Kevin Gifford, a former Zimbabwean farmer, on the field in Mozambique where he is now farming. (Photograph: Ezequiel Scagnetti / Photoshelter)

Michael Carter and his family used to run a successful farm in Marondera, 72km east of Harare, Zimbabwe. It had been an established Zimbabwean enterprise, complete with a primary school with an enrolment of 300 pupils. At the time the farm employed 150.

He was shocked to find that President Robert Mugabe’s government evicted him from the property in 2002. Fifty-two families engaged in subsistence farming subsequently replaced him, reducing the former thriving commercial enterprise into a village.

Carter left the farm with effectively nothing and like about 4 000 other white former farmers who have been forced off their land since 2000, he has not been compensated for the land he left behind. “We have not received anything by way of compensation,” he recently said in an interview. “Many of us are now living in poverty. To calculate the compensation, we require an international assessment of our losses including improvements, land, loss of income and trauma.”

Legal stance

President Mugabe’s government forcibly acquired an estimated 11 million hectares of formerly white-owned farmland over the past 17 years and parcelled it out to roughly 380 000 local African residents. In terms of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, the government is bound to pay compensation only for improvements on the acquired farms, not the land itself.

The constitution delegates the obligation to pay compensation for land to the United Kingdom, Zimbabwe’s former colonial authority. The government only pays full compensation to farmers covered by bilateral investment promotion and protection agreements.

Section 295 of the Constitution reads: “(1) Any indigenous Zimbabwean whose agricultural land was acquired by the state … is entitled to compensation from the state for the land and any improvements that were made on the land when it was acquired. (2) Any person whose agricultural land was acquired by the state … and whose property rights at that time were guaranteed or protected by an agreement concluded by the government of Zimbabwe with the government of another country, is entitled to compensation from the state for the land and any improvements in accordance with that agreement.

(3) Any person, other than a person referred to in subsection (1) or (2), whose agricultural land was acquired by the state … is entitled to compensation from the state only for improvements that were on the land when it was acquired. (4) Compensation payable under subsections (1), (2) and (3) must be assessed and paid in terms of an act of parliament.”

Partial compensation

However, the government is still struggling to pay even the partial compensation. In September 2016, finance minister, Patrick Chinamasa, announced that the government had paid US$42,7 million (R640 million) to 43 farmers since 2000. A report presented to parliament on 26 January 2017 states the government paid full compensation to twelve ex-farmers last year, but fails to indicate the amount. This suggests that merely 55 farmers have been compensated over the past 17 years.

A 2016 document by a prominent Harare-based law firm, Kanokanga & Partners, puts the full compensation bill at US$8,6 billion (about R129 billion) and for on-farm improvements at US$2,8 billion (R42 billion) – an impossible sum of money for a government struggling to contain an economic crisis largely triggered by the land grab. Foreign direct investment has dried up and European and American donors have halted support, although some resumed assistance around 2009 when President Mugabe formed a unity government with the opposition.

In a bid to create capacity to pay ex-farmers, the government imposed a land tax on the new-entrant farmers in November 2015. Those who were allocated commercial farms pay US$3/ha (R45) in addition to US$2 (R30) development levy annually. Those who were resettled under the villagised model are paying US$10 (R150) and a US$5 (R75) development levy per annum. The government hereby hopes to collect US$20 million (R300 million) annually, to be spent not only on paying compensation to former landowners but also on improving roads and infrastructure in newly resettled areas.

Growing discontent

Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union (ZCFU) president, Peter Steyl, was evicted from his property in Middle Sabi, eastern Manicaland Province. Like Carter, he has not been compensated. “It was announced that last year they paid twelve farmers out of 3 500. If they have indeed paid only those, they have a long way to go.” His union wants the valuation of the acquired properties to be carried out by an independent entity, not by the government alone.

This should ensure fairer compensation, since essentially all ZCFU members paid thus far have been paid at “discounted values, far lower than what they should have earned if valuations had been conducted jointly or by an independent body. To the best of our knowledge, government is paying 15–20 US cents (R2,25 – R3) for every dollar that a farmer ought to receive. If you are lucky, you can get 25 cents (R3,75),” Steyl says.

Many of the ex-growers are now old and living in poverty, says Carter. Only a few are as fortunate as him: He is now an opposition senator. He routinely brings up the land issue for discussion in parliament, as he did in February this year. “About a thousand ex-farmers are living poverty-stricken in the towns around Zimbabwe,” he says. “They have not been paid for their farms and are not allowed to farm because they are white. They are now second-class citizens.”

Kerry Kay, who farmed in Marondera, said those who took compensation did so because they were old, desperate or destitute. “They accepted 15% of the real value of their farms. We are not bitter, we just want to get compensation and move on,” she says.

Having bought a farm in Manicaland Province in 1964, Brian van Buuren turned it into a successful tobacco farming entity and later diversified into banana farming. Over the years, he had invested in irrigation, infrastructure and machinery – all of which were seized in 2010. “They took all my equipment and I only recovered two vehicles and some furniture,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in October 2016. I had very few savings, as I had invested all the money in the farm. We are now struggling to survive.” According to Van Buuren, all twelve white farmers in the Burma Valley area lost their land in the reform programme.

Foreign court involvement

The late Mike Campbell is pictured here with Ben Freeth and their farmworkers at the time. They had taken on the legal battle to remain on their land, but sadly lost the court case. (Photograph: NewZimbabwe.com)

Some have been fighting for compensation in foreign courts, securing victories which have, however, proved only academic, as President Mugabe’s government has refused to recognise them. One of the most prominent cases involved the late Mike Campbell, who led a group of 78 other dispossessed farmers to the Southern African Development Community Tribunal and won their case in November 2008. They victory was registered at the North Gauteng High Court in South Africa for enforcement, resulting in a Zimbabwean government-owned house in Cape Town being attached. The property was auctioned off and proceeds were to be used to pay symbolic compensation to the farmers, but ended up covering legal costs.

In June 2015, a United States court awarded a US$25 million (R375 million) compensation claim to 40 Dutch farmers whose farms were seized. The court ruled that the Zimbabwean government breached a bilateral investment treaty between that country and the Netherlands.

Kanokanga & Partners suggests three possible revenue streams to be used to raise funds for payment of the former producers – a compensation fund from taxes on new farmers, selling the land to beneficiaries and floatation of bonds. – Ian Nkala


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