A fortnight ago, President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government a said it was offering about 800 commercial farms as compensation to farmers who had lost their land during the violent land seizures that began in 2000 under then President Robert Mugabe.
The offer sparked heated debate in parliament, with legislators demanding that for it to be viable, the country’s constitution had to be changed to reverse the land reform programme.
The Sadc Tribunal Rights Watch, a group that had successfully challenged Mugabe’s land seizure in international courts, however, now says the new regulations to apparently restore farms to their owners “are misleading and provide false hope to dispossessed farmers, many of whom are now destitute.
The group, representing nearly 4,500 dispossessed commercial farmers, said the new regulations only affect ‘’indigenous’’ farmers and foreigners protected by Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreements (BIPPAs) and Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs).
The farmers are demanding nearly $7 billion in compensation for their properties.
Ben Freeth, the Sadc Tribunal Rights spokesperson, said the farmers will reject government’s offer because it was racist and did not offer dispossessed farmers any legal protection.
“Regrettably, this piece of misleading legislation is another attempt at window dressing to make it appear that the Zimbabwe government is going to return farms to their owners and re-establish property rights – but this is not the case,” Mr Freeth said.
“More than 40 years after Independence, one would legitimately expect that Section 56 of our Constitution concerning ‘equality and non-discrimination’ would apply with full force.
“The reality is that so-called ‘indigenous’ Zimbabweans have more rights than ‘white’ citizens who have been deprived of their homes, businesses and livelihoods, as well as compensation for their losses.”
He said the regulations also favoured foreign land owners whose farms were covered under BIPPAs and BITs as the white Zimbabweans who were violently thrown out of their farms during the Mugabe era.
“As such, this legislation is discriminatory,” Freeth said. “It also goes against the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) Treaty and the landmark Campbell Case judgment of November 2008 in the SADC Tribunal, the regional human rights court.”
The Sadc Tribunal ruled that Zimbabwe violated the regional body’s treaty by denying the dispossessed farmers access to the courts. It also said Zimbabwe’s land reforms discriminated against the southern African country’s white minority population.
“Discriminatory laws can quickly lead to institutionalising racial discrimination. We need to do everything we possibly can to test these counterproductive laws against our Constitution and international law,” said Freeth.
“Furthermore, the government cannot convince international investors from countries like the UK ̶ who are discriminated against because there’s no bilateral investment treaty ̶ that Zimbabwe is a secure investment destination when it fails to respect the rights of both international investors and its own citizens.”
Some of the dispossessed farmers were from Germany, Netherlands and Switzerland, and whose properties were protected by treaties between Harare and Western countries.
“While the regulations do not define the meaning of the term ‘’indigenous,’’ the government has consistently referred to ‘’black’’ Zimbabweans exclusively as ‘’indigenous’’ persons,” the Sadc Tribunal Rights Watch said.
“This is despite the fact that the standard definition of ‘’indigenous’’ applies to persons born and residing in a particular place or region, and is not exclusive to a particular race, gender or ethnicity.
“A significant number of the dispossessed white farmers were born in Zimbabwe and many were second, third or even fourth generation who knew no other home,” the group said.
Agriculture minister Perrance Shiri said 440 farms belonging to ‘’indigenous’’ people were seized during the land reform programme.
Mr Shiri said 350 of the farmers were still on the acquired land while 90 farms had resettled people, but the Sadc Tribunal Rights Watch said only three black farmers were forced off their land.
For years, Zimbabwe has ignored rulings by regional and international courts compelling it to reverse the takeover of farms protected by BIPPAs and BITs.
The International Centre for Settlement of Investment
Disputes (ICSID) – part of the World Bank Group – in 2009 and 2015 ruled against Zimbabwe in cases involving Dutch farmers.
In 2008, the now defunct Sadc Tribunal ruled that Zimbabwe’s land reform programme was patently racist and Harare was ordered to compensate the dispossessed farmers.
“The reason that BIPPA and BIT-protected properties are now being considered for compensation is that the bankrupt government needs the support of foreign donors and international lending institutions,” the Sadc Tribunal Rights Watch added.
The EU, Britain and the US put the issue of compensation of the white commercial farmers as one of the pre-conditions for re-engagement with Zimbabwe after Mugabe’s fall in a military coup in 2017.
International lenders such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have also emphasised that Zimbabwe must compensate the dispossessed land owners if it wants loans.
Mr Mugabe, who had ruled Zimbabwe since Independence from Britain in 1980, championed the land reform programme saying it was meant to correct colonial injustices.
Critics, however, say the government parcelled the productive farms to ruling party officials and supporters who had no interest in farming.
A land audit initiated by President Mnangagwa showed that a number of top politicians owned multi-farms that remained underutilised. Some of the multiple-farm owners include Mugabe family members. President Mnangagwa hinted late last year that former first lady Grace Mugabe owned at least 16 farms.
He said the farms would be taken back in line with the government’s “one family, one farm” policy. The government has also been seizing farms owned by Mugabe’s loyalists who fled into exile during the military coup.
The agrarian reforms led to the collapse of the country’s agriculture-based economy and cased mass food shortages that persist to date. Aid agencies say at least eight million Zimbabweans or half the population will need food aid this year after consecutive seasons of poor harvests.