NEWS & ANALYSIS

The story of another Zimbabwean land grab

Ben Freeth writes on the takeover of the McKinnon family's farm

The story of the takeover of another Zimbabwean farm:  the McKinnon family

20 September 2016

The WhatsApp call line broke up at times, but the voice on the other end was one that had become familiar to me these past few days: “We had to get out. I was going to just send the family out and fight it myself but they're following me and would have locked me up. Sorry we couldn’t meet, I was in hiding.” 

It was Mark McKinnon. His eviction had caught people's attention and imagination across the world, even though such evictions have been happening relentlessly for the past 16 years in Zimbabwe. The Facebook post we had put up on the Mike Campbell Foundation page had skyrocketed to a reach of over 400,000 people within a couple of days.

“The Canadians have been amazing. I've never been here before but we're going to build a new life until we can come home,” he told me. “We're on one side of Canada staying with an aunt, and my parents are on the other side staying with my sister.”

Mark is one of the latest victims of Zimbabwe's state of lawlessness.  The well-ordered farm that his grandfather carved out of virgin bush when he arrived from Canada and bought the land in the late 1960s, is already descending into chaos.  

“My workers and their families have also been forced out of their houses. The thugs came and threw their furniture out on the side of the road. We sent lorries to collect it for them, but after we ‘took the gap’ I wasn’t able to see what was going on. I haven’t seen how they smashed up our own furniture either because it wasn’t safe to go where it’s all been taken. They were watching me.”

I asked after their animals. The McKinnons are well known as conservationists who had been buying and looking after different species of game for 20 years and over time had taken on as much of the threatened game from other evicted farmers as they could afford.

“We couldn’t go back for them,” he said quietly. “They were after us, there’s big money at stake here. The Principle Lands Officer (Ministry of Lands) – Tadeus Manyati – pitched up in a fancy silver Hummer.  He's also been here in a BMW convertible. They broke into our houses and are now living in them. He works for Exodus (Makumbe), who believed to be Minister (Home Affairs) Ignatius Chombo’s nephew - and is working with Chombo. Exodus is getting up to US$250,000 a day in cash from stealing farms and selling them off as small plots.”

It was a familiar scenario. Government 'lists' the farm and issues an ‘offer letter’ to a few connected people. They simply chase the owner off - with the help of the police - under the guise of the “Land Reform” programme. Through his position as Home Affairs Minister, Chombo is now also the Minster in charge of police. If the land falls within the peri-urban area around towns, they change the land usage status, subdivide and sell off hundreds of small plots to make themselves millions.  

“People are paying anything from US$7,000 to as much as US$13,000 for a 300 square metre stand,” Mark said, “and they don’t get title deeds, water, sewage or any servicing for that. Just a roughly demarcated piece of land.”

I worked it out. Conservatively, that’s a potential 25 plots that can be sold on each hectare - given there have to be roads in between – which works out at about quarter of a million dollars a hectare. Multiply that by the 266 hectares which made up the McKinnon’s farm and it works out a cool US$66.6 million – all in cash - to go into the pockets of the principle lands officer and the various ministers involved.

“No wonder they were determined to scare you out!” I said.  I had been appalled a few weeks previously when I had heard that the government valuation team funded by the European Union, was sniffing out the few white people eking out their living on small plots around town, and even going into homes where government hadn’t ever ‘listed’ the plot.

“In the last month or so they've been after us,” Mark went on. “We've had police and thugs constantly hounding us on the farm, breaking in, making it impossible for us. My folks were made to report at the police station every week. We’ve had 12 appearances in court in the last six weeks and another 10 days in court earlier in the year. Our kids were also under threat and we had to find them a safe place in town. Justice Mangota in the High Court ruled in our favour earlier in August stating that there had been highly irregular and illegal processes occurring in the Magistrate’s Court. Our appeal is lodged in the High Court and it was illegal to evict us and our workers before the High Court appeal had been heard.”

How many of the hundreds of thousands of farmers and their workers have been evicted illegally this past decade and a half without any valid eviction order, I mused?  Despite all the laws being stacked against the white farmers, there have only been a handful of valid eviction orders. All government has to do is ‘list’ a farm and the farmer is then deemed a criminal if he is still in his home 90 days later, whether he is aware of the listing or not. Getting an eviction order after that is a simple process.

“What animals do you still have there?”

“There are 60 impala, 22 wildebeest, six eland, six kudu and three zebra still on the farm,” he said. “But National Parks aren’t issuing any movement permits to allow us to move them off, so I guess they'll just be killed.”  The regretful resignation in his voice resonated with me. We had loved and lost our animals too.

“Sadly that’s what happened to us,” I commiserated “Once they had burnt down our safari lodge, more than 500 animals were killed.  It’s one of the things that hurts us the most. I'm so sorry.”

There was a poignant pause at the other end of the line.

“What did you produce?” I asked changing the subject before we both got emotional.

“We only had 100 hectares of arable land,” he said, “but we were one of the biggest tomato producers into the Harare market doing 120 hectares through the year.”

I worked it out. That would be well over a million kilograms of tomatoes a year that would be fed into Harare and redistributed from there on the formal and informal markets. I wondered how many of the hundreds of little tomato pyramids of the struggling pavement and roadside vendors around the country originated from the McKinnons' farm.

“And then we did potatoes, cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower and employed 50 permanent staff and 200 seasonal workers.”

In a country with an unemployment rate of around 90 percent it is devastating to lose another few hundred jobs with all the extended families that those jobs also benefited.

“We helped out at the Glen Forest Development Centre, supporting about 200 orphans. They relied heavily on us right up to the day we were evicted.” Mark added. “When my dad bought the farm from my grandfather in 1987, he first offered it to government as everyone did and got a ‘Certificate of No Interest’ from them,” he said.

Any agricultural property up for sale, by law, first had to be offered to the government for purposes of acquisition and resettlement. If the government had no interest or use for the property, the seller would be issued with this certificate to allow the sale to take place. The vast majority of the agricultural property in Zimbabwe at the time the government embarked on the devastating land reform programme, had been issued with certificates to say the government had no interest or use for them.

For the McKinnons, it was 30 years of building from scratch – the family homes, workers’ homes, irrigation, the community around them - only to be forced to leave in the clothes they stood up in under the most traumatic circumstances and without a cent of compensation. Shame on Mugabe! Approximately 90 percent of the white population has left since independence in 1980, many of them – like the McKinnons – with just a suitcase.

“What were they trying to get you in jail for?” I asked.

“That article in the (state-owned) Herald (alleging Mark was harbouring an 'arms cache with weapons of war') was rubbish,” Mark said. “They were trying to say I had unlicensed weapons and reloading equipment. I shoot for Zimbabwe, that’s always been my hobby. I was recently taking part at the international World Championships competition in Italy. I would never have had weapons or loading equipment that wasn’t licensed.”

“In July, the invaders arrived in a Jeep Cherokee at my parents' house and started drinking beer in the garden right outside their bedroom window. My dad was armed and he ordered them to leave. For that the police came and put my parents in jail. They didn’t even take a statement - they just arrested both my parents and put them in cells. At midnight, the police came back to get one of our children to put him in jail too. I refused to let them take him. It’s straight intimidation. Our lawyers were also compromised and my parents spent three nights in jail. My dad was in a cell with at least 50 others all sleeping on the concrete together. His only crime was ordering the thugs to leave his home!”

I thought of the countless cases where white farmers and their workers have been incarcerated unjustly in crowded cells in appalling conditions. In recent months, scores of opposition activists have suffered the same fate. Others have been abducted and tortured by the State – even within the last week.

I assured him that he had done the right thing in his case to get out.

“We want to come back though,” he said, “It’s our farm and we want to go back to it. Our farm is in a military cantonment and it’s not suitable for high density housing. We have three generations of our family buried there – including our young son - and about 150 of our workers are also buried on the farm. We're going to try to keep paying our workers as long as we can. They worked together with my grandfather and my dad. That’s three generations we've all been together,” he said.

The line went quiet. “It’s going to be tough, Mark.” I had to tell him. "It will be tough on the kids and tough on your marriage. We will be praying for you and we'll also pray that one day you can all come home.”

He thanked me and we ended the call - he now in Canada where the rule of law is a fundamental principle underlying Canadian democracy - and I in Zimbabwe where the rule of law has been destroyed by the power-hungry, corrupt and utterly ruthless Mugabe regime.

Ben Freeth is the executive director of the Mike Campbell Foundation and the spokesperson for SADC Tribunal Rights Watch.