Grace Mugabe proves African land is still a shifting sand

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe (L) addresses party members and officials gathered at his party headquarters to show support to Grace Mugabe (R) becoming the party's next Vice President after the dismissal of Emerson Mnangagwa November 8 2017. Zimbabwe's sacked vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, said on November 8, 2017, he had fled the country, as he issued a direct challenge to long-ruling President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace. / AFP PHOTO / Jekesai NJIKIZANA
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A farmhouse on an African plain, shaded by baobab trees surrounded by vast acres of bountiful earth; the European vision of what it means to own land on this vast continent is being challenged as never before.

By Gavin Du Venage

Earlier this year the author Kuki Gallmann, whose book I dreamed of Africa became a best seller and a movie, was forced to flee her Kenyan ranch after cattle herders opened fire on her homestead, leaving the 73-year-old severely wounded.

Gallmann survived and global conservationists rallied around, lauding her work in preserving vast tracts of Kenyan land for wildlife. Her attackers were branded criminals.

For Kenya’s cattle pastoralists, however, the incursion of farmers and modern agriculture has been a disaster. After millennia of living off the land, moving their herds with the rains and grass, unconfined by borders or fences – today, pastoralist is a dirty word in Kenya and the dwindling bands of tribesmen face almost certain extinction as land is sectioned off for game ranches and farms.

Lack of legal tenure leaves Africans across the continent exceptionally vulnerable. Earlier this year Grace Mugabe, the wife of now ex-president of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe, ordered people living around the Mazowe dam north of the capital Harare to leave. Local tribes were forced at gunpoint to vacate land they had lived on for centuries.


Mrs Mugabe had built up a sizeable collection of profitable farms and wanted to expand them to encompass the dam. Following the collapse of the Mugabe regime, reports are filtering out that the family owned at least 14 farms seized from white farmers in the preceding decades.

If the Mugabe era proved anything, it is that legal land tenure provides no guarantees. Among the holdings the Mugabes personally grabbed was that of Interfresh, a large commerical citrus producer.

The estate soon fell derelict, so the Mugabe’s quietly contracted former owners to return and essentially run the property on their behalf. Interfresh is once again a fully functioning citrus producer, using up-to-date mechanised farming techniques.

A court challenge to the Mugabe’s in 2013 determined the property was worth around US$27 million.

What will become of Interfresh and other Mugabe estates, and those of their closest allies now scattered around the world in exile, is as yet unclear.

Meanwhile, in a much more sympathetic manner, Arabian Gulf states are slowly gathering land in countries such as Sudan, Ethiopia and Tanzania. The intention is to turn the lush African soil into farmland to help provide countries such as the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia with long-term food security.

These farms will also contribute to food security in the countries in which they are located. Modern scientifically operated commercial farms are less vulnerable to drought and other the hazards that produce famine.

However, just as the fading generation of colonial-era farmers has learned, local sensitivities to land use by outsiders is an ever-present complication that needs to be managed with sensitivity. – The National