Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Taking of Summerhill: A Story of Race, Injustice, and Corruption

“’Look, if you’re going to take the farm, and that’s inevitably what’s going to happen, you can have the second farm.’ And they [the Zimbabwean government] said, ‘Well that’s not enough.’ So, they said, ‘We’ll take some of your main farm,’ which was Summerhill.”

In an office in Harare, I listened to Myles Hall explain how the Zimbabwean government had first taken his second farm and then the first piece of the Summerhill farm that I visited a few days later.

This was only the beginning. Eventually they took more. Myles explains this in the clip below his encounter with Kindness Paradza.

The ironic thing is that Kindness' surname, Paradza, means "to break up/destroy". Myles just laughs about the whole situation. From there Myles and his family moved into his parents' home on the last remaining piece of Summerhill. Nomhle Mliswa had been trying to get the last of his farm. During the course of over a month in 2007, Myles' workers stood their ground to security guards and their large dogs - partly out of loyalty and partly because they hadn't been paid for that month - to protect the farm. They guarded in 12-hour shifts at the gate. As the niece of Zanu-PF henchman Didymus Mutasa, Mliswa finally made it happen.

Said Myles, “And while I was in town one day she moved into my house and I never got back in again. That was on the 20th of September, 2007.” But even then his workers didn't leave. Now on the outside of the gate, they stayed to make sure no equipment was stolen.

For close to a month I traveled the country talking to farmers and workers, and this is only a sliver of what I found. I could write an entire separate blog on the stories of injustice and brutality toward (and sometimes killings of) farmers, their workers, and especially farm animals. And it's still going on. Once, when trying to travel to a farm in Chipinge, my host told me we couldn't go because there were fresh attacks. Only later did I see this news report. Farmers and their workers have an amazing memory of how the events unfolded for themselves, and a disturbingly sharp recollection of exact dates, kind of like how you remember exactly what you were doing on 9/11.

But this isn't just about the white farmers, many of whom have seen their entire life savings dry up in the government's inflationary blunders and lost their livelihoods. It's also about the millions of people they employed directly and indirectly. John Mbewe, after losing his job at Myles' farm, came to community farmer Dave Fortecue (a friend of Myles) with no options. "It was July 28th," he recalls. "When I started working with Dave, there was a big problem for me...I was left with only two buckets of maize," and "I use two buckets of maize per month with my family.” Once down to his last month of food, John is now succeeding with Dave's help. But it's not that way for all the former workers. Shaddai Kumiti, who herds what's left of Myles' cattle, explains in the video.

And what is happening with this land now? Not much. Many of the farmers who took over, with their political or big business jobs, live in Harare. Farmers and their workers derisively call them "cell phone farmers". Shaddai and Clever Kudenga talk about what's been going on at Nomhle Mliswa's farm and Paradza's farm. (note: when they talk about Nomsa, they're referring to Nomhle)

It's a sad state government officials have driven Zimbabwe into. What was labeled on paper as taking back the land for the common black natives has instead turned out to be an all-you-can-grab land buffet for government officials and their kin. With new policies and corruption happening all the time, no one can really plan for the future. And when you can't plan, it's hard, or maybe more accurately - silly - to invest, which is the main way to get a country to grow. With the incredible brain drain happening (I recently sat on a flight next to an Egyptian ear and throat doctor, who is now the only one in all of southern Zimbabwe), it's tempting to think that if things don't turn around soon it could be all but over for Zim. But, as one farmer explained to me, "It's never too late."

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