Surviving agriculture in Zimbabwe

Deon Theron, vice president of the Commercial Farmers’ Union (CFU) in Zimbabwe, was in Johannesburg for the recent emergency Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit. Rudi Massyn was there and caught up with him to discuss the neglect of commercial farmers in Zimbabwe.

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Why are you in SA?
I’m here representing the Commercial Farmers’ Union (CFU) to try and elevate the profile of white commercial farmers in Zimbabwe. With the SADC summit happening here, we viewed it as an opportunity to highlight farmers’ frustrations.

Do you feel you have accomplished this?
I have spoken to several news agencies and done a few interviews, but it seems as if the media aren’t really interested in agriculture and are looking for other types of stories. What’s not understood is that if agriculture in Zimbabwe doesn’t recover, Zimbabwe will not recover.

What are your frustrations?
One of our biggest frustrations is that the South African government has given Zimbabwe R300 million worth of aid in fertiliser and other agricultural inputs, but commercial farmers have seen none of it.

How does agriculture function in Zimbabwe?
Grain farmers sell maize to the Grain Marketing Board. Dairy farmers sell to the Dairy Board. The problem is farmers aren’t paid. There are farmers who haven’t been paid for last year’s harvest. Farmers then stop planting that particular crop and production declines further. Another situation farmers face is, for example, last week the army arrived at a maize farm and said they had no food, then proceeded to pick maize and load it onto a truck.

How are commercial farmers earning money and surviving if they are not being paid for produce?
Very few farmers produce only one crop. You have to make your money on other products. I sell to the Dairy Board because I have to. The arrangement is that I get paid weekly even though I haven’t seen a cent in three weeks for milk that has already been sold. So, you also have to sell privately. Unfortunately you can’t sell all your milk privately so you sell as much as you can. The rest you take to the Dairy Board and fight for your money.

Do they pay you in Zim dollars or forex?
It’s been Zimbabwe dollars all along, but for the last two months it’s been forex, US dollars and rand. It’s totally illegal, but you go in and they take you to a back room and pay you.
In what currency do you pay wages?
I’ve been paying in Zimbabwe dollars, but nowadays I also pay in forex. Since dollarisation, many retail outlets have food on their shelves again, but you have to pay in forex. Everything is very expensive and can be up to four times the usual cost or more.

Why does the government still want to take away farmers’ land?
White commercial farmers are seen as enemies of the state. When the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was formed, some farmers openly supported it. Since then white commercial farmers are seen as traitors. If you’re seen as opposition in Zimbabwe, you’re disposable.

Do they want all white commercial farmers to just pack up and leave?
As we speak the land committee is going around to farms. The word on the ground is that they want all white farmers off the land. In the meantime, there’s no production and people are starving. All we’re asking is that they leave us alone. The politics can sort itself out.

How are fresh EU sanctions going to affect farmers?
With farmers most things impact on us in one way or another. Everyone feels if it’s going to bring change it must happen. We will support anything to restore normality and law and order.

Does the problem of standing in queues for days still affect your farming operation?
There are no queues anymore. Nobody wants Zimbabwe dollars. I haven’t used my bank account in four months. We use coupons for trade and diesel. Coupons are used like money.

What do you do if you need parts for vehicles or machinery?
It’s a nightmare, nobody keeps parts. With super-high inflation it’s too expensive to store parts. You either order and wait or import from South Africa.

Do you think the power-sharing agreement will ever work?
I can’t see how. They speak of power sharing, but there’s no unity. Mugabe is a dictator, deciding what happens and when. I’ve never heard of a dictator making deals unless it’s for his own benefit.

Does the CFU support the MDC?
We have no political stance. The problem is government told white commercial farmers to stay out of politics. If you meddle in politics you get hurt and it has happened before.

Are farmers’ lives in danger? Either from labourers or government?
Not from our labourers. The farmer is very safe on his land. What we’re not safe from is government. The land committee just tells you to get off your land and gives it to someone else. Just like that. I used to own three farms. All were paid off. I’ve lost them all. When I say lost, I mean I lost my furniture, paintings on the wall, cattle, house even the beer in the fridge. On my last farm I refused to leave. I then had to appear in court, was found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison. The sentence was suspended for five years.

Whose land do you farm on now?
I’m now on my father’s farm. My mother inherited it when my father passed away. Three quarters of the farm has already been taken away from us. We share the remaining piece of land. I used to produce 4 500â„“ of milk a day, now I only send 200â„“.

To whom are these farms given? Government officials?
Absolutely. The man who took my farm is a big-wig at the Reserve Bank.

How do they dispossess you of your land?
At this stage it’s through the courts.

Is the court process fair?
Well, let me tell you how unfair it really is. I had two magistrates taken off my case. The first had previously taken a farm and couldn’t be objective, so he was thrown out. The second magistrate said to me even before my case started that I had to face the music for my illegal occupation of the land, proving she thought I was guilty before my case had started. She was also thrown out. The third magistrate wouldn’t allow me to present a witness, evidence or a closing argument. She also wouldn’t allow me to reschedule court days. I had to use eight lawyers. One day I even defended myself.

With all this going on, why do you still live there?
First, we don’t want sympathy, it’s our choice to stay. Second, Zimbabwe offers me everything I want except good governance. I don’t want to leave. If I had to emigrate and Zimbabwe came right in 10 years, I would have been better off staying.

Is it worth putting your family’s life in danger?
No, it is not. My wife wanted to leave a year and a half ago. She said she’d rather scrub toilets in another country than live through what we’re experiencing. I told her I wasn’t going to leave, and she could see my determination. I’m going to stick this out. If Zimbabwe comes right, and I believe it will, there are going to be many opportunities.    

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