Your pain is my hunger: Reflections of Zimbabwean white farmer

Ben Gilpin
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I give a lift to people on my way home on Harare Drive and very often when I meet somebody, I speak to them in Shona, which I speak reasonably just zvishoma (enough, in Shona).

On one occassion when I was speaking to someone he said to me, “Oh! So you speak Shona…you must be a pastor!” I said, “Kwete, handisi pastor, ndanga ndiri murimi.” (No, I’m not a pastor, I was a farmer.) Then he said, “Oh, your pain is my hunger”.

The reality is we have talked a lot of economic issues here, we have talked of the loss that has occurred to the economy since the necessary to take land reform. I don’t wish to say these steps were not necessary. Clearly, I grew up under privilege and that privilege was not resolved exclusively by transfer of power at Independence. We need to do these things, we need to get it right.

The debate today is, how do we get it right?

We been floundering for too long?. We need to get to the point where our farmers are empowered and accountable. Access to land has come for many, that is democratising the space but with a growing population – we are always hearing (congratulations, on the birth of a new baby) because we have a younger generation coming in. Every time a new farmer is put on the land, we think he will mature and become an old farmer like me but 20 years on we still have new farmers.

I was only on my farm for 23 years which I leased in an environment where the farm had not been taken by Government after the war. Nobody wanted it. I leased it and I made my way: I didn’t have collateral to start with, I was a tenant. I had skills because I was a manager before. I got a stop order. After my stop order I got a five-year lease. On the basis of my five-year lease, once I ran out of money I went to the bank and said, “Help me shamwari, I can’t get through the season”.

On the basis of what they could assess, how much money do you want? How long do you want it for? How will you pay back? Can I trust you? What happens if you don’t pay back? Those were questions that were critical in getting finance. That side of the equation is not really and truly being truly addressed (currently). That’s our big problem.

Our farmers getting the 99-year leases won’t solve the problem of solve the problem of making our farmers accountable to the extent that the Minister (of Agriculture) maintains inordinate control over access…

I listened to my colleague from the Attorney General’s Office and one of the issues that is there – the unwritten law – is that the business or person that acquires land even under a 99 year lease needs to be an indigenous Zimbabweans. Now, I have been weaned from the origins of my colonial ancestors.

I’m a Zimbabwean. There are many others out there. We have a long queue of youngsters keen to restore Zimbabwe to a highly productive state. Their options to get access to land are very limited. If you are left on the farms as some few have been done – 300 odd farmers – getting an offer letter is like snake and ladders (game). You can’t get there easily. It’s dependent on a political process rather than objective criteria. That needs to end. It’s also dependent on rent seekers looking for signatures or money for signatures…we speak regularly about these and one of our issues is to show the stability of those farmers who have hung on. We have farmers out there: the thing that they are most afraid of is, which white vehicle is going to come at lunchtime (…) and say, sir it’s time to move.

We were investors. We invested substantially. I did run a farm until 1987. I invested everything I had. I left most of that behind. That is the case of 60 percent of commercial white farmers. There was an active market. That market is what sustained the industry. There was always failure. How did I get into farming? By buying the tractor from the guy that failed. How did I get into farming? Because the farm came up for lease and when I took it, I took on the risk and the responsibility.

There is something in this land process that says actually we want to defend land reform to the extent that those that benefitted must never lose that land. Sorry, I don’t buy that! The social justice of this means that in 1980 6000 white farmers owned half the land. We move on, we come to 20 years now, those people don’t own the land. The land has been captured by the State effectively but we still read in the newspaper everyday that Mr So-and-so owns this farm; Mr So-and-so owns that farm. Government is taking that farm from Mr So-and-so; why? Because he’s fallen out of favour. That’s not a way to run a business. If a man is capable and competent and productive he must be empowered.

We have 99-year leases waiting to be approved. They are not being approved because the property size is too great but if a man has an ability we don’t want to reduce everybody to a tuckshop seller when we could have big businesses operating side by side…

I was called into the lands committee (I was a rural district councillor) and I was asked why are all your farmers hanging in in here. I said, you only invited white farmers here where are there no black farmers?…Productivity was an issue. We saw land being removed from the market constantly from 1980. Four and half million hectares went out of the commercial sector for resettlement. Towards the end of that process a lot of land didn’t go into resettlement proper it went into the hands of well connected people and out of production.

As every piece is taken out of the market, what happens to what’s left in the market? It goes up in price.
Government then faces a problem that to an extent itself caused by removing land from the market. It made what was left more expensive. It put enabling policies there that encouraged investment. All through the 1990s when there was liberalisation agriculture did quite well. Commercial agriculture really flew! From a farm that was a tobbaco/maize farm in 1980 by 2000 it had multiple enterprises with long term crops developed there; mangoes, orchids – the like; floriculture and all these things thrive on multigenerational engagement on investment that the banks funded.

In 1992 we had a terrible drought. We had difficult seasons. I keep hearing climate change, climate change, climate change. climate change has become an excuse for bad management wemustnt be rushing and asking for irrigation of we can’t manage the water that we get naturally. Our rivers are full of brown soil because we don’t keep the soil compacted and collected by having a decent cover on it. We got a perrenial drought in Matabeleland now and cattle dying because of lack of management because the resources are gone because of a lack of control. We have lost so much. We need to fix these issues and we mustn’t be afraid of what it is and what it takes to be a farmer. Not everyone is a farmer.

The issue of allocation was brought up. For sure, ours was a self-select crisis, if you failed you left. Every newspaper until it came to The Herald with it’s designations, every newspaper always had “Farm for sale” (adverts). That’s how people got in. That’s how (a) Mr Takawira got in. He got in there. Now his ability has been taken away because the value of his title has disappeared. We constantly get visitors in our office from people who had properties in small scale purchase areas. Those places have deeds they

can use and one of the guys says to me, “But I got title deeds, why won’t the bank do this; why won’t the bank give me money on this?” I said, “Because everything else is for free, nothing is for free, how do use something that you got for no price?” If we take land and dress it up as a national resource we still must take accountability and responsibility for its use seriously. Some people can manage in the market, some people can’t.

When we look at the Offer Letters it says, have you got this, have you got that, have you got the other…20 years on people have been saying, give me this, give me that…to the Minister of Finance. It’s a headache! Every time he opens his Budget he is expected to provide money for farmers that have cost me in my pocket. Everyday, the loss of value to our currency over the years has come because of the support to farmers that has not been made accountable.makr our farmers accountable but give those that can do it proper instruments of tenure that they can use.

I have a farm that was initially downsized and then I was allowed an offer letter which I never saw, it was hidde in the process – perhaps if I had money to pay for it I would have got it. It never arrived. I knew it was there because later days in legislation it emerged in the Sadc Tribunal that 62 white farmers had got offer letters. I was one of them: I had never seen it but I knew it was there. I was evicted and prosecuted to get off.

Sixteen years later somebody comes in and is now asking for assistance having done nothing for 20 years. It’s not great that, that indictment when people were approved. They need to be accountable to what they got.

I don’t wish to end up – and I have said this to senior Government officials that, “Beware! There will be another revolution!” You need to be accountable. Those that got land need to be accountable or expect the revolt of people, the younger generation who will say, you got this for nothing and it’s our turn now.

I probably said a lot, maybe not exactly what people expected, but my vision and our vision is to see value our back into the land in a way that farmers that have competence and skills (end up) having an opportunity to develop and use those regardless of their race being Zimbabwean citizens can go ahead go ahead and build a country that is prosperous; that has healing. A place where exclusion is overtaken by a fundamental acceptance of human rights and the right to property. This extends right across the board, it’s not just white people wanting this thing.

A strong and vibrant agriculture sector protected by the rule of law and enabled by good policy.
We have heard how the flip-flopping in policy messes with prices. If you’re a farmer and you’re a real farmer you don’t grow things for a loss and you certainly don’t want to be caught in an environment where the prices you get don’t give you an adequate return and then you end up in the hands of the banker…

We need skilled and productive farmers protected and empowered by a full bundle of rights. We deliver food and prosperity to the nation and it’s time also to look at the possibility of regulated title rather than only a 99 year lease. In Zambia they have a 99 year lease. It’s 15 pages and there is a market and business is booming in agriculture there. Let’s do the same here, we got a good example next door!

*This is an abridged and edited version of a talk Gilpin gave at a seminar at the University of Zimbabwe recently. And this was published here in the Review and Mail.