When the Mugabe Government decided to remove the great majority of white commercial farmers from the land they occupied, they held the mistaken belief that by simply replacing them with new owners, that production would continue.
After all, what was so complicated about farming? We all grew up in rural areas? The consequences were catastrophic – output declined by over 70 per cent and Zimbabwe found itself importing everything. On top of that, all agricultural products were more expensive.
And the astonishing thing was that the small scale sector, unaffected by the evictions, were just as badly affected, their output by 2010 was down even more than 70 per cent. In my view this demonstrated the symbiotic relationship between the large scale and small scale farmers. It also reflected the overall deterioration in the economic environment within which farmers had to operate.
Firstly, let’s examine the makeup of the commercial farming community in 1997, just before the forced evictions were initiated. By 1997 the number of large scale white commercial farmers had declined from 6 000 at independence to about 4 800. The rest were now black commercial farmers operating on land they had purchased or had been changed for small scale farmers settled on some 3 800 000 hectares of land purchased by the British Government. What is often overlooked is that there were some 23 000 medium-scale black commercial farmers settled on what had been known as Purchase Areas, in the 60’s. What is also not recognised is that these farmers had the highest average income per capita of any rural farming community.
This community of farmers was the result of 80 years of natural selection. When the early settlers allocated themselves land they all thought they could farm. Most soon discovered it was a tough, unrewarding life and gradually the less able or committed were weeded out and what was left were a cadre of tough, intelligent and experienced farmers who knew Africa well, understood the seasons and the soils and who owned and loved the farms they occupied.
The Purchase area farms were settled with men and women who had been identified in the Communal Areas of the country as “Master Farmers” and once they were allocated 200 or 300 hectares of farming land they rapidly became the most productive on a yield per hectare basis. They sent their children to the best schools and is no coincidence that this small Community produced most of Zimbabwe’s leadership at Independence.
The second element established over the first 80 years of nationhood, albeit under settler government, was the creation of a number of powerful lobby groups like the Tobacco Association, the Farmers Unions and the Natural Resources Board and the Intensive Conservation Area movement. These lobby organisations were well funded and had the capacity to influence, some would say even control, the activities of Government. In turn, this led to the creation of large commercial organisations created to service every need of the farmers – the Farmers’ cooperative, fertilizer companies, marketing Boards, special funds like the Farm Irrigation Fund, the NRB and the conservation groups in every District. The Commercial Banks with their specialist farm lending departments staffed with experienced and committed people. The world-class research stations and organisations, crop breeders responsible for cutting edge developments that made local farmers famous throughout the globe.
The third factor was that the whole system worked as a single entity to give farmers an environment where, if they managed their resources properly and worked hard, they could make a decent living and in the process they created an industry that employed two thirds of all adults, generated half of all exports and 60 per cent of all industrial inputs and outputs. Up to 1997, agriculture was the foundation of the Zimbabwean economy. It supplied a third of world demand for flue-cured tobacco, was the second-largest producer of white maize in the world, the CSC was the largest meat company in Africa while the DMB handled 260 000 tonnes of milk per annum. We were supplying 8 per cent of European horticulture needs and were the largest producer of cut flowers in Africa. We were almost completely self-sufficient in all foods and farm produce for the industry. The second-largest producer of cotton on the continent.
What went wrong? Quite simply we rewound the clock back to the turn of the previous century and started the process of sorting out who were real farmers and who were not. Only this time we tried to do it without the benefit and motivation of freehold title rights. Today we can clearly identify who failed to make good use of the resources we put at their disposal – thousands of farms are abandoned and derelict. The farms that are thriving are few and far between and you can drive from one end of the country to the other without seeing any activity along the roads. Slowly a new cadre of farmers is appearing and starting to produce successfully, but it takes time and this time there are no Bank managers to take over failed farms and put them up for sale to new owners who will try and make a success of the enterprise.
Even if you do manage to lay your hands on a property, finance is a problem, there is no CSC Cattle Finance scheme to help you stock your land, there is no Farm Irrigation Fund to help you put a bit of water on your crops when the rains fail, the fertilizer companies with their soil testing and advisory services are long gone. Buying equipment on lease to buy schemes, are no longer available. Often when you are in production you cannot get the essential inputs on time – fertilizers, crop chemicals, seed, fuel, electrical energy or even labour. When you have produced a crop, the people with responsibility for buying the product often have no money and the prices paid often bear little relation to the cost of production. You have no means of raising your plight with anyone because the farmers Unions are a shadow of what they once were.
Fixing this mess is not going to be easy. We have to start by finishing what we started by paying for the assets we took over from the previous generation of farmers. That is not going to be cheap – most accept today that we have to pay for the land and the fixed assets acquired. This will eventually cost us about US$9 billion. Since the new Government was sworn in last year, the principle has been accepted and we are now in the process of agreeing on the values and then the means.
What we will then have to decide is how to manage the relationship between the individual farmers and the land they occupy and use. There are today over a million farmers occupying 32 million hectares of farmland. The former commercial farms are occupied under a polyglot mixture of land rights – some freehold, some leased and mostly the ubiquitous “offer letter”. Communal farmers still have the security of their traditional rights and the purchase areas are still under the form of title created for them by the pre-Independence Government. It has to be sorted out and whatever we finally decide on it must give the farmers a sense of ownership and security. If it does not, then we will never make real progress.
Then we have to recognise that for the farm industry to work properly and become productive again, we have to ensure that all the factors of production are available and on time. That is simply not the case at the moment. Perhaps one last fundamental – our farmers, small and large, need a voice, they need a voice that can be heard at the highest level in the land and when heard, it must be understood and followed through.