A Swiss outcast in Zimbabwe

Thousands of white farmers are facing the prospect of eviction from their land Keystone Archive

As white farmers in Zimbabwe wait to see if they will be forced off their land, some - like Swiss national Peter Ziegler - have already thrown in the towel.

This content was published on August 14, 2002 - 16:47

For Ziegler and his family, the threats, intimidation and violence have become too much.

In May, Ziegler and his family abandoned their award-winning tobacco farm west of the country's capital, Harare, leaving behind almost 20 years of work.

Like many white farmers in Zimbabwe, Ziegler looks likely to end up with nothing.

His case - which is being repeated almost daily - is at the centre of a bitter land dispute that has split the southern African country and contributed to its international reputation as a pariah state.

A handful of Swiss farmers are among nearly 3,000 white landowners facing eviction after a government deadline to leave their land expired earlier this month.

Evictions to be finished by August

The forced evictions are part of a push by President Robert Mugabe to redistribute white-owned land to blacks, especially veterans of the 1970s Rhodesian liberation war.

The government says the move is designed to resolve a colonial-era imbalance during which whites held 70 percent of the best farmland.

Since February 2000, pro-government militants have been invading white-owned farms, forcing many farmers off their land.

On Monday, Mugabe issued fresh warnings to white farmers who have not yet surrendered their properties. He said the seizure of white farmers would be completed by the end of August.

Farmers groups, along with countries such as the United States, Britain and New Zealand have condemned the evictions, and warned that they are contributing to a growing food crisis.

Food shortage

Zimbabwe, once one of Southern Africa's most productive countries, has been forced to import staple crops such as maize and now faces severe food shortages.

Ziegler - a 44-year-old farmer born of Swiss parents - is one of many whites who say they have been forced to abandon their livelihoods.

"We faced systematic intimidation, harassment, death threats, verbal abuse, and interrogation over a two-year period - against myself, against my family and also against my employers," Ziegler told swissinfo.

"Basically they were telling us we were not welcome to continue farming on our property.

"We decided for our own safety, that of my wife and two children and also our employees, to shut up shop and move into Harare."

The family is now fighting a losing battle for compensation from the government, and is considering whether to move to Europe.

Farm "systematically looted"

At its height, the Ziegler says his farm employed and housed some 140 black workers, and in 2000, won Zimbabwe's tobacco grower of the year award.

"It's being systematically looted," Ziegler says. "I returned to the farm about a month ago and the majority of all the electrical stuff has been stolen."

After vowing to stay on their farm after their first eviction notice was served in 1998, the family came under increasing pressure to move after settlers began taking over the farm.

Ziegler says the family cancelled its crop last year after seedbeds were destroyed, irrigation equipment stolen, and the farm burnt out.

"In August of 2001, I was marched away by army officers and policemen for interrogation, and by September we made the final decision to close up shop and put our employees on notice," he said.

Coexistence "impossible"

Ziegler says relations with local Africans who took over the farm deteriorated when the family refused to move.

"I did intimate at the time that there was no way I was willing to coexist. It's been proven time and again that coexistence doesn't work.

"It would have strapped us financially. We would be supplying [the locals] with all the inputs - tractors, power, whatever - for them to grow their crops and they basically reap the benefits.

"Basically taking something for nothing, which they've done anyway."

Rhetoric softens

The plight of white farmers has fuelled an international campaign against the Zimbabwe government, which remains in dire need of foreign aid.

The need to resolve the country's looming food shortage is being seen as one of the main reason's for a recent softening in Mugabe anti-white farmer stance.

On Tuesday, he told a gathering of war veterans that "all genuine and well-meaning white farmers" who were "loyal citizens" need not go without land.

Ziegler says the comments are vacuous.

"I don't know what he means by that. The people who weren't loyal farmers left 20 years ago when Mugabe came to power," Ziegler said.

"I would class myself as a loyal farmer. We've been on that farm for 12 years; we grew tobacco, employed over 140 people. How much more loyal can you be."

by Jacob Greber

Zimbabwe brief

Swiss national Peter Ziegler abandoned his farm in Zimbabwe last May, saying the threats, intimidation and violence had become too much. He and his family are now living in the capital, Harare, where they say they are fighting a losing battle for compensation from the government.

President Robert Mugabe has said some 3,000 white farmers will be forced off their land by the end of August, if they do not leave voluntarily. He says the land grabs are intended to resolve a colonial-era imbalance during which whites held 70 percent of the best farmland.

Critics say the chief beneficiaries are Mugabe's cronies, and that the policy has contributed to a growing food crisis.

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