Fergal Keane: Ireland can make a huge difference to landless farmers of Zimbabwe


Vehicles display the logos for Zimbabwean opposition Movement For Democratic Change (MDC) party, and the ruling ZANU PF party outside an election nomination court in Harare, Zimbabwe last week. Photo: Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo
Vehicles display the logos for Zimbabwean opposition Movement For Democratic Change (MDC) party, and the ruling ZANU PF party outside an election nomination court in Harare, Zimbabwe last week. Photo: Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo

The southern winter is a glorious thing with chilly nights and warm days, dust in the air and lungs, the harvested maize stalks withering in stooped ranks, the chapped lips and static in the air, the smell of fires at dusk and the skies that go on forever. And the land burned gold and brown in the absence of rain. The land. Begetter of life and instigator of tragedies.

“The land that has happened inside us, this nobody can take away from us, not even ourselves.”

The words belong to the South African writer, Andre Brink, and were written 40 years ago when the struggle against apartheid was at its most bitter.

He wrote of the journey of a black man and a white woman through the interior of South Africa in the 18th Century. There is a love story – a scandalous proposition when it was first published in South Africa – between black and white. But the true love in Brink’s book is for the land.

In the mid 18th Century the land of southern Africa was still being colonised.

In fact that process would continue until late in the 19th Century when Cecil Rhodes’s invading columns moved into Matabeleland and Mashonaland to carve out the country that is today known as Zimbabwe. They shot, hanged and flogged the original occupants, subjugated them and took their land away.

As Ireland was celebrating its first successful revolution – the land campaign led by Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt – precisely the opposite process was underway in southern Africa.

The seizure of black land by imperialists did not appear to trouble Parnell. He was a man of his time. He even accepted a substantial political donation from Cecil Rhodes who saw in the push for Irish Home Rule a useful template for his own self-governing ambitions in Africa. That was in 1888.

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Two years later Rhodes’s columns rolled north on the fateful journey that would lead to dispossession, the installation of a white supremacist regime, a bitter liberation war, the rise to power of Robert Mugabe, the invasion of white farms, the destruction of the country’s economy, a military backed coup and the arrival in power last November of Emmerson Mnangagwa.

It is a lot of history crowded into the short span of 118 years. And still the question of land haunts the nation.

More than once on this journey through the winter fields of Zimbabwe I have been reminded of my uncle John B and his play The Field. He knew that in rural Ireland, just as in rural Africa, what famine could do to the psyche of a people. In the words of the Bishop who addresses the congregation after a man has been murdered in a north Kerry land dispute:

“And in this parish, you, and your fathers before you knew what it was to starve because you did not own your own land – and that has increased; this unappeasable hunger for land.” Come forward to 1992 when a north Kerry woman facing eviction declared: “I will give up my life before I give up that land.” She went to jail with her husband to make her point.

I am back in Zimbabwe and I am legal once more, having spent over a decade on a Government blacklist. A senior minister once described me as a ‘wizard’ who came to destabilise the country. He has now fled into exile and would be arrested on sight if he were foolish enough to return. Mr Jonathan Moyo became a victim of his talent for picking the wrong side in the bitter factional disputes that culminated in last September’s military coup. He was a pal of Grace Mugabe and poured scorn and vitriol on her enemies.

Mr Moyo was the propagandist who justified the brutal land invasions that ruined the country’s agricultural production in the name of writing an historic wrong.

The majority of white farmers were driven from the fields in the guise of righting the historic wrong initiated by Cecil Rhodes and his accomplices.

The imagery of white families being terrorised out of their homes caused outrage, particularly in Britain. For Mugabe it all had much more to do with sustaining his power than obtaining justice for the landless. Many of the prime beneficiaries of the land invasions were party hacks and senior generals. Given the history, white farmers were an easy diversionary target when Zimbabweans bridled under Mugabe’s despotic rule.

But his cynical, brutal tactics do not take away from the justice of land reform. Travelling the country, I met landless black families hoping that the new dispensation would give them their own few acres at last. I met a liberation war veteran stranded on a farm he had neither the training or capital to make flourish, regretting the international isolation which followed the invasions he had helped to lead. And I met white farmers who were hoping to get back onto the land. If they do, they will help this country to recover. Those I met, like Ben Freeth, who was driven off his farm nine years ago, are patriotic Zimbabweans. While lobbying to return to his land he has been helping to train black farmers.

A land that once exported food to the region now must import to feed itself. Zimbabwe needs a thriving agricultural sector. As the former colonial power, Britain has a special responsibility here. But Ireland can help too. Our farmers and agri-business experts needn’t wait for the Government to start pouring extra funding into Zimbabwe, if it ever does.

They can approach organisations like the Limerick-based Bothar, Concern, Oxfam Ireland and ask what they can do to help. Think of the expertise an organisation like Kerry PLC group could offer. What began as a group of farmers’ cooperatives banding together in north Kerry is now an international food giant with a multi-million Euro business. What better triumph over the legacy of dispossession and famine?

In an age when there is much justifiable scrutiny of foreign aid and its usefulness, Zimbabwe presents a special case. Yes there are questions about a Government largely made up of former allies of Robert Mugabe, men and women who presided over the land invasions that produced such ruin. But there is a realisation in Harare that with any new investment, there will be strong scrutiny. The old methods cannot endure. Help must be carefully targeted. It cannot be a charter to make fat cats fatter. The landless, the small farmers have waited too long for justice. If ever there was a place where a small country like ours could make a very big difference it is Zimbabwe.

Fergal Keane is the BBC Africa Editor

Sunday Independent

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