NEWS & ANALYSIS

Another white farmer dispossessed in Zimbabwe - SADC Tribunal Watch

Ben Freeth says Dirk Visagie found guilty of the crime of wanting to continue living in his home

A white farmer's crime in Zimbabwe

I spent the night in the familiar chaos of a Zimbabwean family in the process of packing up. There were just two nights to go before the September 30 deadline. Everywhere were boxes and piles of things ready to go into boxes. Outside, their once lush lawn was dry. The pump had been broken.

I was present in August when the magistrate had pronounced Dirk Visagie, a commercial farmer, guilty. Dirk had stood in the dock with his head bowed, accepting the magistrate's words in silence.

I shall always remember the magistrate's expression as he pronounced a verdict of guilty. It was both vindictive and malevolent.

Dirk was treated as a common criminal for living in a house he bought in 2001 from a government parastatal, with the Minister of Lands having issued a "certificate of no interest". It was on a peri-urban plot bordering the small Mashonaland West town of Chegutu. 

It was his only home and his only property. At 42 hectares it was small, but he had invested everything he had in it, and had made it a financial success. 

The property was earmarked for eventual urban expansion in the Chegutu town master plan so the Visagies knew it would never be required for agricultural resettlement and could later be subdivided when the time was right.

But, two months after the deed had been paid for and transferred, Timothy ‘Shoko' Mudavanhu arrived.

He had been chairman of the Rural District Council when I was working for the Commercial Farmers' Union in the late 1990s and we knew each other. 

We had worked together to make the rural council as efficient as possible, to make sure that the mobile clinics were properly staffed and equipped, and to ensure that the rural road network was well maintained.  

Mudavanhu came armed with an offer letter. He had already taken another property near Selous belonging to farmer I also knew, Piet Martin.

He now owned a supermarket and a relatively large, comfortable house in Chegutu.

The fact that the offer letter Mudavanhu brandished at the Visagie's plot was not actually for their plot appeared not to matter. He wanted their house and harassed them constantly to force them out. 

Eventually, in 2005, he ensured that the property was gazetted and that a new offer letter was issued. 

After years of continuous harassment, Dirk appeared in the dock for the first time in 2007, charged with the criminal act of living in his own home and producing crops for the nation, which was by now reliant on international food aid.

    After getting numerous High Court orders and an international judgment in his favour, the charges against Dirk were finally dropped.

Regrettably, a drawn-out and expensive trial began again at the beginning of 2011 and Dirk was finally pronounced guilty last month. 

The Visagies have appealed against the verdict - but know that to still be on the farm after the deadline might result in spending time in one of Zimbabwe's filthy jails. So they have locked up, given the keys to their lawyers, and moving off their land.

In a country that is begging the international community to feed another 1.7 million people this year - and which has an unemployment rate of more than 80 percent, the Visagies are no longer allowed to farm or produce crops.

Their property will now become derelict and unused like the vast majority of commercial farmland in Zimbabwe.

The Visagies have ventured into a new and uncertain business unrelated to farming to try to sustain themselves.

This move means that only a handful of people will be employed and that the prospect of their ever farming again is unlikely. Valuable resources earmarked to develop their farm have been sidelined to renovate a house in town.

Dirk, a South African national, was blocked from farming last year. If a farmer cannot farm, how can he provide for himself and his family while at the same time paying for a long and expensive trial?

How can he fix up a house to make it habitable for his wife and children and look after the needs of the few employees he hopes to retain?

I can imagine the questions going through Dirk's mind at this point: What in reality was his crime? Why was he stopped from farming? Why had he been forced out of his home?

What was wrong with buying a peri-urban plot from a Zimbabwe Government parastatal? Why was Heidi, his wife, stopped from helping people who were sick or wounded and who came to her gate needing medical attention? 

What was criminal about growing much-needed crops in a country that is starving?

According to ZANU PF, Dirk and Heidi's crime is that they are "white" people. The crime of their black employees is that they work for "white" people. 

This scenario has been repeated again and again across the length and breadth of Zimbabwe since the state-sponsored farm invasions began in 2000. 

ZANU PF's "land reform" programme has been judged racist in an international court but the racism is supported by President Mugabe and his most powerful politicians, who have benefitted significantly from the land grab.

Racism has been embedded in Section 4.29 of our draft constitution and, after protracted and turbulent negotiations, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change party, has agreed to support the latest draft.

    ZANU PF does not respect the country's high court orders, nor the rulings of an international court. It does not respect the SADC Treaty nor the bilateral investment protection agreements (BIPPAs) signed with foreign countries investing in Zimbabwe. This includes South Africa

 Through its deplorable actions, which are flout both SADC and international treaties and norms, ZANU PF is guilty of criminal behavior and of continued ethnic cleansing in Zimbabwe.

Statement issued by Ben Freeth, SADC Tribunal Rights Watch, October 3 2012

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