Mnangagwa guarantees that the few hundred white farmers in Zimbabwe can continue to operate without fear because they are white. Picture: Howard Burditt/REUTERS

One recently evicted, elderly white farmer in eastern Zimbabwe was told by a cabinet minister and a provincial governor this week that he and his family can return to his land, while another, in a different part of the country who had somehow survived since invasions began in 2000, celebrated a few days ago when a bunch of “squatters” were moved off, by government officials.

So has new president Emmerson Mnangagwa changed Zimbabwe’s extraordinary land story? No, not really. But it will be easier.

IN Mnangagwa’s own words, the Fast Track Land Reform programme which began in 2000, is “irriversible.” That is what he said at his inauguration, and there is a background to this as Mnangagwa has protected a few white farmers, some of them dairymen, in his own constituency in central Zimbabwe for more then 17 years.

He also talked about compensation for white farmers, but more of that later.

Unlike former president Robert Mugabe, he is not obsessed by race. One of his closest friends, who died 18 months ago, was a white Zimbabwean.

He is not going to reverse  land reform even though it was a mortal blow to an economy so dependent on tobacco, grown mainly by white farmers, and which for years brought in more than 40 percent of Zimbabwe’s foreign currency

The statistics tell the story of why the land deal will not be undone.

But first, why did it happen in the way it did?

Land resettlement began two years after 1980 independence. It was haphazard. Much  land for resettlement was on white-owned farms abandoned during the liberation war, far from heavily populated communal areas, and infrastructure, such as clinics, schools, family etc.

The British paid for half of the land bought from white farmers or from their estates,  for resettlement in the willing-seller willing-buyer agreement which the constitution dictated would last until 1990.

People who volunteered to be resettled were often dumped via a track carved into remote parts of the country with a bag of mealie seeds and some fertiliser. They had to quickly build a house, feed themselves, plough, plant etc….So many abandoned that land and returned to the communal areas.

About 70 000 families did remain in some areas which were closer to infrastrucure and did create  productive small farms which survive to this day.

So land resettlement stalled in about 1987, and never really got going again, under this model.

The department of agriculture said at that time it realised in future it must buy land closer to communal areas for resettlement. But that didn’t happen.

Some middle class blacks were allocated state land for which they paid tiny rentals and had to invest in the land – as happened for years for whites, but the main thrust of resettlement for the poorest in the population stalled.

The British stopped supplying money to help buy land for resettlement claiming corruption, that poor people were ignored for resettlement.

And the economy began to deteriorate with Zimbabwe’s entrance into the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the unbudgeted pay out in 1997 of cash paid to thousands of veterans of the war.

As the economy contracted,  the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC emerged and was hugely popular in urban areas. Zanu PF was in trouble.

Mugabe suffered his first political defeat at a referendum early 2000, and war veterans, and others were agitating for land as poverty increased. So the war veterans launched ferocious land invasions.

But not even Mugabe believed they would be so comprehensive.  Within four years Zanu PF supporters took about seven million hectares and forced about 4000 white farmers off their land. Judges were forced out of their offices and the law was changed to make this land grab legal.

So the statistics –  and the Zanu PF adminsitration’s stats on land were carelessly kept and have not been audited – seem to be  that about 20 000 families were resettled on larger pieces of land and were intended to be the new “commercial” farmers.

About 200 000 poorer families were allowed onto small pieces of land.  There seem to be no statistics about the number of farm workers who remained on the white-owned farms since 2000.

But anecdotal information indicates that may be 200 000 families – or two thirds of those who worked previously for white farmers, are still on those farms, most of which have been divided up into much smaller pieces.

These statistics mean more then two million people are now living on the formerly white-owned land in a population of about 14,5 – 15 m.

It’s not all chaos out there in the resettlement areas either.

Scores of those given the larger pieces of land – such as Zanu PF cabinet ministers, senior civil servants, etc. – secretly rent out parts of the land they got from the invasions, to some white farmers who are happy to be able to continue to grow tobacco. Mugabe regularly slagged of his comrades in Zanu PF who rented out their land to whites. Mnangagwa is expected to ignore this. He paid for the land he took and reports say he is a competent farmer.

About 200 white farmers survived, on very small parts of their original land holdings from the start of the land grab. They continue, But their lives are very different now and some live in town and commute to the farms.  Vast tracts of land in the cropping provinces taken from whites is unused, fallow, and the infrastructure is destroyed including much of the wildlife.

But for tens of thousands of families the land grab changed their lives.

In 2004 there were 4 500 highly trained black tobacco farmers. Now there are about 70 000 small-scale black tobacco farmers, who use their families to produce the crop, and who nevertheless make a better living thenbefore. And they have homes, communities  and will never, ever leave to make way for any whites who might dream of returning to their homes.

The downside of this is so few can afford to buy coal to cure the tobacco, so Zimbabwe’s trees are disappearing at a frightening rate.

Many other crops have disappeared since the land grab :  fruit, coffee, flowers, nut trees, avocados, olives, export quality beef, etc.

Zimbabwe mainly produces maize, tobacco, some cotton. With good rains, Zimbabwe, which never needed food aid before  land invasions, produced enough to feed itself last season for the first time in 15 years.

And so to compensation which Mnangagwa said at his inauguration must be paid “according to the law.”  Many were surprised when they heard him say this, but it was part of Zimbabwe law long before land invasions.

The British, the original “invaders”  must, according to Zimbabwe’s constitution,  pay the modest amount for land taken from whites during the invasions. Officially the British deny they owe anything for the land.

The big number in the compensation deal is for ‘improvements’ to the land, such as capital investments, dams, irrigation, homes, tobacco barns, sheds, fencing etc, must be paid for by the government of Zimbabwe which cannot afford to pay its electricity bill to Eskom let alone find a vast amount of about US$12 bn cash to compensate white farmers.

But with Mugabe gone, many hope Zimbabwe can re engage the international community to raise loans to pay evicted white farmers at least some of what they have claimed in their valuations.

So the hope among them – the majority of the 4000 who were evicted – is that Mnangagwa will re engage with the international community and raise loans to legally conclude Zimbabwe’s land revolution, while guaranteeing that the few hundred white farmers who remain can continue to operate without fear because they are white.

Independent Foreign Service