White farmers welcome back to Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe “white farmers” whose land was seized under Robert Mugabe rule can apply to claim it back or they will be offered land elsewhere if restitution proves impractical, the government announced on August 31.

Last month, Zimbabwe agreed to pay $3.5 billion in compensation to local white farmers whose land was forcibly expropriated by the government to resettle Black families, moving a step closer to resolving one the most controversial policies from Robert Mugabe legacy.

Under Zimbabwean laws passed during a short period of opposition government but ignored by Mugabe, foreign white farmers protected by treaties between their governments and Zimbabwe should be compensated for both land and other assets.

In that regard, Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube and Lands and Agriculture Minister Anxious Masuka said in a joint statement that these farmers should apply for their land return.

In practice, in some instances the government would “revoke the offer letters of resettled (Black) farmers currently occupying those pieces of land and offer them alternative land elsewhere,” the ministers said.

However the transfer of the Black beneficiaries from the land could become difficult politically and practically.

“Where the situation presently obtaining on the ground makes it impractical to restore land in this category to its former owners, government will offer the former farm owners alternative land elsewhere as restitution where such land is available,” the statement said.

The ministers said other white farmers whose land had been earmarked for acquisition by the government but were still present on the properties, can apply to lease the land for 99 years.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa has underlined the land reform could not be reversed but paying of compensation was key to mending ties with the West.

The programme still divides public opinion in Zimbabwe, where the number of white farmers has dropped to just over 200 from 4,500 when land reforms began 20 years ago, according to the predominantly white commercial farmers union.

The seizures of land that began four decades ago in an attempt to harmonise historical imbalances, later the expropriations were ratified by the government, which said they were needed to adjust to modernity the colonial heritage. As a result of this policy the florising agriculture that exported tobacco and roses and grew most of the food for the nation collapsed. Periodic food shortages ensued, the risk of famine has become real, and inflation became the world’s highest. The manufacturing industry was decimated. Robert Mugabe started his mandate as President of one of Africa’s richest countries, which under his leaderhip it became one of its poorest.

At present the World Food Programme (WFP) is urgently seeking to intensify the international support to prevent millions of Zimbabweans plunging deeper into hunger. 

According to the WFP, the number of food-insecure people is expected to surge by almost 50%, manning to 8.6 million Zimbabweans by the end of 2020. 

That figure represents around 60% of the population, the agency said in a statement, highlighting drought, economic recession and the COVID-19  pandemic as the main reasons of the crisis.

Galloping hyperinflation has signified that few families can now afford even basic food, WFP said, with the price of maize, the staple cereal, more than doubling in June.

Lola Castro, WFP’s Regional Director for Southern Africa, said that many Zimbabwean families were suffering “the ravages of acute hunger”, before appealing to the international community to help prevent “a potential humanitarian catastrophe.”

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