SW Radio Africa journalist Alex Bell was joined in the studio by Charles Taffs, the President of the Commercial Farmers Union, who travelled to London this week to counter the misinformation published in a new book on the land grab campaign.
Taffs says the book is trying to brush the reality of the land seizures under the carpet, and paint the exercise as a success. He says this is nowhere near the truth and gives a stark breakdown of the current land situation.
AB: Hello Zimbabwe and welcome to Diaspora Diaries on SW Radio Africa. Tonight we have a special programme – I’m very, very pleased to welcome a special guest in the studio today – and that is Charles Taffs, the president of the Commercial Farmers Union who is in London at the moment. Mr. Taffs, first of all thank you very much for joining us.
CT: Alex, thanks very much, pleasure to be here.
AB: Mr. Taffs one of the reasons why you are here has been the release of this new book – “Zimbabwe Takes Back its Land” which is on a bit of a press junket in the UK at the moment. Our listeners will know if they tuned into our news broadcasts yesterday that there is concern about this book; one which is something that’s has been raised is that it seems to sanitise what has been a decade of devastation for communities, for the agricultural sector, for Zimbabwe’s future really and we really are hoping we can maybe try and look a little closely at what really is happening to counter some of the misinformation that seems to be coming out in this book. So I’m very pleased that you’ve come to join us. First of all Mr. Taffs, I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read any of the details in this book but just very briefly, what is your reaction to what is being touted in this publication.
CT: Thank you Alex. No I haven’t had a chance to read the entire book, I have read extracts. But however I was at the book launch presentation last night (Monday night) where there was a detailed presentation done by the author, or the authors should I say and it was very clear to me that their whole approach was very simplistic, based on empirical evidence on a very, very small section, in fact three farms and… There were 5300 farms that were, have been taken over this period and this empirical evidence from what I could gather from the presentation was based on three farms in Mashonaland Central.
Now Mashonaland Central is also a very specific area in that it is a very, very good agricultural area and those results from those areas cannot be applied throughout the other regions. So the regions vary greatly within the country so you must be very, very careful of this. The second thing that struck me is the title itself – “Zimbabwe Takes its Land Back”. My question is – Zimbabwe takes its land back from who? Is it from a force which has invaded Zimbabwe and taken all its land and we’ve managed to get it back or was it Zimbabwe taking its land back from Zimbabwean citizens?
70% of all farms purchased and traded after 1980, have been bought after 1980 within the rules of the Zimbabwe government and in that process, every single farm purchase had to be approved by government. The farms had to be offered to government, and the government had to express an interest or not, whether they would want the farm or not.
So in other words, 70% of all farms that were taken were actually offered to government within the first 20 years of independence and for that you got a certificate of ‘No Present Interest’. Now those are the farms that have been taken. So the questions begs to be asked – has it been taken on the basis that we stole the land or has it been taken on the basis that it’s a reaction against white farmers?
AB: It’s from this inherently racist point that it appears this book has been written, writing off the fact that if you are a white Zimbabwean, you’re not actually Zimbabwean at all. The danger of this of course is that there are many people who agree with this.
CT: Yes I think that is a total tragedy. I think 30 years after independence, Zimbabwe, the first 20 years or definitely the first 15 years was on a fantastic trajectory of growth and national bonding and I think that’s all gone awry and I think it’s gone awry for political gain. And I really believe that 30 years into independence, 32 years into independence that we’d still be talking of Zimbabweans in terms of blacks and whites, is a real sad tragedy for us.
I think it’s high time now that when you’re talking about people, or sectors or whatever you’re talking about in the case of agriculture, you’re talking about farmers, you’re not talking about black farmers, white farmers – it’s Zimbabwean farmers. And the same with Zimbabwean police, Zimbabwean military – whatever the case may be, it’s Zimbabweans. This black/white issue, to carry on at this stage to me, is disastrous.
AB: Now Mr. Taffs we’ve spoken many times in the past about the need for us to put the issue to bed so we can start moving forward. And one of the key things in this book apparently is that it is saying that production levels finally in Zimbabwe are finally reaching normality, which seems to counter a lot of information which we’ve heard, one being the fact that Zimbabwe is so dependent of food aid. So where are we realistically in terms of production and is it anywhere near back to normality as this book seems to say?
CT: Yes I think that book really needs to be challenged on this issue because it’s doing no-one any favours particularly the people that are starving to death in Zimbabwe. I think it’s really putting a false picture and needs to be attacked in the strongest form. The bottom line is here is that agriculture in Zimbabwe is an absolute mess. It’s a mess across all sectors; there has been a small recovery in tobacco and I’ll use tobacco specifically at this time: tobacco production in 2000 reached an all time high of 247 million kilos and our single biggest global export competitor was Brazil at that time who was producing 350 million kilos. Brazil now is producing 800 million kilos against the increased demand in emerging markets such as India and China.
And here we are producing 144 million kilos saying it’s a great success story. It’s not a success story. We should be up in the 600 million mark, that’s the real loss. In terms of food production – we have imported food for the past 13 years. This year again there’s an appeal by the UN after many, many warnings particularly from offices such as mine. There was a total reluctance to get involved because the story going around town was that we were producing enough food to feed ourselves and when it came to crisis point, there was panic and now there’s an emergency appeal from the UN to raise funding to feed 1.7 million people.
That 1.7 million people in my view is a low figure. I think it’s going to get worse than that. But you put that into a regional context, there’s a regional shortfall of grain, it’s not just maize, of 5 million tonnes. The question that needs to be asked is: Where’s the maize going to come from or the food’s going to come from? And when you do source that, how are we going to pay for it? We have a situation where our import/export deficit is now over five billion – how is this sustainable? How is it continuing to be sustained? That is the question that needs to be asked. So you factor in all these things – Zimbabwe is not looking good at this time.
AB: Why then do we have a publication like this? Can we look at any justification of why there seems to be such a push to sell the agricultural sector as back to normal? Is there any reason?
CT: Yah I think there are a number of reasons. I think first of all there’s been a number of books on this issue and primarily they’ve been written by academics; and these academics are being asked to write these books favourably for certain influences and that’s what we’re seeing here. We’re seeing this whole issue of the agricultural scene trying to be swept under the carpet and multi agencies and countries encouraging that to happen.
I think Zimbabwe’s coming into the limelight now in terms of its mineral wealth; its strategic placement within Africa, both in terms of mineral supply and in terms of access to central Africa, and countries want to get involved and they see the land issue as holding it back. So they’re trying desperately to sweep this under the carpet. My position is very clear: my constituents have to be represented.
They, through no fault of their own, have lost everything, together with their employees of which there were 350 thousand. One must always remember – 350 thousand employees plus their families equating to two million people were dislodged, fired, beaten, burnt – you name it in this violent aggressive attack on the commercial farming sector. That constituency needs to be dealt with and dealt with fairly before this can move on and we honestly believe that we have a proposal on the table which can deal with all these issues and take it forward.
If it’s not dealt with and swept under the carpet, the conflict will remain and Zimbabwe will be held up for many, many years. We’re seeing countries in the east, Eastern Europe, 55 years on, there are titles that were taken 55 years ago are starting to be re-established. Are we saying Zimbabwe is going to be held up for 55 years? We can’t afford that. Let’s deal with the issues on the table and take it forward now.
AB: When we talk about moving forward though, there just seems to me to be a bit of a problem because there seems to be such an active attempt to ignore and to forget the inhumanity particularly of the land reform programme, to forget the human rights abuses, to forget the tragedy that befell so many people because what has been touted especially by for example the state media and the ZANU PF friendly media is that it’s addressing imbalances that already existed and therefore it’s okay. So how do we move forward when this is an argument that is again thrown out over and over and over again?
CT: Yes that’s one of the things that saddened me yesterday (Monday). There were excuses being made for the violence based on historical fact. There’s no excuse for violence in any form and the way that this was meted out to a selected part of society was terrible in the extreme. People have been extremely traumatized; not only have they lost all their assets, they’ve been extremely traumatized and their lives have been seriously affected and in some cases people have been murdered. This cannot be acceptable in this modern time by anybody or any country and it needs to be dealt with and we need to sit down as a country and bring all these issues to the table and finalise a solution so this country can go forward.
AB: But when we talk about that – how do we finalise the issue? Is it about everyone being on the same page, is it about putting it to bed? How do we finalise it?
CT: Well I think it’s a number of issues. The first thing it’s mutual respect. I think everyone, all the players need to have a mutual respect and they need to look at it from a Zimbabwean’s perspective and not from a perspective of persuasion by outside factors. I see Zimbabwe being pushed in certain directions by certain countries – it’s very dangerous.
We need to take control of ourselves because if we allow ourselves to be pushed in certain directions we’re going to become a slave to a system down the line. Zimbabwe needs to take control of its own fortunes and as such we need to respect each other. The second thing – we can’t hide behind fictitious fact. Let’s put the facts on the table and deal with those facts in a comprehensive fair manner. If we hide behind facts such as these books are putting out, we’re not dealing with the issues because the issues on the table are not factual. We need to correct that.
AB: Something that this book doesn’t seem to take into account at all is the legal argument of what’s happened. The land grab was for one declared completely unlawful by the SADC Tribunal. We know since what has happened with the Tribunal being so stifled as a result of this ruling that it cannot function properly. But there is no mention of the fact that this is a disregard of the rule of law and that the rule of law is being completely ignored in these cases, that property rights still aren’t being respected.
CT: No that’s absolutely right. The SADC Tribunal, the highest regional court was actually suspended because SADC didn’t know how to deal with this because the ruling was that, not only was it unlawful but that it was racist in its implementation. And not only that, we’ve had farmers in the Investment Dispute Court case, the investment conflict that have been awarded awards for the loss of their businesses and yet those still have not been dealt with.
So what we’re saying to the Zimbabwean authorities is that until such time as you deal with it, you’re not going to get real investment coming to that country. And you add that onto the indigenization programme which is a massive threat on direct foreign investors whereby 51% of your businesses have got to be handed over to an indigenous body. Losing control of your actual business investment – how can this encourage investment? So all these factors need to be brought to book and taken into account and a way forward forged through that.
AB: Well Mr. Taffs, for a moment I want to talk really about the human elements of all of this because we are talking about a nation whose poverty is insanely high, the highest it’s ever been, unemployment the highest it’s ever been, people still reliant on food aid – as someone who is a farmer who has been involved in this sector for so many years, has seen it go from what was the bread basket of the region to what it is now, when you look around at what’s happened, how do you feel about it?
CT: I think it’s tragic. The social impact because of the land reform has been huge. We must remember that many, many of these commercial farms, 60% of these commercial farms had schools. Many of those schools were funded in their entirety by the farmers themselves and some were with government support. Many of these farms had clinics so when the commercial farming sector was taken out, we lost a lot of that social impact for up to two million people.
What we’re seeing right now is a massive social downfall of the people of Zimbabwe; poverty is at an all time high; the average age expectancy is down from 65 to the mid-30s; a lot of people have dropped out of education; our health system is on its knees; our education system is a fraction of what it was. One of the fantastic legacies of Zimbabwe after independence was the education system and one of the fantastic legacies of that is that we have a very educated population.
Unfortunately we’re going into a generation that is not going to be the case; the education system is certainly not where it was and we’re seeing a situation where there’s been a lot of intellectual flight because the opportunities in Zimbabwe are not there a lot of people have left and you’re getting professional people, doctors and so on, not in the country but within countries in the region or have left Africa altogether. This is a total tragedy and we need to turn this around.
AB: One thing which has come out recently is that there has been a call for an urgent land audit. What do you make of this call?
CT: Yah this land audit was part of the Global Agreement in 2009 and should have happened and in fact from my understanding, the EU have offered to pay for such an audit but it has not taken place and the question needs to be asked why has it not taken place? I think the reason for that is quite simple is that the authorities don’t want to uncover the real facts of the land takeovers and who owns what or who’s taken what.
But in order for us to move this thing forward we need an accurate assessment of who is on the ground, who is where and so on, so we can take this forward because we need to come up with a comprehensive agricultural structure going forward and in order to do that we need to know what’s actually on the ground at this time.
AB: A final question then Mr. Taffs – if we don’t sort this out as a matter of urgency, where do you see things going in the near future because this isn’t something I suppose that’s going to be another decade down the line, this is something that is happening now, so if this isn’t sorted out now, what happens?
CT: Well to me it depends on the influence of outside countries. If we don’t get an internal settlement and we allow, or Zimbabwe allows other countries to start increasing their influence, we’re actually going to be colonized again through economic colonization. I have no fact about that and I see it happening already in certain sectors whereby the Zimbabweans are mere players and the control is done outside of our borders.
We can’t allow that to happen but I do feel that if Zimbabwe carries on the way it is going, it is going to become a failed state. Economically it cannot continue. You cannot have a balance of support in excess of your GDP and that’s where we are right now and we need to create a productive base across all sectors and the bottom line of that is: property rights.
If you create property rights across all sectors, you’ll get that investment and we can start creating productivity, increasing jobs, social impact and so on. The whole business cycle can be re-established. Until that is done, Zimbabwe has got a very, very bleak future. However the potential for Zimbabwe is fantastic if we get it right.
AB: On that note, we’ve come to end of tonight’s special programme. You’ve been listening to Diaspora Diaries on SW Radio Africa. I’m Alex Bell and I’ve been joined in the studio tonight by my special guest, the president of the Commercial Farmers Union, Charles Taffs. Mr. Taffs thank you so much for joining us.
CT: Alex thanks very much, it’s been a pleasure. SW Radio Africa