Property rights in Zimbabwe

Ben Freeth says draft constitution allows land to be taken without compensation or a court hearing

Property Rights, the Zimbabwe draft Constitution and a Christian response

Titled land and property rights have a long, fascinating and relevant history for Zimbabwe today in the light of the dramatic economic collapse that has taken place during the last decade and the cementing of that collapse through laws in the new draft constitution.

The earliest documented transfer of property rights to land in the history of man was in Hebron in 1675 BCE - 3,678 years ago. It was then that Abraham purchased the Cave of the Patriarchs, with a field and trees, from Ephron the Hittite for four hundred shekels (about 6kgs) of silver. The transaction is described in detail. [Genesis 23: 3 - 20].

Biblical Principles relating to property rights[1]:

The first Biblical principle regarding property rights is the prohibition against theft, enshrined in the 8th commandment in Exodus 20:15 "You shall not steal." The commandments: "You shall not steal" and "You shall not covet" [Exodus 20:15, 17] are meaningless unless there are prior owners responsible to God as faithful stewards of His property. These commandments were written by God's finger in stone so that nobody could ever change them. Irving E. Howard says, "The commandment ‘Thou shalt not steal' is the clearest declaration of the right to private property in the Old Testament."

The leading theologian, Reverend Rushdooney, goes further: "an attack on private property ownership is also an attack on God because it despises His law." God's law is holy and it is absolutely central to who God is, why the Ark of the Covenant[2] went even before the army as the first thing into the Promised Land, why the temple was built, why Israel became the super power of its day - while it remembered the law - and why Jesus came to die for humanity in fulfillment of the law. Writing laws that go against God's law has always resulted in certain disaster.

The second principle of property rights is that the world ultimately belongs to God (not to the State), as exemplified by Psalm 24:1: "The earth is the Lord's, and all it contains, the world and those who dwell in it." The whole earth is mine" [Exodus 19:5]. "The world is mine and all it contains." [Psalm 50:12].

The third principle of property rights is a corollary to the second: humans are temporary tenants upon God's property, as King David said in 1 Chronicles 29:15: "For we are but sojourners before You, and tenants, as all our fathers were."

The Zimbabwe Draft Constitution and property rights:

 Section 4.29 of the draft constitution relates to land that has been acquired already, as well as land to be acquired in the future. It allows land to be taken without compensation, without the owners being allowed a hearing in the court, and on a discriminatory basis.

"(2) Where agricultural land is (Note: This is present tense) required for a public purpose, including-

(a) settlement for agricultural or other purposes;

(b) land reorganisation, forestry, environmental conservation or the utilisation of wildlife or other natural resources; or

(c) the relocation of persons dispossessed as a result of the utilisation of land for a purpose referred to in subparagraph (a) or (b);

the land may be acquired (Note: future acquisitions obviously covered here) by the State by notice published in the Gazette by the acquiring authority and identifying the land, whereupon the land vests in the State with full title with effect from the date of publication of the notice.

(3) Where agricultural land, or any right or interest in such land, is (Note: present tense) compulsorily acquired for a purpose referred to in paragraph (a), (b) or (c) of subsection (2):

(a) no compensation is (Note: present tense) payable in respect of its acquisition, except for improvements effected on it before its acquisition;

(b) no person may apply to court for the determination of any question relating to compensation, except for compensation for improvements effected on the land before its acquisition, and no court may entertain any such application; and

(c) the acquisition may not be challenged on the ground that it was discriminatory in contravention of section 4.13.

Such draconian clauses that allow theft to take place on a discriminatory basis and without a hearing in court being allowed, need to be looked at in the light of property rights throughout history and what the Bible says in this regard.

Property Rights and the birth of civilizations:

At the dawn of civilization in Samaria and in Babylonia [from where Abraham had come], the right of holding private property in land was already in force. The king, theoretic owner of all the land by their religion's "divine" right, had long ago distributed it among his vassals[3]. Careful surveys were made, and inscribed stones set up on the limits/boundaries of a property, indicating the possessor and invoking the curse of "the gods" on any who should interfere with property rights.

As a result of this institutionalized protection of private property, sophisticated irrigation schemes were able to be set up and an agricultural revolution was able to take place that had far reaching effects. At its height, over 4,000 years ago, the irrigation system put in place in the Sumerian civilization under strict laws of private ownership covered over two and half million hectares! Spiral pumps were installed to lift water to the height of 75 feet.

Detailed laws protecting private property were written, administered and enforced. The people flourished! It is hard to visualize this advanced and extensive development over 4,000 years ago without electrical pumps, the combustion engine or hi-tech surveying equipment. Two and a half million hectares is a large area of land - 10 times the area that Zimbabwe could irrigate at the height of its agricultural development at the turn of the 21st century.

Studies of all the other great civilizations evidence that property rights were absolutely central to the prosperity of all of them.

In the continent of Africa, private ownership of land in the civilization of ancient Egypt was well established in the days when Joseph was in charge of all the land under the Pharaoh. As early as the middle of the third millennium BC, the sense of ownership was well developed. An Egyptian man wrote 4,400 years ago in honor of the god known as Uha: "I was a commoner of repute, who lived on his own property, plowed with his own span of oxen, and sailed in his own ship, and not through that which I had found in the possession of my father, honored Uha." [Offering of Uha 2,400 BC].

It says in the Bible that: "Joseph bought all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh. The Egyptians one and all sold their fields because the famine was so severe for them. The land became Pharaoh's...however he did not buy the land of the priests." [Genesis 47:20-26]. Note that Pharaoh did not confiscate or steal the land and all that was on it without compensation, as the draft Zimbabwean constitution will continue to allow the government to do. There was an agreement and the Egyptians sold their land to Pharaoh.

Long before the dawn of democracy, laws relating to private property were in place. There was a specific legal system of ownership that was sacrosanct. Pharaoh bought the land - and the people were pleased to have had something to sell so that they could get money to buy food. In those days there was no World Food Program (WFP) to come and save them from death by starvation. Since the farm invasions[4] and the destruction of property rights in Zimbabwe, the country has been reliant on the WFP to prevent widespread starvation every year. After the violent elections of 2008, 5.5 million Zimbabweans required food aid - almost half the entire population.

The prosperous civilizations of the ancient Greeks and the Romans after them, had property rights as a founding principle of their remarkable civilizations. G.F. Rehmke writes: "The powers of the early polis (city states) were limited by the same Greek tradition that served to protect private property: a deep respect-even worship-of the family... the men of the early ages . . . arrived . . . by virtue of their belief, at the conception of the right of property; this right from which all civilization springs, since by it man improves the soil, and becomes improved himself." [Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980 [originally published in 1864], p. 59).

"The appropriation of land for public utility was unknown among the ancients. Confiscation was resorted to only in case of condemnation to exile." [Fustel de Coulanges].

Sophocles' play, Antigone, focuses on the existence of this higher law, which even the king cannot or should not ignore. Antigone, disobeying the direct orders of Creon, the king, buries her brother according to the sacred rituals, and tells the king: "Nor did I think your orders were so strong that you, a mortal man, could over-run the gods' unwritten and unfailing laws. Not now, nor yesterday's, they always live, and no one knows their origin in time. So not through fear of any man's proud spirit would I be likely to neglect these laws. . . ."

Solon, a successful merchant and accomplished poet, revised Athenian laws in 594 BC to grant fuller property rights to a wider range of Greeks. Solon refused to confiscate and redistribute land, but his reforms canceled or reduced debts for small farmers and allowed them to own property-freeing them of their historical clientship to aristocratic families. This led to a remarkable blossoming of industry and intellectual progress.

Victor Davis Hanson points out in his book, The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization, that the disciplined life and hard labor on the thousands of small, independent farms developed Greek character, generated Greek wealth and defended Greek city-states.

Family-owned and operated farms provided both the wealth and the defence for early ancient Greek cities. Their achievement, argues Hanson, was the precursor in the West of private ownership, free economic activity, constitutional government, social notions of equality, decisive battle and civilian control over every facet of the military. [Victor Davis Hanson, The Other Greeks (New York: The Free Press, 1995), p. 9].

These independent Greek farmers carved their farms out of the wilderness around cities and developed separately from the estates long operated by the great aristocratic families. The independent farmers slowly and steadily expanded their holdings through decades of experimentation with crops and improvement of farmlands. Rugged hills and the thin-soiled, uneven lands between were gradually brought into cultivation. Secure property rights were essential for encouraging the long-term investments made by farming families.

The sanctity of private property and contract shared by most Greek city-states and by Rome profoundly influenced the economic success upon which the agricultural and industrial revolutions were eventually founded, bringing economic prosperity and development in the western civilisations.

It is refreshing to observe the philosophy of the protection of private property put into practice in the ancient civilizations after witnessing the destruction of property rights in Zimbabwe during the last decade and the catastrophic collapse of commercial agriculture. Substantial agricultural enterprises on the once highly productive commercial farms, many involving sophisticated irrigation schemes, have been replaced largely by erratic subsistence agriculture.

Consequently, every year the West needs to come to the country's aid and provide food to ensure that vulnerable Zimbabweans do not perish from starvation.

The Bible and property rights:

As already discussed, it is in the Bible that the earliest record of a transfer of privately-owned land takes place. Titled land was a "given." Jeremiah describes in detail a title deed that he bought when he knew that the Israelite exile in Babylon was imminent - somewhere around 600 BC - over 2,600 years ago. He takes scrupulous care to attest the deeds of purchase and then preserve them. "I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel and weighed out for him 17 shekels of silver. I signed and sealed the deed and had it witnessed and weighed out the silver on the scales.

"I took the deed of purchase - the sealed copy containing the terms and conditions as well as the unsealed copy... the God of Israel says houses and vineyards will again be bought in this land." [See Jeremiah chapter 32 verses 6-16]. The passage continues with God saying: "as I have brought this great calamity on this people so I will give them all the prosperity I have promised them. Once more fields will be bought in this land of which you say, ‘it is a desolate waste without men or animals...'" [Verse 42-43].

Notice here that as a direct result of the abolition of property rights, the land becomes a "desolate waste." Two and a half centuries later, Zimbabwe has also become a wasteland for exactly the same reason. Prosperity was only re-established in Israel when God ordained that the right to private property was to be restored and fields were able to be bought and sold again.

Jeremiah's act of purchasing this land is an act of hope for the future. He wanted these title deeds to be read in time to come as a witness to the returning exiles - so they would realise that God had done what He promised He would do, and therefore be encouraged and inspired. Jeremiah's title deeds were stored in a "clay jar"- an extremely effective method of preserving ancient documents, as was demonstrated by the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls[5] in clay jars in the Quram caves in 1948.

Jeremiah knew that in law, his title deeds would stand the test of time. He was also making a statement that private property would be part of the essential Godly foundation upon which God's chosen people would rebuild the promised land after the destruction and exile.

In the book of Ruth, written in 1000 BC - over 3,000 years ago - a little before Israel was at the height of its power - we read about how Ruth went to glean leftover grain and how "she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz." [Ruth 2:3]. Throughout that chapter there is a sense of the productivity of that land with all the people working diligently and the activities that are taking place on privately- owned land. In chapter 4 we read how Boaz "bought from Naomi all the property of Elimelech, Killion and Mahlon." [Verse 9]. Notice that Boaz "bought" this land. It was not a communal system of patronage. Investment could take place and be protected.

Deuteronomy 8 points clearly to the wealth that is to be created through "the land he [God] has given you." God warns here though, that individual enterprise on private property will lead to wealth which might create a proud spirit within us. "You may say to yourself ‘my power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.' But remember the Lord your God for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth." Without private property, history shows that nations starve. That is why God gave the Israelites the land in demarcated, protected portions and promised curses on anyone who moves his neighbour's boundary stone and steals his land.

Deuteronomy 27:17 says: "Cursed is the man who moves his neighbour's boundary stone." The Bible explains what the curse will be if we do not follow "all his commands" [ch.28 vs.15]: "you will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country. Your basket and your kneading trough will be cursed. The fruit of your womb will be cursed and the crops of land your land, and the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks."[vs.16-18].

Have we not already seen this curse in Zimbabwe? Do we wish to continue to live under this curse by voting for a draft constitution that will continue this curse? Should we - and especially Christians who follow the teachings of the Bible - not demand something better?

Conversely, Deuteronomy says that if we "fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country. The fruit of your womb will be blessed and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock ....your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed." Deuteronomy ch.28 vs. 1-5. Do all Zimbabweans not wish to live under this blessing so that we can once again be the bread basket of Africa - but in an even greater sense because property rights will be extended into the communal area? Should we not stand for a constitution that is in harmony with God's law?

Isaiah prophesies the kingdom to come as the blueprint for how things ought to be with Godly leadership: "no longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat...they will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune." [Isaiah 65: 21-23]. The perpetuation of the theft of houses and crops in Zimbabwe, as envisaged in the draft constitution, cannot be entertained if we are looking to the welfare of the children of tomorrow. If we do, we will continue to bring the curses of Deuteronomy 28 upon them.

Micah 2 says: "Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds! At morning light they will carry it out because it is in their power to do it. They covet fields and seize them, and houses and take them. They defraud a man of his home, a fellowman of his inheritance." Micah 2:1-2. Micah goes on to discuss the consequences of this theft: "Therefore, the Lord says: I am planning disaster against this people, from which you can not save yourselves." [Verse 3].

In Micah 4, there is a passage of hope about the coming kingdom and how things are designed to be with the rule of law and peace and security in the ownership of private property: "Every man will sit under his own vine and his own fig tree and no one will make them afraid."

The New Testament is equally clear about a system of private ownership of land and property being in place. Jesus talks about people owning land in the parable of the rich farmer - who sadly failed to store up his treasures in heaven [Luke 12]. In his parables Jesus talks about the "landowner" with the vineyard [Mathew 20:1] and in Mathew 21:33 he tells the story of another "landowner" who rented it out when he went on a journey. The lessees wanted to steal - so they ended up killing the landowner's son to "take his inheritance."

We read that the "landowner" will "bring those wretches to a wretched end." Jesus accepted landowners and private ownership of land because it was God-ordained for the ordering of society and the feeding of the people.

In the book of Acts we read about Ananias who "sold a piece of land" [Acts 5: 1-4]. Paul's exhortation to "steal no longer" is a clear warning to anyone who fears God that the taking of private property is not right. Paul says to the Ephesians: "He who has been stealing must steal no longer but must work, doing something useful with his own hands..." [Eph 4:28[.

Private Property and the State:

The accumulation or confiscation of property through theft [Ex. 20:15] in governmental decree as in the Ahab and Jezebellian instance described in the story about Naboth's vineyard [1 Kings 21] and copied in dictatorial regimes such as in Zimbabwe, goes against God's word.

"Then the Lord came to Elijah the Tisbite: "Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who rules in Samaria. He is now in Naboth's vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it. Say to him this is what the Lord says: ‘Have you not murdered a man and seized his property? Then say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: In this place where dogs licked up Naboth's blood, dogs will lick up your blood - yes yours!'"

So Elijah found the king on his stolen property and said: "I have found you...because you have sold yourself to do evil..." [1 Kings 21:20-22]. Are Christians in Zimbabwe about to endorse theft like Ahab did? Will God allow this to go on without severe consequences? The willful destruction of property by the envious [Gen. 26:12, 17] is a lawless act, destructive to an orderly society.

The possession of property is a way for the godly to fulfill their dominion assignment under God. God gives His creatures possession of the earth to extend the boundaries of the kingdom as they fulfill their calling in obedience to His Word; therefore, the confiscation or theft of property is an attack upon the kingdom and its advance.

The family is the primary institution whereby the Dominion Covenant is to be extended. The Jubilee laws of Leviticus 25 ensured that a family would always have land. Property could not be taxed. Even the father could not dispossess his family from the land because of carelessness, poor stewardship, or debt. Fathers were instructed to lay up an inheritance for their children so that the work of dominion under God could continue.

When a man is secure in the possession of his property, he has an area of liberty and dominion that is beyond the reach of other men. If no man or no State can reach in to tax and confiscate property, man can enjoy true liberty and great security, whether he's prosperous or poor. Every attack on private property is, therefore, an attack on man's liberty. Man's freedom and security in the possession of his property is not only basic to man's independence from dictatorship. A man has independence if he can act independently of other men and the State, if he can make his stand in the confidence of freedom.

The leading theologian, Reverend Rushdooney, said: "Every attack on private property therefore is also an attack on the powers of free men as well as their liberty." [R. J. Rushdoony, Law and Liberty, p.83.]

In every dictatorial regime there is a tussle between Godly law in private ownership of property, and man's law in State ownership. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels declared in their 1848 Communist Manifesto, that the right to hold individual private property was a crime against the State. Their first "commandment" called for the "abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes." Their third "commandment" abolished "all right of inheritance."

Both of these edicts sought to overrule the biblical order where laws against theft operate and inheritance laws are the norm. The Bible secures private property for many individuals and many families.

The laws enshrined in the Zimbabwean constitution - and further strengthened in the new draft constitution - consolidate power under the umbrella of the "one", being the State. From this position of consolidated power the State's creeping control affects the individual, the family, the church, the school, and every other institution God ordained for the proper ordering of society. The State therefore becomes both sovereign and owner, displacing God as the absolute sovereign and owner over all creation.

Those who wish to deny private property, and thus, the biblical mandate of stewardship, fail to recognize God's order for society. A person's property is tied to the past and has meaning for the future because it is seen in the context of the family as God's means of insuring future dominion. This is why Naboth was unwilling to sell his vineyard: "The Lord forbid that I should give you [Ahab] the inheritance of my fathers." [1 Kings 21:3]. Property must be seen in the context of a man and his family's calling under God.

Calvin Beisner asks the pointed question: "Why does Scripture require restitution, including multiple restitution, in cases of theft, even if paying the restitution requires selling oneself into slavery?" [Exodus 22:2]. Immediately after the 10 commandments, two of which deal specifically with the protection of private property, the scriptures devote 15 verses to the detailed laws that surround private property. People who steal or cause damage to private property are subject to severe penalties. Ownership of property is a God-given right, and stewardship is a God-given responsibility.

Our right to own property stems from our duty to work. After God thrust Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, He decreed that they (and we) would face a lifetime of hard work [Genesis: 3:17-19]. God mercifully allows our hard work to reward us with property. The very existence of private property encourages our diligence and fruitfulness: "Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth." [Proverbs 10:4].

When we understand private property in the context of godly stewardship, we are better able to concentrate on our need to work and serve others rather than accumulate more and more for our selfish purposes. In this sense, private property encourages our wise use of scarce resources, whereas the nationalization of private property - as has taken place in Zimbabwe - provides no such incentive.

U.Middlemon comments profoundly: "True communion and true community are based upon property rights - for unless a person owns something he can share, there can be no community."

The thousands of years of experiments with State ownership of the land have resulted in nothing but failure and tragedy-Fascism, Nazism, and Communism denied God's law. Their catastrophic failings are well documented and well known. Jeremy Gauntlett, one of the most respected legal voices in Africa said recently: "Like the Bourbon kings[6], Zimbabwe's constitution makers have learnt nothing."

It is tragic to see how the nationalization of land throughout history has caused starvation. In the "great leap forward" in China, over 70 million people died of starvation in a period of four years - the greatest famine in the history of the world. This was the result of Mao's spurning God's laws on property rights.

During the years of State ownership of land in Russia, the country was consistently needing to be fed by the West, where property rights were sacrosanct. With the re-establishment of property rights in Russia, its wheat production grew from 31 million tons (5 percent of world production) to 62 million tons (10% of world production) in a single decade (1999 to 2009). In the USA, with only a third of the arable land of Africa, approximately 320 million tons of maize are produced annually - about 40 percent of world production.

In the whole of Africa, we only manage to produce 60 million tons. Primarily because African governments are denying proper ownership systems of the land with the legal systems to protect property rights, we are producing less than 10 percent of what we could be producing if property rights were properly established. In the same decade that Russia has doubled wheat production, wheat production in Zimbabwe has fallen by over 90 percent. 

The title deed, stewardship and hope:

Jesus was able to tell us the most important proposition in the economics of property rights in a story in John 10. Here Jesus is trying to make a point, but his listeners are not "getting it", so he finally gives them a parable that he can be sure they will understand [verses 11-13]:

"The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep, my sheep know me."

Jesus knows that people will not care for a resource they do not own as well as they will care for a resource they do own. It is remarkable that a constitution can be supported that turns a blind eye to this simple and fundamental truth.

When the New Testament was translated into English from Greek nearly 400 years ago, the translators were reportedly puzzled by this word "hupostasis." It seemed to be some kind of business terminology not found in classical Greek literature, and all they could determine was that it meant something fairly substantial. So they translated it as "substance."

"Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." [Hebrew 11:1 in KJV].

Hundreds of years later, archaeologists uncovered the charred ruins of an old inn in northern Israel. There they found a small iron chest containing the valuable papers of some Roman noblewoman who had apparently been staying in the inn while visiting properties she owned in the area. Most of the papers in the chest had the word "hupostas" written in large Greek letters across the top. They were all title deeds to her properties. They were the proof that she owned them.

I find this story fascinating: "Faith" is fundamental to our spiritual lives as Christians and is synonymous with a "title deed". A "title deed" is fundamental to our physical lives in the world and is synonymous with faith. We could translate it as "Now faith is the title deed to things hoped for."

If our faith was to be taken away, where would that leave us? Without faith there would be no hope. If our title deeds are taken away from us, where does that leave us? What hope is there then for meeting our physical needs?

It is abundantly evident that as a country, the further erosion of property rights through the draft constitution leaves us with little hope of being able to feed ourselves, educate our children properly, or develop as a nation. Such is the curse for nations that choose to go against the holy and immutable laws of God.

So what is the Christian response?

Christians and Christian leaders are obliged to stand up and speak out for righteousness. If the highest law of the land is to go against God's law, we cannot vote for it or urge others to vote for it. There is no constitution in the world that allows theft on a discriminatory basis with no legal right to recourse, as does the current constitution and the new draft constitution being put before us by our politicians.

I hereby call upon the drafters to come up with a constitution that does not allow theft, that does not allow discrimination and that does allow legal recourse if our homes and livelihoods are taken from us - because continued theft will not bring blessing to anyone.

God promised to cut off Ahab and his descendants just as Jezebel cut off Naboth and his descendants. When we look at what God did to Ahab and Jezebel, our politicians would do well to listen.


[1] PROPERTY RIGHTS: The right to life is the source of all rights-and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product is a slave. Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness

[2] The Ark of the Covenant, also known as the Ark of the Testimony, was a chest described in the Book of Exodus as containing the Tablets of Stone on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed.

[3] Vassals ruled lands granted to them by their king.

[4] The farm invasions began in February 2000, just days after President Robert Mugabe lost a constitutional referendum which would have further entrenched his power. The new constitution would also have empowered the government to acquire land compulsorily, without compensation.

[5] The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of 972 texts consisting of biblical manuscripts from what is now known as the Hebrew Bible and extra-biblical documents found on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. They are of great historical and religious significance.

[6] The Bourbon Reforms were a set of economic and political legislation introduced by the Spanish Crown under various kings of the House of Bourbon throughout the 18th century. The reforms fell through, leaving the country with almost no investment capital.


Ben Freeth is Executive Director, The Mike Campbell Foundation, October 2 2012

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