LUKE Thembani (pictured), a pioneering black commercial farmer who lost his thriving farm in 2004 after failing to service a bank loan, part of which he channelled towards financing community projects, now leads a penurious lifestyle, but still exudes the entrepreneurial spirit that propelled him into the hall of fame of successful indigenous farmers.
Though it is commonly said no one has ever become poor by giving, Thembani’s unyielding generosity to the people of Nyazura, for whom he built a clinic, school and church, left him drowning in debt, resulting in Agribank swooping in on his vast agricultural empire. Reclining on a couch in the lobby of a hotel in Harare, Thembani, now 82, chronicled to the Zimbabwe Independent how his 1 250-hectare Minverwag Farm at Clare Estate Ranch in Nyazura was auctioned by Agribank over an unsettled debt.
The elderly farmer bought the farm in 1983 from a neighbouring white farmer he could only identify as Muller.In near-sobs and a hushed voice, Thembani broke the silence. “I am broke now. I do not know how I can pick myself up. I am stuck. I need help so that I can start all over again. I want to go back to my farm,” he said.
This is not the first time Thembani’s story is being told. In 2009, in a desperate bid to save his farm from going under the hammer, Thembani lodged his case with the now disbanded Sadc tribunal. Though the defunct regional court ruled in his favour, government refused to uphold the tribunal’s ruling, subsequently paving way for his eviction, 26 years after he had turned the farm into a model commercial entity.
Prior to that, the High Court had also ruled in his favour, only for the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling.Reminiscing about his near-three-decade stay on the farm, Thembani poignantly chronicled how he transformed the property into a profitable business enterprise which boasted 352 head of cattle, a flock of 90 ostriches and a thriving piggery project at its peak. He had also installed a high-end irrigation system, which watered his tobacco and maize fields.
Gazing blankly into the ceiling, and with a glint in his eye, Thembani narrated his story.“My farm was taken under unclear circumstances in 2004. Up to now, there is no one working. The farm is now idle. The person who bought my farm at the Agribank auction has 18 other farms,” Thembani said, struggling to hold back tears.
“At the height of my operations, I had ostriches, cattle and 16 pigsty units. When they took over my farm, they let loose the birds into the bushes after cutting the fence. I built houses for my 38 workers, a school for the community. I built drying halls and dams. But they destroyed everything. When they took away the farm, they also took a safe deposit box with US$3 000 from grain sales. They left me with nothing.”
Part of the loan from Agribank, which he failed to service, was channelled towards building a clinic for the farm community.As Agribank moved in to auction the farm, Thembani engaged the then president Robert Mugabe, but this came to nought.
“Once, over lunch, I invited Mugabe to see the work I was doing at the farm before it was taken over. All he said was that he was going to look into the matter. I went to State House; the security people there could not let me see him. I tried to see him until he died,” Thembani narrated his ordeal.
Before spirited efforts to see Mugabe, Thembani had also sought audience with the late vice-president Simon Muzenda, who gave him temporary relief after instructing Agribank to call off the auction. But after Muzenda’s death in 2003, Thembani’s troubles resurfaced with a vengeance, when Agribank launched a fresh onslaught to seize the farm.
“I visited Oppah Muchinguri, then Manicaland governor, who referred me to vice-president Muzenda. In my presence, Muzenda made a phone call to Agribank and instructed them to stop the farm auction,” he said.
“In fact, I remember Muzenda saying to me, isn’t you heard that for yourself? Now you can go back to the farm. Unfortunately, when he died they took over the farm. I did everything to save the farm.”
In 2004, after numerous trips to Munhumutapa Building, which houses the Office of the President, Thembani said the authorities offered him what they said was a “sweet deal”.
“One day after my visit to Munhumutapa, I was given an offer to expel a neighbouring white farmer but I refused. I just could not do it. It did not make sense,” he said, shaking his head.
His efforts to see President Emmerson Mnangagwa were also spurned.Thembani said: “I tried to see President Mnangagwa, but he has not been available. His security people told me that he was too busy to see me.”
Thembani recollected his philanthropic deeds to the villagers of Nyazura before the collapse of his farming empire.“I used to employ 38 people; I built decent housing for them. I was paying them well. If government workers had raised the wages of farmers by a dollar, I would double it.
“In 1986, using my own funds, I built a school for the children of farm workers. It was at that time that government then deployed eight teachers to the school where the children were getting free education. My approach was simple, they were just supposed to attend church (which he also built) in exchange for free education,” Thembani said, before bursting into nostalgic laughter for the first time since the conversation began.
The laughter ebbed, and the glowing smile faded, after the Independent asked him to describe the emotions he felt after visiting what was once his farm.“I was last on the farm in 2019; they are busy cutting down all my trees. The people (villagers) there want me to come back,” he said. “They say I must come back.”
“All I want is another chance to go back to my farm so that I can show our farmers how it is done,” he pointed out.
Thembani ends the interview with advice for Mnangagwa, on how to salvage Zimbabwe’s once-famed status as the breadbasket of the region.“Why must we be importing food when we are in a position to be exporting tobacco and beef? There are some greedy elements benefitting from the programme (Command Agriculture) at the expense of poor farmers. My suggestion is that Command Agriculture must avail tractors to each village through the District Development Fund (DDF) under the strict supervision of experts.”