’ Union, stating that more than 1,600 of those farms were occupied by war veterans in 2000. The Commercial Farmers’ Union did not respond to GPJ’s repeated requests for updated information on farm ownership.

Agricultural experts who track Zimbabwe’s crop production say there are likely just a handful of white-owned farms still in operation now, and all of those are at risk of being seized by armed groups. The seizures are often sudden and violent, and workers who live at the farms find themselves without jobs, destitute.

Georgina Chingati, 57, saw the eviction at McKinnon’s farm from a nearby compound.

“Most people heard the war vets were coming and they fled,” she says.

Marauding youths that are believed to be affiliated with ruling political party, the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), destroyed much of the property, she says.

Mark McKinnon, who was evicted with his family from the farm, communicated with Global Press from his new home in Canada via WhatsApp, a text messaging application. A messenger of the court approached him while he was in a field on the farm, he wrote.

“When I came up from the farm I was confronted by about 30 youth and the sheriff who told me they were there to evict us,” he wrote.

McKinnon gathered his most important documents and locked the farm, with the intention of going to see his lawyers about what to do next.

“We hadn’t even left the farm when we were called by our labor to say that they had broken in and were removing our stuff from the houses,” he wrote.

The family never returned.

McKinnon says his grandfather bought the farm’s land in 1968, and it was passed down through the family since then. More than 30 people worked there when McKinnon was evicted, he says.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Most of the farms seized under the nation’s Fast Track Land Reform Program are no longer as productive as they once were. Most Zimbabweans know which farms have been seized, but a map showing shifts in land ownership is hard to find. Global Press has one map that has been used by the U.S. government, but it’s not clear who created that map, or when. Read the blog.

Now, the land is pockmarked by illegal gold mining. McKinnon says he had a gold claim, and that’s likely what attracted the war veterans.

“It’s just sad that all our labor was evicted from the place they were born and have family buried like we do, for [the sake of] greed,” he says.

George Bhachila, Tatenda Bhachila’s father, says McKinnon fled Zimbabwe without warning his employees about what was going on. Everyone lost their homes, he says. George Bhachila left for South Africa in a desperate but unfruitful search for work.

“Because I was a gardener, I had a stable income, food and shelter for my family,” he says. “Sometimes, we would get produce from the farm along with our salaries. Now I cannot find employment.”

He can’t even afford to return to Zimbabwe to care for his children, he says.

Tatenda Bhachila is desperate, too.

“I must hustle on my own because I now have no one else,” he says.