No evictions reported as deadline for white farmers to leave land passes

Friday, August 9th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) _ A government deadline for Zimbabwe's white farmers to give up their land passed without incident Friday, and it remained uncertain if police would try to forcibly evict them.

Local police said they had no plans to remove the farmers, who were ordered to leave their land as part of the country's program to redistribute farms to blacks.

``There has been no activity, arrests or approaches at this time,'' said David Hasluck, director of the Commercial Farmers Union.

About 95 percent of the country's white-owned farms have been targeted by the government for seizure, and 2,900 farmers were told to leave their land. The government says its program corrects colonial era injustices by taking farms from whites and giving them to blacks, but it has caused chaos in the farming industry and contributed to a severe food shortage.

The farmers union, representing the nation's 4,000 white farmers, said many farmers had packed up personal belongings for safekeeping, but up to three-fourths of those facing immediate eviction vowed to stay until the government's intentions were clear.

The union advised its members to remain calm and avoid confrontation if approached by government officials or ruling party militants.

``Farmers are generally staying at home to assess the situation as it develops,'' said Ben Zietsman, a union official in the western province of Matabeleland.

State radio said veterinary officials in the western district of Inyati were checking reports that 12 cattle may have been poisoned by a defiant farm manager as he left his property.

On Wednesday, Vice President Joseph Msika tried to allay fears that government and ruling party militants would begin widespread and possibly violent evictions Friday at the start of celebrations honoring the guerrilla war that ended white rule and led to independence in 1980.

Although Msika refused to extend the deadline, he told farmers the nation needed ``a deliberate blending of your experience, expertise and knowledge'' to feed its people.

The deadline came as half Zimbabwe's 12.5 million people face severe hunger, according to the World Food Program. The WFP blames the crisis on drought combined with the agricultural chaos caused by the seizures of commercial farms, which are mainly owned by whites.

Critics say the government land redistribution program is part of a wider effort to crush Zimbabwe's opposition and they charge that much of the seized land is earmarked for government officials and their cronies.

Local government minister Ignatious Chombo said officials expected farmers to leave by the deadline.

Those defying the orders ``will be arrested and dealt with by police. It is fairly straightforward as far as I am concerned,'' he said.

Some hope of reprieve emerged earlier after a court invalidated one of the eviction orders.

In his ruling Wednesday, High Court Judge Charles Hungwe said the eviction order against farmer Andrew Kockett was invalid because Kockett had a mortgage on the property and the government had not consulted the bank.

Farming officials said many other farmers have mortgages on their land, as well as other bank debts, giving the banks what Hungwe described as ``legal rights of interest'' in the disposal of land.

Economists estimate white farmers owe the nation's private banks at least $70 million in annual operating loans, excluding mortgage repayments and other charges that are difficult to estimate.

The seizure program has left the future of the nation's 350,000 farm workers in doubt, with fears of massive layoffs.