« Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the land » (William Jennings Bryan, 9 July 1896).
These words have proven to be very prophetic for Zimbabwe. In making this statement, however, Bryan could never have dreamt of a government purposefully destroying its own farms. In 2000, President Robert Mugabe launched Zimbabwe’s controversial fast-track land reforms, seizing the majority of the 4,500 farms held by mostly white commercial farmers. This came in response to a free referendum held on the Zimbabwean Government’s proposed alterations to the constitution. As the result showed that Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party did not have majority support, the Mugabe government made the retention of power at any cost its prime focus.
The farmers, although making up only a minute fraction of the population, were seen as key supporters of the opposition and therefore the first to be punished in vindictive and brutal attacks. Many white farmers have fallen victim to robbery, beatings and even murder, including prominent Centenary farmer Colin Zietsman. Locals are incited by the prospect of gaining land. John Robertson, a Zimbabwean economist, explains, “If you display your loyalty to the ruling party, you will get a free piece of land. If you show any disloyalty to the party… you’ll lose it”. White farmers are driven from their farms by government-sponsored agents so they can no longer make a meaningful contribution to the opposition, and those who stay to protect their land are attacked and killed.
As of 2011, there are fewer than 300 white farmers remaining in Zimbabwe, as a result of the many human rights violations that had been committed. The documentary “Mugabe And The White African” follows Michael Campbell, one of these last remaining farmers, his son-in-law Ben Freeth, and their family, as they challenge Robert Mugabe and the Zimbabwean government before the Southern African Development Community tribunal for racial discrimination and human rights violations. The case was simple: the family claimed they were being targeted for one reason – their colour. Their aim was to set a legal precedent, that whites had the same right to legal protection as any other oppressed minority.
The film exposes the violence brought upon many white farmers in Zimbabwe, as well as the level of corruption withtin the government. The film was also the first feature film to be shot in Zimbabwe for years, after Western journalists had been banned from working in the country. For this reason, and to avoid imprisonment, the film was covertly shot with hidden cameras. Not only can one be sure to witness a true account of events in Zimbabwe, but also the courage of these people to stand up for what is right. Freeth, aware that he may be killed for challenging Mugabe, states quite simply at one point during filming, “It’s always a possibility under a dictator. Does that stop you?” Mr Freeth, also a human rights activist, has recently published a book under the film’s name, which he talks about here.
While the film seems to offer hope for the future of farming in Zimbabwe, the reality is that the measures many farmers are taking to contest these controversial land reforms are not enough. White farmers have no legal protection and the few judges who find in favour of white claimants often end up losing their jobs. There are also people who believe that the white farmers are to blame for their own demise, such as Henning Mankell.
However, despite the number of white farmers in Zimbabwe decreasing, and the farms being taken over by locals, the problem of eviction still remains. While some of the new farmers are doing well, others have found that if they cross the ruling party, they face losing their new land. This demonstrates that while the film focuses on the issue of racism, the problem pertains more to issues such as loyalty to Mugabe and the corrupt government he runs. Not only are new farmers being evicted, but many are struggling to keep their farms up and running. Over half of the new farmers fall under this category as well as those who are not using the land for active production, or have given up altogether. Zimbabwe now faces a whole new problem altogether. The United Nations World Food Programme is appealing for approximately £27 million to help more than one million Zimbabweans get through to next year’s harvest.
The film shows us that standing up against oppressors and defending human rights can be done in the most severe circumstances, and is a beacon of hope for activists around the globe. It is unfortunate that the documentary cannot provide optimism about the future of the country, but reality proves that white farmers are facing the end of an era, and the future of agriculture in Zimbabwe looks more problematic than usual.