October 31, 2002

Split in Commercial Farmers' Union

The divided Commercial Farmers' Union (CFU) came to a crossroads this week, but analysts say whatever route the organisation takes will not lead to the salvation of Zimbabwe's commercial farming sector in the near future or the government's deviation from its set course.

The council of the CFU, which represents the majority of the country's white farmers, met on Tuesday, October 29, amid division over whether the union should maintain diplomatic dialogue with the government or aggressively pursue litigation to oppose the eviction of thousands of commercial farmers from their properties. About 90 percent of Zimbabwe's 4 500 white farmers have been served with notice to cease farming and vacate their properties under a controversial government programme to resettle blacks. On Tuesday, the CFU council announced the resignation of union president Colin Cloete and the retirement of director David Hasluck. The council said Cloete had resigned "for personal reasons", but both he and Hasluck have been seen as supporting continued dialogue with the government, which many in the union oppose.

In a terse statement announcing the departure of the two officials, CFU vice president Doug Taylor-Freeme said the organisation had embarked on a broader strategy that would "encompass the needs of all members, regardless of whether they are farming or not". Some farmers said the departure of Cloete and Hasluck might herald a more vigorous strategy to fight the government's seizure of farms without paying compensation. "Farmers have realised that in the past year-and-a-half of dialogue, more and more people have just been kicked off their farms," said Ben Freeth, a CFU regional executive officer who was suspended from the organisation in November. Freeth was removed from his post for criticising the government's handling of the land reform programme and accuses the CFU leadership of bowing to government pressure to force him out. He told the Financial Gazette: "We have now probably got only 10 percent of people still farming and that has major implications for the whole country and not just the farmers. Dialogue has simply failed and a stronger approach is necessary. "I don't believe either Mr Cloete or Mr Hasluck were prepared to change their way of doing things and have made room for people who are prepared to take different action. What we need is a strong leadership, and if that is in place, people can then go on."

But analysts this week described the farmers' split as "tragic" because neither of the contested options had any chance of averting the destruction of Zimbabwe's commercial farming sector. Economic consultant John Robertson said: "It has been enormously painful to see how it has developed. They are fighting each other when they should be uniting to fight the real enemy. "We have seen the people who ought to be uniting and fighting very hard to protect each other being divided and not protecting each other or themselves. It seems they have been misinformed that if they had done something different, they could have had a different outcome, but I don't think that's true."

Commentators said pursuing litigation against the government would prove futile for farmers, even though it has had some success in the past few months. Some members of Justice for Agriculture in Zimbabwe, a militant pressure group that seeks to challenge the farm seizures in court, have had some success in the courts since the organisation's formation in July. However, the analysts pointed out that the government had simply ignored court rulings in favour of the farmers or changed the rules by amending legislation to close the loopholes that had caused the courts to rule in favour of evicted farm owners.

The collapse of commercial agriculture, the backbone of Zimbabwe's economy, will have widespread implications for already struggling local companies that rely on the sector for raw materials and markets. Commercial agriculture accounts for 38 percent of Zimbabwe's export earnings, while farmers in the sector have in the past produced most of the country's food during severe droughts such as the one presently blighting southern Africa. The land reform plan has already slashed food production by at least 60 percent in the past year and analysts say food security will remain precarious for the next two years. (FINANCIAL GAZETTE)

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