Zimbabwe White Farmers Persecuted

Standing on the porch of his cream-coloured stucco home, David Wilding-Davies can see down the mountain and deep into the valley below.

Zimbabwe White Farmers Persecuted

Standing on the porch of his cream-coloured stucco home, David Wilding-Davies can see down the mountain and deep into the valley below. He can watch his children, Olivia, 3, and Max, 4, play with their pony Pookie on the front lawn, frown at the monkeys raiding his banana trees and admire the brilliant green of his coffee plants ripening under Zimbabwe's clear sky. He can also see the gravel laneway stretching to a metal gate. It is up this road that they will come, carrying guns, machetes and clubs. Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has vowed to strip white farmers of their land, and the armed toughs have already driven off three of Wilding-Davies's neighbours. Now he waits. Will they try to intimidate him into leaving by trashing his house? Or perhaps he will watch in horror as they beat the family's nanny, as they have beaten other black farm workers.

Africa had long intrigued Wilding-Davies, 35, who is from Langley, B.C. In the early 1990s, he travelled widely on the continent. In 1996, he and his wife Amy, 37, spent their honeymoon in Zimbabwe, and three years later they paid $125,000 for a 132-ha farm in the Chipinge district of the country. Unfortunately for Wilding-Davies, a member of Canada's Olympic equestrian team in 1988, he took possession almost at the same time the land issue, which had been simmering for decades, exploded. Mugabe, 78, began targeting white farmers, who at the time controlled almost 70 per cent of the country's arable land. With his popularity plummeting, the president moved to shore up support by allowing roving gangs to start taking over farms. So far, hundreds of white farmers have been forced off their property, and 11 have been murdered by Mugabe's raiders while thousands of black farm workers have been tortured.

Now, Mugabe's push to remove the final 3,000 white farmers has begun. Last week, dozens were arrested for defying an order to vacate their property by Aug.9. Many others fled as Mugabe urged blacks to move onto the remaining farms. Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, her blond hair touching her shoulders, Amy Wilding-Davies does not look like the type to stand up to armed threats. But she has not given up hope, even though she fears the arrival of Mugabe's supporters. "We are surrounded by farms that have been taken over by squatters," says Amy. "We deal with them every day. They want everything."

The family suspects their phone calls are being monitored, and neighbouring squatters have cut trees on their land without seeking permission. But until the thugs come up the drive, the family is trying to carry on a normal life. Maids Loveness and Rhoda, who live in small thatched-roof cabins just outside the front gate, continue taking care of the house. Lately, Amy has been teaching Rhoda to bake and to prepare Western-style dishes. They often start the day by baking bread in Amy's small kitchen, lined with cabinets of red-coloured gumwood.

Despite the evictions, Amy says relations with their 75 farm workers, who live with their families on the property in a compound of smaller cement block buildings with thatched roofs, are still good. To escape the hottest hours of the day, the Wilding-Davieses and their employees usually start tending the 50 hectares of coffee at 5 a.m. Last week, workers spread lime at the base of the coffee plants to offset the acidity of the soil while others cut hay to feed the pony and the couple's two horses, Teddy and Kim (the animals had been used to play a version of lacrosse on horseback with other white farmers in the area before Mugabe began his crackdown). Still others had a sadder chore, and left with a tractor and trailer to pick up the belongings of an evicted farmer, which will be stored at the Wilding-Davies farm.

If they can hold out, the Wilding-Davieses plan to harvest 100 tons of coffee in 2003, an amount that would allow them to recoup nearly all of their original investment. But with the police going door-to-door to enforce Mugabe's eviction edict, and with others backing police up with machetes and clubs, 2003 seems a long way off. "We've made a commitment to live here, and we're quite determined," says David, "but no one knows what the rules are."

The crisis comes closer to their farm each day. One of their neighbours, Roy Bennett, says his wife suffered a miscarriage when their home was ransacked. One of his female farm workers was savagely beaten and a male worker had a wire wrapped around his testicles. Their crime: they refused to denounce white farmers and support Mugabe.

Now Bennett, who is also an opposition MP, is helping to lead a last-ditch international campaign to stop the evictions. He told Maclean's the farm seizures mask the wider suppression of civil liberties in the country. Anyone who opposes Mugabe, not just white farmers, is being intimidated, sometimes savagely, he said. "What's happening to 4,000 white farmers," said Bennett, "is exactly what's happened to thousands of ordinary people in Zimbabwe. They've been beaten and they've been raped because they are supporting the opposition."

Mugabe's bid to stay in power has imperilled the lives of millions of his countrymen. As the farms have been taken over, food production has fallen, and the United Nations' World Food Program says that almost half of Zimbabwe's 12.5 million people need food aid. While Mugabe says black farmers who now have land will quickly make up any shortfall, those who have watched the takeovers first-hand are pessimistic. David Wilding-Davies says the raiders stripped a nearby farm of everything, including the irrigation equipment, and nothing has been planted by those who now control the land. "It used to support more than 80 farm families," he says. "Now it supports just 10, and the others have nowhere to go." The Wilding-Davieses are doing what they can to help their own farm families. "They're not eating properly," says Amy. "We send guys on scouting missions for food, and if they can get it at a reasonable price we'll pay for it."

Any hope of delaying Mugabe's final push to evict the white farmers may rest with foreign governments. Bennett says the West has to stop worrying about its guilt "over colonial baggage and racism," and put pressure on Mugabe by withholding aid. As well, Western governments are in the midst of weighing a plan conceived by African leaders and known as the New Partnership for Africa's Development, under which aid would only be given to countries that promote good governance and democracy. The West, says Bennett, could put pressure on major African countries to influence Mugabe, by refusing to proceed.

Undeterred, Mugabe said in a speech in Harare last week that nothing would stop the evictions. And so far, even those farmers who have gone to court in a bid to hold on to their farms have been barred from returning to their land until their cases are heard. "If we're forced to go, we will," says Amy. "But it's sad to see our communities fall apart around us." It may take years for Zimbabwe to put the pieces back together again.

Maclean's September 2, 2002