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Zimbabwe steps up farm evictions

Months after the Zimbabwean government lost challenges to the forced removal of white farmers, two have been jailed for refusing to vacate their properties

Zimbabwean farmer Andreo Malus, left, is pictured in 2000 on his property north of Harare at the start of Robert Mugabe's land grab scheme.
Zimbabwean farmer Andreo Malus, left, is pictured in 2000 on his property north of Harare at the start of Robert Mugabe's land grab scheme.

HARARE // The Zimbabwe government has stepped up forced removals of the few remaining white commercial farmers from their properties. The courts jailed two this month for resisting eviction.

Hester Theron, a 79-year-old widow, was sentenced to three months in jail for refusing to vacate Friedenthal Farm, a family property in Beatrice, 80km south of here. It had been her home since 1957. The sentence was suspended for five years on condition she leaves the dairy and beef-producing farm by December 8. She is appealing against both the conviction and sentence. Further south, in sugar-cane growing Chiredzi, another farmer, Digby Shawn Nesbitt, was ordered to serve 10 days in prison or pay a fine of US$200 (Dh734) after he was convicted of resisting eviction from his crocodile farm. He now has to find somewhere to put his 8,000 crocodiles by February 15.

Many more farmers are known to be leaving their properties silently across the country as pressure mounts on them. "There was nothing, nothing in the farm," a tearful Mrs Theron told journalists after the verdict. "We bought it from scratch. Some days we hardly had food to eat. We had seven children and the Lord looked after us and we worked the farm up to what it is today. I was born here. So this is my country where I want to live."

Robert Mugabe, the president, launched the controversial land acquisition and redistribution scheme in 2000. Justice for Agriculture (Jag), a radical organisation of dispossessed farmers, estimates 4,250 white farmers have been evicted from their properties, which have been subdivided and allocated to 300,000 formerly landless blacks. Mr Mugabe says whites acquired land by military conquest during the country's 100 years under British colonialism.

The Commercial Farmers Union (CFU), a representative body for white farmers, said this month that 150 of its members are being prosecuted under the Gazetted Land (Consequential Provisions) Act, which makes it illegal for a landowner to refuse to vacate land set aside by the government for resettlement. John Worsley-Worswick, the head of Jag, said: "It's unfortunate because the evictions are intensifying at an important time of the year, especially for those who have been preparing to plant maize. Both legal and illegal evictions are going on. Farmers are also being prosecuted."

Mr Worsley-Worswick, whose farm in Darwendale, a prime farming area 70km west of the capital, was seized in 2002, said 250 white farmers remain on their properties, out of 4,500 before 2000. The CFU president, Deon Theron, the son of Hester Theron, warned that the sustained evictions would further adversely affect farm production, and by extension, Zimbabwe's agro-based economy. "It is difficult to see your mother being treated like a criminal when she and my late father bought the place in 1957 when there was nothing on it, and for years they struggled," he told a press conference recently.

The fresh removals come three months after the government withdrew from the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) tribunal, which was handling farmers' challenges on Mr Mugabe's land policy. It handed down two judgments that said the acquisition of land and resulting evictions were illegal and must be stopped. The government ignored both rulings. It says the 17-year-old tribunal has no legal force because the protocol that established it had been ratified by only five Sadc members, less than two-thirds of the 14-member regional bloc. Zimbabwe had not ratified it.

"There is no legal recourse in Zimbabwe because in 2005 there was a constitutional amendment that says courts don't have jurisdiction over land issues," said Tafadzwa Mugabe, programmes manager of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. Mr Mugabe argued that Zimbabwe cannot withdraw, saying "the wording of the protocol is such that it does not make it mandatory on the need for it to be ratified by two-thirds of Sadc members to be effective." But Patrick Chinamasa, the justice minister, vowed that the evictions would continue.