‘Zimbabwe is in the past’ – a farmer moves south

Being uprooted from your birth country, where you and your parents have been making a living for all their lives, is a traumatic experience. Peter Stuart and his family, who were evicted from their land in Zimbabwe, managed to survive this ordeal and come out stronger at the other end. Peter talks to Glenneis Erasmus about the journey from Zimbabwe to South Africa and the valuable lessons he has learned.
Issue Date 4 May 2007

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Being uprooted from your birth country, where you and your parents have been making a living for all their lives, is a traumatic experience. Peter Stuart and his family, who were evicted from their land in Zimbabwe, managed to survive this ordeal and come out stronger at the other end. Peter talks to Glenneis Erasmus about the journey from Zimbabwe to South Africa and the valuable lessons he has learned.

Peter Stuart and his family were evicted from their farm Bellavista in the Mvurwi region of Zimbabwe, around 80km north of Harare, in August 2002. The farm was 900ha in extent with 200ha of arable land. An additional 1 800ha farm was leased, of which 600ha was arable. On these two farms, Peter produced tobacco, soft citrus, grass seed, essential oils, cattle and maize – the source of his family’s livelihood. I n retrospect Peter feels that it might have been better if the family left earlier before the evictions started, as they might have been able to sell the farm or retain more of their belongings. Even so, the family still feels that it was caught off guard, as it never expected land redistribution to take such an “illogical” turn. “Commercial farmers were aware that land redistribution had to, and was going to take place. But we thought the process would be implemented so as to cause minimal disruption to the economy, as agriculture is the lifeblood of the Zimbabwean economy. We sincerely thought government would rather transfer unproductive lands or land that belonged to foreigners than take our land away,” he explains. T he commercial farmers in Mvurwi initiated a green belt project in 1997 in an effort to enhance the sustainability of communal farmers in the region. Commercial farmers provided training, skills development and assistance to communal farmers through a mentoring programme, and they hoped this would help to stabilise the land redistribution process and relationships between communal and commercial farmers in the region. he programme definitely did help to create a positive relationship characterised by mutual respect between the Stuarts and communal farmers, and allowed the Stuarts to negotiate the removal of some of their valuables and to leave the country without being physically threatened or harmed. It appeared that government gave instructions to make life as difficult as possible for people who did not want to participate in the process. Hence it was mostly people who resisted that were harassed. O ne would imagine that the family would be quite bitter about losing the land on which they were born and where they worked all their lives. Quite the opposite is true. Peter admits that it was hard to move on, but he and his family have now done so, and they have learned some valuable lessons. “Zimbabwe is in the past. It is out of our control, there is nothing we can do to get our old lives back.
“Instead of brooding over the past, we have made a decision to go on with our lives and to grab each opportunity that life throws our way,” Peter says. He adds that what happened to white commercial farmers in Zimbabwe is not unique: “It has happened to many other populations over the years – the blacks in South Africa during apartheid, the Jews during the Second World War, the list goes on and on. Sometimes the persecutions have religious overtones and sometimes it is politically or racially motivated. The point is that it will continue to happen due to the cyclic nature of things.” Peter hopes that the situation in Zimbabwe will stabilise and that evicted farmers will one day be compensated for their land – as has been done in many other countries where people were also evicted or suppressed. He is still holding on to his papers to prove ownership of his farm in Zimbabwe. At the moment, however, Zimbabwe is sadly to him like a family member with a terminal illness. Immigration laws restricted the Stuarts’ choice as to where they wanted to resettle to Australia, New Zealand, the UK, South America and South Africa. South Africa won in the end, and the family moved to Maremmana – a farm situated in the hidden valley of the Overberg in the Western Cape. Two factors dominated this decision: Peter first of all had to consider his family’s wellbeing. The Stuarts have four children, Kate, Andrew, Georgina and Robert – Robert, the youngest, was only six years old when they left Zimbabwe. “We needed to move to a country that caused as little disruption as possible to our and our children’s lives. Language, culture and support networks, in other words whether we have family or friends in the country, all affected the decision,” Peter explains. Second, he learned valuable lessons from his experiences in Zimbabwe, and decided that it would be better for him and his family to settle in a similar type of business and political environment. Today he feels he is in a healthier position to address threats similar to the ones he had to face in Zimbabwe. Moving to another continent would mean that he would have to build a whole new reference system for making decisions based on this new country’s business, political, cultural and social systems. Another factor that affected the decision was the Stuart’s valuable polo ponies. Nobody in Zimbabwe could take the ponies, and Peter knew that starvation would be their only fate if they were left behind. The options were either to shoot the animals or to send them to another country. “It is already quite disruptive to leave the country where you have stayed all your life. Things would have been even more disturbing if we had to put the ponies down,” Peter explains. The move – along with the ponies – was accompanied with the resolve to take a more global approach to life. “I decided that I had to position myself to become more marketable globally. This meant that I had to extend my boundaries in terms of the way in which I did business and with whom I did business. Generating a global network of connections was therefore high on my priority list,” Peter says. He adds that many farmers in Africa are insular in their approach to farming and business. Hence they are totally lost if they lose their farms. Peter wants to place himself in a position where he is no longer dependent on the land for his living, but where his skills as a farmer and businessman are in demand across the world. This resolution materialised in Peter’s involvement with Fynsa, a fynbos flower exporting company situated just outside Gansbaai, of which Peter is now the managing director. Indigenous flowers are harvested in an environmentally sustainable method endorsed by Cape Nature Conservation. The company is part of the Shell Foundation Programme, which promotes relationships between small businesses in developing countries and large retailers. Peter hopes that the and skills he is building through Shell and Fynsa will open doors for him to the rest of the world. He believes that working well in the African context proves a person’s ability to make it in almost any country. Maremmana, the Stuart’s farm in the Overberg, was quite neglected when they took it over. Peter is now in the process of restoring the farm and developing 2ha of the 54ha of Maremmana into residential plots of around 400m2. This development will make him less dependent on the agricultural industry. The layout of the property is in line with the natural landscape and topography of the farm, with stables and paddocks developed on fallow farmland, and the residential area on the more private eastern part below a private nature reserve. Residents will have access to the horses and Peter is planning to introduce some antelope and grysbok, and to build a trout-fishing dam. Maremmana is about an hour’s drive from Cape Town and only a few kilometres from the coast, rendering it an ideal weekend or holiday home for city dwellers. Peter believes that people in Africa tend to take life for granted. “As white commercial farmers in South Africa or in Zimbabwe, we are not always grateful for the great lifestyles we enjoy, and we expect things to always remain the same. We should become more aware of all the benefits we enjoy, and realise that we might not always enjoy these privileges and these benefits,” Peter says. He adds that many people in Africa tend to see change as something negative that will ultimately result in a tragedy, rather than an opportunity, perhaps even for better things. “Even if things are not better, remember the cyclical nature of life and that there is a time for everything. Also, remember that you have the responsibility to create your own happiness, and that things are what you make of them,” he says. He and his family intend to continue to live by this principle, and to make the most of everything that life offers them. Contact Peter Stuart on (028) 388 0178, e-mail [email protected]. |fw