22 March 2001

ZIMBABWE: Commercial farmers want urgent dialogue with government

Zimbabwe's white farmers banded together on Wednesday after a landmark meeting and pledged to work with the government to resolve the nation's land reform crisis - this after an apparent split within their ranks over the violence-wracked scheme. The farmers reaffirmed their support for their union's current leadership, expressed their "absolute commitment" to negotiating with the government, and pledged to work to find a solution to the land reform crisis.

"It was a very progressive congress, we walked in there apparently divided," said Malcolm Vowles, spokesman for the mostly white Commercial Farmers' Union (CFU). "The rift, if there ever was one, has been mended," he added. The special CFU congress came after more than a year of bloodshed in Zimbabwe's countryside linked to the forcible invasions of hundreds of white-owned farms by self-styled veterans of the nation's liberation war.

"As farmers we accept we must do more to end the crisis on the land. We've been fighting for a principle, but the result of waging that war has been a disaster for all involved in agriculture here," Vowles said. More than 34 people died in political violence last year in Zimbabwe, while thousands more were beaten, raped or intimidated.

In hopes of ending the violence, former CFU president Nick Swanepoel ran advertisements in local papers last week urging farmers to drop all opposition to the scheme to resettle poor blacks on five million hectares of white-owned land. His plan called for dropping all legal action against the government and immediately moving 20,000 families on to plots of two to five hectares each, providing them with free tillage, fertilizer and seeds.

After their meeting, the CFU remained silent about its new proposals for ending the crisis, but adopted none of Swanepoel's recommendations publicly. The union did ask Swanepoel to work with a team of negotiators in dealing with President Robert Mugabe's government, of which Swanepoel is considered a supporter.

"Commercial farmers re-confirmed their absolute commitment to urgent dialogue with government, without preconditions, and to assisting in the successful, orderly implementation of land reforms," said a statement released at the end of the meeting. "Delegates strongly endorsed new proposals, expressing unity of purpose and support for the CFU pragmatic new thinking and vision," the statement said.

The government broke off dialogue on with the CFU last week, accusing them of deceit in the protracted negotiations. Information Minister Jonathan Moyo said the farmers were part of an external anti-government publicity campaign, which had resulted in most international donors cutting off aid to the country. But presidential press secretary George Charamba said that negotiations could be re-opened depending on what the farmers have to offer.

"We've always been prepared to listen to the white farmers, let's see what new proposals they come up with," he said. Farming officials declined to elaborate on the new proposals, but participants in the meeting said they were reluctant to adopt all of Swanepoel's plan, especially his call for abandoning their legal struggle.

The farmers have already won a Supreme Court ruling declaring Mugabe's land reform plan unconstitutional and ordering the squatters' eviction. But rather than following the court's order, Mugabe's government has heaped pressure on the judges who handed down the decision and cracked down on the independent press.

The CFU's new conciliatory line could mean an end to the deadlock that has contributed to Zimbabwe's economic slump - the worst since independence. "We'll talk to government as soon as they'll see us," Vowles said, "Yes, we have concrete proposals to put to them, let's hope we can solve this through further negotiation." (IRIN)

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