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.’

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