Apologies for the mega-post today, but what follows is a piece I wrote for News Ltd’s Sunday papers in September. It never ran, perhaps because it did not reinforce our negative stereotypes of Africa. I’d be interested in your views. Personally, I think the media lacks a sense of hope, beyond the maudlin and sentimental. Anyway, people are making money in Zimbabwe and not all of them are black or in Mugabe’s Cabinet. Enjoy!
“I had a farm in Africa,” said “Trevor”, in his best Meryl Streep accent from the movie “Out of Africa”.
He cradled a beer in his lap, dipping a paddle in the water to steer the canoe down this calm, wide stretch of the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe’s north.
“But that was long ago, a lifetime ago,” said Trevor wincing at the memory of those terrifying days and nights in 1998 when war veterans stormed onto his farm, singing revolutionary songs and threatening to kill him and his family.
Four thousand white farmers who controlled 70 per cent of Zimbabwe’s prime agricultural land were dispossessed and many fled the country. It’s estimated that more than 1000 ended up in Australia as refugees or immigrants, landing mainly in Western Australia. However, many of Trevor’s mates are now returning home.
Two former white farmers drifting alongside nod in agreement. They too lost farms in those chaotic days when Zimbabwe’s dictator President Robert Mugabe stood by as war veterans launched the “Third Chimurenga” (independence struggle) seizing white-owned farms across the country.
As the setting sun turned the river to deep blue velvet, the trio spoke of their determination to stay, to forge new lives. They spoke only on the condition of anonymity, still fearing persecution. They made it clear they want no part of politics, just a share in the future.
They have a small interest in Natureways, a company running canoe safaris down the Zambezi around Zimbabwe’s world heritage-listed Mana Pools wilderness area. With tourist numbers down 75 per cent from the mid-1990s, the occupancy rate is just 10 per cent. Guests have the river all to themselves but for the hippos, crocodiles and abundant birdlife. Later, we pull in a canoe-load of Nile perch and bream. Not a single tourist boat passed us in two hours as we lazed about on a sand island, drinking beer and hauling in fish. Over four days, we had this 75 km stretch of one of Africa’s great wild rivers all to ourselves. The turmoil of Zimbabwe’s recent past is not discernible here. It’s a return to unspoilt days for the former colonialists when they thought the sun would never set on the British Empire.
This business is just a hobby, an escape from the grinding difficulty of urban life in this failed state, but it’s an example of how the white farmers have “made a plan” to stay in their homeland.
“Trevor” had gone into hospitality building up a lucrative business in the capital in Harare before selling out to Chinese investors.
“Jannie” moved his family to Australia hoping to work in the mines of Western Australia but found few opportunities without formal trade qualifications. He left his kids in WA in school and university returning home to lease a tobacco farm.
“Malcolm” has now built a successful commodity business. His latest venture was importing salt from nearby Namibia. He had captured about 25 per cent of the market working with indigenous partners. He’s moving on to dairy products now.
“The farms, they’re gone, but we still have roots here. This is where we fit,” said Trevor.
These are the lucky ones. Older white Zimbabweans saw their pensions and lifetime savings rendered worthless by the hyperinflation of recent years. Many are forced to live off money sent home by children abroad. On a previous visit in 2006, I witnessed poor whites begging on suburban streets, an idea unthinkable in a country where previously 500, 000 whites controlled one of the richest, most stable countries in Africa.
Like most former white farmers, the trio said they would seek compensation from the State if their property rights were restored in the future, but for now they planned to keep quiet and work hard. The likelihood of massive legal action is actually inhibiting the restoration of property rights. Taking the farms was easy, giving them back with appropriate compensation could destroy what little economic progress has been made.
It’s my view that many actually don’t deserve their land back. It’s easy in the face of Mugabe’s monstrous corruption to forget that pre-independence Rhodesia operated an apartheid system just as evil and iniquitous as South Africa’s. The former white masters never made proper restitution for the theft of an entire country and the virtual enslavement of its people. Right-thinking whites realise this is true. They accept that the pendulum must swing the other direction for a while longer.
In the meantime, the smart ones are putting aside their bitterness to make lots of money.
With the collapse of the economy, industry had ground to a halt and demand for many basic commodities was now met by imports. Some former white farmers with overseas connections had made fortunes in quick time.
The white population stands at just 16 000, down from 70 000 before the land seizures began in 1997. However, a steady trickle of emigres is now returning, having achieved the safe haven of overseas residency. An estimated 1000 commercial farms are now being run by the former white farmers. Some of Mugabe’s cabinet ministers and cronies have found that taking the farms was easier than running them and have leased them back.
A diamond rush in Zimbabwe’s east has also made the hard slog of farming less attractive to Mugabe’s urban based clique.
In January this year, the Australian Embassy in Harare held an Australia Day function for Australians resident in Zimbabwe. A guest estimated that about 80 per cent of the 100-strong crowd were in fact former white farmers granted residency in Australia who had returned home.
“They were asking the Ambassador what the Australian government was doing to help get their farms back. The Ambassador was rather unsympathetic, suggesting if they were doing it so tough they should get in touch with the International Red Cross who could supply them with food parcels,” said the guest.
This reporter met another returned white Zimbabwean, “Sharon” when visiting the Australian Embassy in Harare to vote in the August Federal election.
Sharon’s family had gained permanent residency in Australia five years ago and had set up home in Perth but she had returned this year to marry a local white farmer who was still on his family farm.
“Australia is great but this will always be home, despite the difficulties and problems,” she said.
“Many people have taken the chance to get their kids out but now they’re leaving them in school or university in places like Australia and South Africa to return home,” she said.
That the whites would quit Australia seems remarkable when Zimbabwe ranked only ahead of Sudan, Somalia and Chad in Foreign Policy magazine’s 2010 Failed States Index. Even war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq ranked higher.
However, for a failed state Zimbabwe is relatively calm and peaceful. Hyperinflation that hit 6.5 quindecillion novemdecillion percent (65 followed by 107 zeros) in December 2008 is now a memory. Inflation for 2010 is forecast at only 5.1 per cent, the result of ditching the worthless Zimbabwe dollar in favour of the US dollar and South African rand. The shops are full of products again, even though with 90 per cent unemployment few people, but expatriates, government ministers and their cliques can afford to buy them. Garbage goes uncollected, power runs for a maximum of four hours a day and there are severe water shortages, but the potholed streets are safe for locals and tourists alike. There’s been a housing boom as Mugabe’s cadres have invested the nation’s wealth in mansions and holiday homes. Ironically, were it not for the investment by these government-backed gangsters, there would be even less employment. It proves the old adage that crooks are good for the economy because they spend whatever they steal.
There is none of the political violence that marred the 2008 elections when Mugabe refused to accept his defeat by Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change.
An inclusive government comprising Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and two factions of the MDC has against all odds achieved some stability for long suffering Zimbabweans.
Ordinary folk fear a return to the ballot box more than the continued tyranny of Mugabe. General elections due to be held next March will bring a repeat of the state sponsored violence that saw untold thousands killed, maimed and tortured. And still the West, led by the US, clamours for elections. It’s often said that Americans dislike complexity and Zimbabwe is a great example. While the US seeks to enforce doctrine in Africa, the Chinese are pouring in and grabbing strategic assets all over the continent, including Zimbawe.
“Let Mugabe be president for life, let his greedy ministers keep their farms and their Mercedes- Benzs,” said an indigenous businessman.
“Just spare us the violence and suffering that politics has brought us. We are tired,” he said.
Ironically, the genuine yearning for land that Mugabe exploited in his campaign against the whites is still there. There are a million households still scratching out a meagre living on the desolate rocky reserves where African yeoman farmers were restricted during white minority rule.
For them, independence has meant swapping one form of minority control for another. As always, life goes on.
When I returned to Melbourne I was surprised how much I missed the cheerful anarchy of Harare. For all the shortages, the power black-outs, the corruption, the uncollected garbage and the reminders of opportunity lost on a massive scale, I couldn’t help but feel optimistic about the place. I was glad I still had a stake in Zimbabwe, having bought into a beautiful five acre property on the edge of Harare. The house I had built in my kids’ ancestral village in 1995 still stood, albeit in need of a good paint job and re-thatching. Through the ravages of the past decade, the people had quietly toiled on with great dignity and persistence. To me, to scratch away at the soil in a dry season in the hope that rain will come is an act of courage and even heroism. Yet the people of Njanja (my ex-wife’s home area) have always lived like that, long before Mugabe and the white folks came to bother them. To quote Midnight Oil: ‘in the end the rain comes down. ’ And people will dance, drink beer and tell stories by the light of the fire.
Thirteen years after leaving Zimbabwe (under duress as Mugabe cleaned out the foreign press) I started to sense a different story was beginning. Amid the orderliness and comfort of my Australian life, I am a little envious of the possibilities for transformation and the chance to rise above adversity that Africa has always offered. I went there as a young man of 32 and it changed my life in so many ways. At 48, I returned and that same capacity for change was still there. It was reinforced by these former white farmers and their talk of “making a plan.”
Little of this potential may be achieved in my lifetime, but one day my kids will see it. For those who see Africa as a place of unremitting savagery and heartbreak, I say go visit and look beyond the prejudice. You may just glimpse the essence that two thousand years ago moved Roman historian Pliny The Elder to observe: “Ex Africa semper aliquid novi.” (Always something new out of Africa.)