In the early 2000s their farms were forcefully seized. Over 18 years later, Zimbabwe's white farmers are still seeking compensation. Now they are suing South Africa for helping Robert Mugabe suppress their case.
Ben Freeth is one of the farmers who lost everything during the land evictions in the early 2000s. "It was chaos all around and there was tremendous fear in the land. We were abducted and tortured and sadly my father-in-law was very badly beaten in the process and never recovered and later died." He says memories of those brutal events are still fresh in his mind.
Freeth became one of the most prominent activists among Zimbabwe's white farmers. Many at the time were scared to act against the government, he remembers. But he, his family, and a small group of other farmers decided to sue the Zimbabwean government.
When this failed, they turned to the judicial arm of the regional body, Southern African Development Community (SADC). The body's regional court ordered Zimbabwe to return the confiscated lands and other properties back to the farmers. In response, Zimbabwe withdrew from the court and SADC immediately dissolved its judicial arm — a move that was attributed to the influence of former long-time ruler Robert Mugabe.
The Zimbabwean farmers, however, think they still have a chance at making their claims. On behalf of 25 farmers, AfriForum, a South African non-governmental organization, which fights for the rights of the Afrikaans speaking community, has filed a lawsuit requesting compensation at the Pretoria High Court in South Africa.
In December 2018, the South African Constitutional Court ruled that South Africa's participation in dissolving the SADC Tribunal, under former President Jacob Zuma, was unlawful and unconstitutional. Lawyer Willie Spies says this is their basis for demanding compensation from South Africa.
"Although it relates to the grabbing of farms in Zimbabwe, it relates to the further deprivation of the rights of people to access the court in order to enforce their rights," Spies explains.
A handful of white farmers were able to return to their farms. Rob Smart and his son were some of the first
Zimbabwe promises to compensate farmers
In the meantime, Zimbabwe has moved on, past the Mugabe era. Although cash-strapped, the new government under President Emmerson Mnangagwa, has made promises to compensate the farmers. In the current budget, 53 million RTGS dollars have been allocated. (The RTGS dollar is Zimbabwe's new, yet still fluctuating currency. 53 million RTGS dollars is equivalent to $21 million, according to the official government exchange rate, but its real value amounts to less than half of that.)
The allocated amount, which the farmers' representatives have for now accepted, is not enough to compensate all those who lost their land. "The new constitution of Zimbabwe which was approved in 2013 acknowledges the liability for compensation to farmers," explains Zimbabwean economist Vince Musewe.
In the current difficult economic mood in Zimbabwe, not everybody is happy about this, says Musewe. "Black Zimbabweans are angry," says Musewe. "They say why should we compensate people who took land from us in the first place?" That's why the government agreed to compensate for the infrastructure development that was destroyed and taken over, but not the land.
The land, so the argument goes, belongs to the Zimbabwean people, who lost it during colonial times. But the method with which the farms were seized was wrong, says Musewe. "If the transition had been planned, by now a majority of white farms would be black and they would have productive land," he argues. "But because we took it by force that land has been lying fallow."
An election topic in South Africa
The Zimbabwean government's steps toward the white farmers have also been harshly criticized in neighboring South Africa, where land expropriation is one of the major election topics.
"Mnangagwa is selling out," exclaims Julius Malema, leader of the South African Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party. "That country is swimming in a pool of poverty. They can't afford basic things like primary health care, proper education, working infrastructure. They go and give money to people who are not deserving of such money," he told reporters. "It's reversing the gains of the revolution and very soon the people of Zimbabwe will turn on him," Malema said.
In the May 2019 general elections in South Africa, Malema's EFF party is running on a platform calling for land redistribution and expropriation without compensation for white farmers. While many South African politicians argue that the land reform won't have the same violent character of the Zimbabwean farm seizures, the population pressure on land in South Africa is growing. A bill to allow the seizure of land is expected to be passed once the elections are over.
Zimbabwe might also see a second chapter in the land reform. "We've just completed a land audit," says Musewe. And the principle now is one family one farm. So you can no longer own multiple farms and they are even cutting the size of the farm."
As this will produce a large number of small-holder farms, this approach also holds new challenges. "The issue is how you give them capital? And some of them do not use the latest methods and technology to grow stuff, so it becomes really costly for them to grow."