A Dangerous Occupation

R.W. Johnson reports from two commercial farms in Southern Africa

Getting to Dave Lewis’s farm was not easy, even though I had instructions.[*] Travelling any distance out of Harare is fairly tense stuff because you can never be sure you’ll have enough fuel to get back (I freewheeled on all the downhill stretches, keeping a careful eye on the engine revs) – not to mention what’s been happening on Mashonaland farms these last three months. After you get to Norton, you make several fancy turns and then find yourself on a long stretch of dirt road overgrown with trees and with ruts so deep you really need a 4x4. On my humble Mazda 323 the oil sump and exhaust were very vulnerable, so I drove on the verges and hoped. I saw two African women on their way to church – an independent Zionist sect, inevitably – and gave them a lift. Even without knowing Shona, I thought I’d get directions to Dave’s farm out of them. This was indeed a cinch and in no time I was rolling into a beautiful farm with spreading lawns and large thatched buildings in perfectly maintained gardens.

Parking the car on one vast lawn, I found an African employee, who told me that Mr Lewis was ‘in the office’, pointing towards one of the thatched rondavels. I expected to find a table and chair inside, and maybe an electric fan, but when Dave – 6'2", khaki shorts and bare feet – ushered me in, I realised he was seriously online. Desktop and laptop screens yawned at me from several directions among the plethora of printers, plugs, wires and phones which seem to be part of any modern hi-tech office, every man his own little Houston space centre. Dave had more gigabytes at his disposal than Apollo XIII ever did.

Seeing my surprise he quickly explained the screens. ‘Tobacco is still a great crop to be in,’ he said, ‘but it can’t be the future: hell, I don’t smoke myself and I’m delighted that none of my children do. The biggest tobacco consumers and producers in the world are the Chinese – so I have to watch tobacco prices in Beijing and Shanghai pretty carefully. But I also raise cattle and pigs so I watch those markets too – the Chicago pork futures market, for example. But the real future seems to be in cut flowers air-freighted to Europe. Our key competitors there are in the Cape, Israel, Hawaii and New Zealand, so I watch flower prices in Cape Town, Tel Aviv, Honolulu and Auckland pretty closely too. Then again, you’ve got to watch what they’re asking for their stuff once it reaches Amsterdam, Berlin or wherever. Some of these guys ask cheeky prices but some are real mean, taking thin margins to broaden market share. I have to watch both sorts. And, of course, given what’s happened to the Zim dollar – down 4000 per cent against the US dollar in only 15 years – I have to watch currency fluctuations and also buy the cheapest inputs that I can find online.’

The thatched rondavel, the shorts and the bare feet were neither here nor there: Dave is just as much a global businessman as any bond trader at Goldman Sachs – with the rather important difference that he goes out and grows what he thinks the market wants. He’s clearly done well at it: he and his wife, Sally, live well and travel a lot and he proudly tells me how much he’s exported in the last year, earning precious foreign exchange while providing a living for hundreds of farmworkers and their families. All told, some eight hundred Africans – 102 workers and their dependants; an average family includes six children – live on his farm. They assume – and so does Dave – that he will provide them with food and continue to insulate them from food price inflation, now running at 60 per cent.

Even so, Dave was by no means sure what attitude his farmworkers would take when his farm was invaded by Zanla ‘war vets’ – the majority young unemployed men being paid on a per diem basis by Zanu-PF. ‘There were 26 of them but they told me that another 170 were on the way. They said that we were foreigners and would have to go. I said they could stay on the farm if that’s what they wanted, but pointed out that Sally and I are both Zimbabweans and that she was actually born on the farm – which was virgin bush when her father first cleared it in 1933. I also pointed out that they were on private property. They said: “There is no more private property in Zimbabwe.” I said that would be news to the Government – to which they replied: “We are the Government.” Their leader, Comrade Chambati, who wore dark glasses and had a cellphone – a CIO agent, I guess – got a call just then. There was a great deal of talking in Shona, clearly on the assumption that I couldn’t understand. That’s when I knew they were from town, because while many whites there can’t speak Shona, farmers like me have to be fluent Shona-speakers and country people know that.’

Dave watched carefully how his farmworkers reacted. ‘It was extraordinary. They wouldn’t speak to them. They even avoided eye contact and tried to behave as if they weren’t there. They wanted nothing to do with them. Next day the vets went to the tribal trust land nearby to round up more support. They couldn’t get a single recruit. In the end Comrade Chambati had to get Zanu-PF in town to send them a few more guys.’

After that, the story got nastier. The vets came and went and came back. The farmworkers were beaten up, made to dig a pit and told that if any of them voted for the opposition MDC (Movement for Democratic Change), that’s where they’d end up. From Dave they demanded and got food. Trees that Sally’s father had planted sixty years ago were cut down for firewood and to build huts. They demanded transport for themselves and the farmworkers to be ferried as a tame audience to Zanu-PF meetings. Recently Comrade Chambati and a few of his senior lieutenants have begun to tote AK-47s: a large Russian consignment has just come into the country to fill the gap left by Britain’s arms ban. When I last spoke to Dave and Sally they were still clinging on but had sent their children and grandchildren away. ‘We can’t abandon the farm,’ they say, ‘it’s been our life. The farmworkers may be terrified but they’ve still got their jobs. We’ve never been so close with them as we are now. We might still come through this.’ Between Dave, the globalised businessman, watching flower prices in Honolulu and tobacco prices in Beijing, and Comrade Chambati, a medieval warlord, the contrast is peculiarly stark. This is the reality of the Zimbabwean countryside right now.

Not long after my visit to Norton, I spoke to Arthur Mitchell, who farms in the Ixopo area of KwaZulu-Natal among the beautiful hills in which Alan Paton set Cry, the Beloved Country. He said that he’d bought the farm mainly because he wanted to build it up for his son, Michael, who worked alongside him. But a month ago he’d driven into Ixopo to get some provisions when the farm radio in his bakkie sounded an alarm ‘for Mr Arthur or Michael Mitchell’. Either Mitchell Sr or Mitchell Jr had been shot on the farm, it said. That was how he learned that Michael was dead. He drove back and found Michael’s Land-Rover a kilometre away from the farmhouse. ‘He must have been going to inspect the fences – we did it every day. The brake light was still on. His foot was still on the pedal. I suppose the guys that got him must have stepped out in front of him, causing him to brake. They’d shot him through the forehead, straight through the windscreen. It was a classic ambush – they’d chosen a part of the farm where the bushes are thick and provide good cover. They were professional killers: they’d left no cartridge cases and their tracks were carefully covered over. It was clearly a well-planned assassination carried out in broad daylight. They didn’t take the vehicle. They didn’t even take his wallet or cellphone. All they took was his gun. Gunmen will always take another gun.’

Arthur Mitchell is what you might call a frontier farmer: he farms next to an area of African traditional settlement, where subsistence peasant farming is the norm. This is commonplace in KwaZulu-Natal. The complex interweaving of such areas (which make up 31 per cent of the province) with mainly white-owned commercial farmland (which accounts for another 48 per cent) was once reflected in the way the old KwaZulu homeland sprawled like a series of inkspots across the old map of Natal. But nearly a quarter of South Africa’s population lives in the province and the pressure on land within the traditional African areas is intense. The result, increasingly, is that the integrity of the ‘frontier’ farms like Mitchell’s is under threat. Cattle rustling has long been such a problem along the foothills of the Drakensberg and near the Lesotho border that many farmers have left. Some have been lucky enough to sell up. Others just abandoned their property – which was then taken over by subsistence farmers and rural squatters, advancing the ‘frontier’ to a new set of farms.

In the case of the Mitchell farm, the pressure had involved the destruction of fences and trespass grazing. When Mitchell repaired his fences, the materials would simply be removed altogether. In February 1999 and again last August, the Mitchells had called together local African villagers and warned them that the law entitled them to impound cattle that were grazing illegally and to fine the owners R50 a head when they came to reclaim them. After the second warning they began impounding, but decided to waive the fine and just make owners sign a written statement recognising that such behaviour would not be tolerated in future. This had only a moderate effect (over-grazing within the subsistence areas has reached severe levels) – one peasant had already transgressed three times, for example. Neighbouring farmers had the same experience.

Violence is entrenched in this part of South Africa: Ixopo borders the Richmond area, the scene of so much political conflict in recent years, and Ixopo itself has come to be a sanctuary for criminals on the run from Durban and Pietermaritzburg, similar to the famous Hole in the Wall hideout in the old American West: urban gangsters keep their girlfriends here and outlaws come to lie low after a heist. Arthur told me he’d discovered that professional hit-men in the area charge between R200 and R1000 for an assassination.

Two thirds of Arthur’s neighbours had suffered attacks. One had been shot in a five-man ambush but survived. Another had been attacked by three men with bush knives. He suffered severe trauma and has not worked since. Another had been the victim of a drive-by shooting, though no one had been hurt. Yet another, a man in his seventies, was still carrying a bullet in his chest after his car had been ambushed. Yet another had been stabbed and, while in bed recovering, had been shot in the chest. He survived, but abandoned his farm. In none of these cases had the police made a single arrest.

Naturally, Mitchell and his neighbours have gone in for the usual farm-watch security programme that is widespread in many parts of rural South Africa, with farmers often relying on Executive Outcomes, ex-Koevoet brigadiers from the Namibian war and former mercenaries from the Congo or Angola. But in the case of Ixopo, the farmers feel they are facing something different – ‘a low intensity farm invasion programme’. For the attacks are combined not only with illegal grazing and fence stealing but with the theft of corrugated roofs and the deliberate setting of veld fires. Since his son was killed, Mitchell has had a series of death threats, communicated to him by the police. On one occasion the police took a warning seriously enough to dispatch six men with automatic rifles and bullet-proof vests to his farm. Mitchell has hired permanent armed guards. But his wife is a virtual prisoner on the farm, scared to drive out for fear of an ambush of the sort which killed her son. And despite all these precautions, several of Arthur’s neighbours told me that they didn’t expect him to survive the year.

It was said by some, or said to have been said, that Michael’s murder had been a ‘political assassination’ and that professional killers had been hired. Mitchell decided to confront the local leader of the ANC and ask him whether he had been encouraging people to chase white farmers away. The official denied any such suggestion, but Mitchell remains suspicious. He feels that farmers like himself are unable to rely on the rule of law. In the last four years, over a hundred dockets relating to crimes on farms (one farm alone has reported 21 incidents) have been opened in and around Ixopo but many farmers believe the police are corrupt and report back to the criminal elements responsible for the attacks.

Mitchell has been asked over and over again whether his son’s murder could be explained by his or his son’s ill-treatment of – or bad relations with – their farmworkers. ‘We have a completely clean record in all respects,’ he says. ‘It annoys me more than I can say when people ask this as if to suggest we deserved what we got. Only a few weeks ago President Mbeki and Steve Tshwete (Minister for Safety and Security) were at it. They visited Ermelo after a farm murder there and said these things were bound to happen unless farmer-farmworker relations improved.’ In fact, Michael Mitchell’s murder is only one incident in a continuing spate of farm attacks. In 1998, 40 farmers (of all races) were killed in KwaZulu-Natal and there were another 34 attempted murders; in 1999, the figures climbed to 53 murders and 43 attempted murders.

The notion that farm attacks stem from farmers’ bad relations with farmworkers is wide of the mark. On the rare occasions when the police have been able to apprehend attackers they have almost never turned out to be farmworkers. Some farmers doubtless are bad or brutal employers, but they seem to constitute a small minority and most farmworkers are pleased enough to have a job when there is so much rural unemployment. Nor is the motivation for the attacks directly political, though, as Tshwete’s provincial counterpart, Nkosi Nyanga Ngubane, observed recently, the problem is that during the liberation struggle the ANC encouraged a ‘kill the Boer, kill the farmer’ attitude and such sentiments have not been revised or questioned – no ANC leader is willing to take responsibility for saying they are (or ever were) wrong.

Instead, officials of Kwanalu, the farmers’ union, suggest that farm attacks are an indirect form of land redistribution on the Brazilian model, involving a gradual penetration of private land (and state forests) by land-hungry peasants. Indeed, work done by Kwanalu suggests that there is a direct correlation between farm attacks and local levels of unemployment. There are more farm attacks in KwaZulu-Natal than anywhere else because the rural population is densest there, with very high concentrations of extreme poverty.

The rash of farm occupations in Zimbabwe has led many to conclude that South African and Zimbabwean farmers face much the same situation. This is misleading on two counts. First, the farm invasions in Zimbabwe are essentially a political ploy, an attempt by Zanu-PF to terrorise and intimidate rural people in the run-up to the election. They are not really about land redistribution at all. If the Mugabe Government were serious about giving land to the poor peasants it would not have given it to the rich and powerful – of the 3.5 million hectares the Government has bought from white farmers, over two million have gone to Mugabe cronies. Some has gone to the poor, but a million more hectares lie vacant and Mugabe could make a start by distributing some of those.

The second important difference between Zimbabwe and South Africa is that from a fifth to a quarter of the entire Zimbabwean population lives on the 4000 or so white-owned farms, and more on the now considerable number of farms owned by the black élite. In South Africa, the ‘black spot removal’ policies of apartheid and the ANC’s legislation have combined to ensure that this is not the case. Indeed, the onerous post-1994 labour legislation, the granting of freehold rights to farmworkers (which threatens to balkanise farms) and other measures making it harder for farmers to evict tenants or squatters – not to mention the farm attacks themselves – have all given South African farmers extremely strong incentives to reduce the black population resident on farms to a minimum. At the same time the Government has inflicted all sorts of new costs on farmers. They are subject to rates for the first time and must pay more for their water. Agricultural trade has been liberalised and subsidies removed. The result is that margins have been slashed and this too has led to labour-shedding.

The result is an increase in rural poverty, as large numbers of former farmworkers, tenants and their dependants are tipped off farms and into unemployment. On top of that, post-1994 South Africa has seen a large-scale redistribution of resources away from the black poor to the black élite, so that the rural poor are both relatively and absolutely worse off than before. These reservoirs of social distress cannot be enlarged indefinitely without a dramatic breakdown of law. In Zimbabwe, by contrast, huge numbers of farmworkers and their dependants live happily and peaceably in a proximity to their employers which would frankly scare South African farmers. Perhaps the most telling thing about Dave Lewis’s story was that when the farm invaders attempted to recruit helpers from among the surrounding African subsistence farmers, they could find no takers. In KwaZulu-Natal, I suspect, they would have found plenty. And whereas the breakdown of law and order in the latter case has happened naturally, as it were, in Zimbabwe it is an instrument of state policy. In that sense, though I hesitate to say so, the position of white farmers in Zimbabwe is intrinsically better than that of their KwaZulu-Natal counterparts.

Kwanalu prides itself, rightly, on being the only fully racially integrated farmers’ body in southern Africa: it is not surprising that Nelson Mandela attended its inauguration. All the other farmers’ unions in South Africa are still racially segregated, and the same is true in Zimbabwe, where the white Commercial Farmers Union faces the Zimbabwe National Farmers Union, a highly political body run by an ex-Zanla guerrilla, whose membership consists largely of communal (subsistence) farmers. But ironically it is Kwanalu that has to face the highest rate of murderous attacks on its members.

In Zimbabwe some of the black élite have acquired commercial farms – generally run by white managers. Something similar appears to be happening in South Africa, in the Weenen area, where a number of black politicians now own farms. If the Minister of Agriculture, Thoko Didiza, has her way, there will be many more such folk. But the question remains: what is to be done with the legion of South African subsistence farmers and with the rural poor? A very few may become commercial farmers. The repeal of recent labour and labour tenancy legislation would probably help resettle a few more on commercial farms. That would still leave the overwhelming majority trapped in rural poverty. With current unemployment levels in the cities, it cannot be state policy to attract them there. The only alternative is a large-scale programme of rural and small town development – including, perhaps, the revival of something like the old apartheid policy of ‘border industries’ offering incentives to those who will mop up rural unemployment.

But both Zimbabwe and South Africa need to get beyond the position where they see their farmers as a ‘problem’. They’re lucky to have them. South Africa is one of only ten countries in the world that are net agricultural exporters. Total food production has increased by 118 per cent over the past thirty years. Last year agricultural exports worth almost R15 billion brought in 10 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange. Directly and indirectly, agriculture provides jobs for around a quarter of the country’s workforce. The figures for Zimbabwe are even more striking. Although commercial farming occupies only 29.9 per cent of the land, it produces 40 per cent of the country’s exports, accounts for 18 per cent of GDP and employs a quarter of the workforce. No less than 60 per cent of Zimbabwean industry is dependent on agriculture. And Zimbabwe, like South Africa, more than feeds itself.

This sort of performance can only be achieved by modern commercial agriculture: subsistence or communal farming is not a road to the future. And throughout the world, commercial agriculture works on the basis of large farms and an attendant concentration of ownership. The farmland of Britain or the US, for example, is owned by well under 1 per cent of the population, but this does not lead to demands for redistribution. Given its history it is not surprising that in southern Africa there is a demand from all quarters – which commercial farmers in both countries support – for more black farmers. White farmers know that they would be a great deal less exposed – politically and even physically – if the farming community was more racially mixed. In Zimbabwe, indeed, the Commercial Farmers Union has come up with a very progressive programme of land redistribution, which Mugabe has ignored, preferring to keep the land issue alive as a political ploy.

The demand for the deracialisation of farm ownership is entirely reasonable but it should be understood that it is not the same as a redistribution to ‘the poor’, i.e. handing over commercial farms to subsistence farming. Thoko Didiza has had the courage to confront this – and faces a good deal of populist criticism for her pains. Unfortunately, agriculture is shrouded in myth and emotion and in both South Africa and Zimbabwe this has now made farming – in itself a quite prosaic activity – a dangerous occupation.

[*] The names of the two farmers and their families mentioned in this piece have been changed.