It has been two months since 41-year-old farmer Mark McKinnon lost a property that he had known to be his home his entire life. He vividly recalled how he was sent into exile in Canada, leaving a 266-hectare flourishing farm and wildlife sanctuary to a family that has not spent a dime on the investment.
By Hazel Ndebele
“We all broke down when we flew over the Zambezi River, headed to a country we had never been and with a suitcase each which was all we managed to take with us,” McKinnon said as he recollected memories of August 30 when he lost a farm in Glen Forest, Harare.
A new wave of farm invasions targeting the few remaining white commercial farmers has hit the country amid concerns that the arbitrary land grabs could scuttle Zimbabwe’s re-engagement efforts with the international community.
Land grabs are likely to intensify after Zanu PF Youth League secretary Kudzanai Chipanga last week at a Norton rally called for a total seizure of all remaining white-owned farms to distribute to party youths.
In some isolated cases, the invasions, which are orchestrated by President Robert Mugabe’s cronies, have also been targeting some locals.
At its peak the Commercial Farmers’ Union (CFU) had a total of 4 350 members and approximately 10% were black.
According to the union, 300 remain today and are operating on downsized portions
The McKinnons had 100 hectares of arable land and they were considered one of the biggest tomato producers into the Harare market, doing 120 hectares through the year.
While the invasions might not be as violent as the 2000 land grabs, many have seen them as evoking memories of the dark past. The desperation, anxiety and sometimes bitterness of those ejected from properties they have known as theirs has remained the same though.
“The eviction was cruel; they threw out all our belongings, smashing furniture and scattering papers and photographs. They chased us away and threatened us such that even after vacating the premises we felt we could still be harmed, if we had resisted they were going to come up with trumped up charges against us,” he said in a telephone interview with the Zimbabwe Independent.
McKinnon said despite the court ruling in their favour to keep the property, constant threats and intimidation forced his family to relocate and seek refuge.
“We had numerous appearances at the courts, Justice David Mangota in the High Court ruled in our favour earlier in August stating that there had been highly irregular and illegal processes occurring at the Magistrates’ Court,” he said.
“We are currently staying with an aunt here in Stouffville, Canada, but we are struggling to cope with the new life here,” McKinnon said.
Zimbabwe-born McKinnon, had his future set-out, taking care of his family well. He educated his children at one of Zimbabwe’s best private schools, but he was robbed of everything in the blink of an eye.
With no prospects of finding employment in their new home, the family has since opened a fundraising account where well-wishers deposit money to help them secure a home and restart their lives in Canada.
“We had never appealed for help in our lives until the eviction. Everything that we owned and worked all our lives for was destroyed and stolen from us.”
The land grabs, which continue unabated, have decimated agricultural output, with large swathes of land lying idle.
The McKinnons have never been strangers to Zanu PF. At some point, the family was accused of illegally having an arms cache and bullet making machine.
However, it turned out that McKinnon’s firearms were registered as he used to represent Zimbabwe in international shooting competitions. He says he would have shot for Zimbabwe at the Rio Olympics had the tragedy of the eviction not befallen the family.
In another twist, war veteran Cynthia Maadza, who took over McKinnon’s farm, made headlines this week after the High Court ruled in her favour in an application she made demanding the army stop interfering with “her farm”.
The army had last week forcibly removed farming equipment which belonged to the McKinnons from the farm. The High Court ordered the army to return the equipment which now belongs to Maadza. The McKinnons accuse Maadza of bribing the sheriff of the court to illegally evict them.
Last month, another farm in Matabeleland South with a successful banana and tomato project was taken over by State Security minister Kembo Mohadi’s wife, Tambudzani.
Owner of the farm George Watson (Jr) confirmed that Mohadi’s wife had taken over his 2 000-hectare property.
“I was away in Chiredzi with my family when they came, they physically pushed my 70-year-old mother aside and entered our house where they made a list of all our property. They instructed that nothing should be removed since everything now belonged to them,” he said.
Mohadi and the invaders did not present an offer letter from the government. Thousands of farmers and their workers have been evicted illegally by bigwigs from their farms without any valid eviction order.
The Mohadis, who own Twin River Ranch, are not new to farm disputes. They lost a court battle to a relative, Given Mbedzi, from whom they tried to wrest Zingwe Island, which is on Lot 9, Plot 1 of the Jompempi Block in Beitbridge.
Apart from a few cattle, there is no other meaningful production at Twin River Ranch, which has a failed citrus project.
The McKinnons and the Watsons were among the few remaining white farmers in Zimbabwe.
According to the 2016 Zimbabwe National Competitiveness Report by the National Economic Consultative Forum (NECF), the agricultural sector, which was formerly the backbone of the country’s economy, now only contributes 12,7% to Gross Domestic Product.
Economist John Robertson said it is time government put an end to the land invasions as it continues to erode investor confidence.
“It is indeed high time for the land invasions to stop but, look, when one remembers they haven’t got a farm yet they just seize one, it is opportunistic behaviour,” he said.
Robertson said land seizures are a huge loss to the country and affects it negatively.
“At those farms, employment was created and tax was contributed but all that is lost when land is grabbed. We have lost many farmers who specialised in cotton, citrus fruit, flowers, soya and many other crops which contributed largely to our economy,” he said.
“Most evicted commercial farmers have since resorted to farming elsewhere in countries like Tanzania and Zambia which now sell maize to us. Those farmers are farming at least seven tonnes per hectare and are contributing to economies of those countries and yet here we are failing to produce just one tonne per hectare.”
CFU agriculture recovery and compensation unit manager Ben Gilpin said: “The CFU is not against the land reform and never have been, in the context of social equity and justice we actually support it, however with regard to production and the national economy, we believe that the way in which the programme has been implemented has caused the country and many of its people great harm.”
“The CFU has for a long time advocated a moratorium on further disruptions. Economic recovery could be facilitated by a more pragmatic approach which deals with the long outstanding matter of compensation and one which strengthens the security of property rights and addresses the concerns of agricultural investors and finance institutions,” said Gilpin.
Gilpin said a week does not go by without news of a farmer undergoing interference in production and the government continues to gazette properties for compulsory acquisition in spite of its having no capacity to pay compensation even for fixed improvements.
“Around 7 000 farms for both white and black people were acquired during the programme, of which around 300 farms were owned by approximately 1 100 black farmers,” he said.