Out with those white farmers

freeth_farmPresident Robert Mugabe is still bent on chasing out the last white farmers

FOR Mike Campbell and Ben Freeth, his son-in-law, leaders of a legal battle to save Zimbabwes last white-owned farms, Robert Mugabes warning came too late. By the time the president made his latest tirade against white imperialist farmers, their own farmsteads were no m

The arms-cache trick has been played before, on Roy Bennett among others. He is a dispossessed white farmer who was appointed deputy agriculture minister in the power-sharing government set up in February with Morgan Tsvangirai, the former opposition leader, as prime minister. In 2006 Mr Bennett was charged with treason after the discovery of an arms cache at an alleged co-conspirators home. The treason charge, which carries the death penalty, has since been dropped. But Mr Bennett is still facing trial on equally spurious terrorism charges next month. Mr Mugabe still refuses to let him be sworn in as a minister.

Since the land seizures began a decade ago, some 4,000 owners (virtually all white) of Zimbabwes most productive farms have been forced out, along with their 320,000 workers (almost all black) and their families, amounting to 1m-2m people. Although around two-thirds of the land has been allocated to 140,000 poor black families, the rest has gone to Mr Mugabes relatives and comrades, most of whom have little or no interest in farming. Vast tracts of fertile farmland now lie fallow; agricultural output has slumped. One of Africas biggest food exporters is now one of its main recipients of food aid.

Of 6,500 white commercial farmers in 1980, when Mr Mugabe came to power, only about 500 remain. But it is clear from the treatment meted out to Messrs Campbell and Freeth that Mr Mugabe wants the whole lot out. In a speech on September 11th, on the eve of the European Unions first high-level visit to Zimbabwe in seven years, he called on his ruling Zanu(PF) partys youth wing to protect their God-given land from the designs of new white imperialists and told the former commercial farmers to abandon their uneven struggle. Once the government had issued an offer letter, supposedly giving the recipient the right to take over a designated white farm, thats it, he said. The farm is not yours any more. Please dont resist.

For Mike Campbell and Ben Freeth, their own saga began in 2004 when Nathan Shamuyarira, then Mr Mugabes information minister, turned up one Sunday at lunch time at their 1,200-hectare Mount Carmel Farm in Chegutu, a couple of hours drive south-west of the capital, Harare. He announced he had been given the right to take over what was then Zimbabwes biggest mango farm. Mr Freeth insisted that the minister first go through the correct legal procedures.

It was a bold, perhaps foolhardy, reaction. Thirteen white farmers had by then been murdered and dozens more beaten up or jailed for resisting the seizure of their farms. Though no one in the Campbell-Freeth families has been killed, they and their 150 workers have, over the past five years, been subjected to repeated harassment and terrifying intimidation.

On one occasion, 15 armed invaders, banging on metal objects and chanting war songs, forced their way into Mr Freeths house, threatening to burn it to the ground, kill the two men present, rape the women and eat the three children asleep in their beds. Thanks to an earlier beating, Mr Freeth, an emaciated, soft-spoken man of 40, has never recovered his sense of smell. Mr Campbell, 76, was so badly thrashed that his memory is impaired.

The invaders, who say they are acting on behalf of Mr Shamuyarira, though he has not been seen at the farm since his first visit five years ago, have taken the Campbells home and their entire farm, leaving most of the crops to rot in the fields. Like many of the other remaining white farmers, Mr Freeth has turned to God. He has already started rebuilding his house. He says he is determined to stay.

Last November, in a case brought by Mr Campbell on behalf of 77 other white farmers, a tribunal of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a 15-member regional group that includes Zimbabwe, ruled that all land seizures since 2000 were discriminatory and violated both domestic and SADC treaty law. Mr Mugabe and his ZANU(PF) ministers claim that the tribunal has no legal standing. In a further violation of the tribunals ruling, around 170 white farmers are now being prosecuted in Zimbabwes courts for refusing to leave their land.

In June the tribunal held Zimbabwe to be in contempt of court for failing to enforce its earlier ruling and asked SADC to take up the matter urgently. But at the groups summit earlier this month, no mention was made of this or any of the other matters bedevilling Mr Mugabes seven-month-old power-sharing arrangement with Mr Tsvangirai. It was a stunning victory for the 85-year-old president.

Mr Tsvangirai is in a quandary. In a speech this week, he promised to stand by the farmers. Yet he has blown hot and cold on the issue since he became prime minister. At first he said that not a single crime against white farmers would go unpunished, though no prosecutions have ever been brought. He has also claimed that the issue has been blown out of proportion by the press. In any event, Western donors have so far been firm. Unless farm invasions stopand the likes of Messrs Campbell and Freeth are treated fairlydevelopment aid will not resume.

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