Can black and white make green in Zimbabwe?
As whites forge post-Mugabe roles, the economic crisis might just unite ordinary people regardless of race
Rusty Markham gazes over the corrugated tin and wood structures that make up the Harare suburb of Hatcliffe, and recounts everything that it lacks: metalled roads, running water, a fit-for-purpose sewerage system, and political leaders who care.
“In 38 years, Zanu-PF have destroyed Harare,” he says with feeling. “That’s why we are going to win here – in five years, the local MP has done nothing.”
Home to both Zimbabwe’s most exclusive postcode and the visceral neglect of Hatcliffe, few constituencies embody the economic dysfunction engulfing this country like Harare North, the constituency Markham is contesting for the opposition MDC Alliance in Monday’s elections.But Markham, who says he is certain to unseat the incumbent Zanu-PF MP, is an unusual candidate.
The great-grandson of an Anglican missionary who came on foot into what is now Zimbabwe in the 1890s, he is a living embodiment of a British colonial past. Predominantly British settlers began to arrive here when Cecil Rhodes marched north from present-day South Africa in the 1890s.
Although they never numbered more than 300,000 people, they wielded complete economic and political control over the black majority in an often brutal system of apartheid for nearly a century.
White-minority rule ended in 1980, following a bloody war that has cast a long shadow over the country’s domestic politics ever since.And following Robert Mugabe’s often violent programme of forcibly reappointing white-owned farms in the early 2000s, very few whites remain. The latest census, from 2012, puts their number at just 28,732, less than 0.2% of the population. Many are elderly, and perhaps as few as 2,000 are still economically active.
Markham is one of just four white candidates standing for parliament for the MDC. Zanu-PF, the ruling party, has two. “Only the stupid ones stayed,” jokes Markham. “We’ve been told time and again that we were not welcome.
“I’m just sick of apologising for the colour of my skin. The white community has been quite cowardly when it comes to politics.”But since Mugabe was deposed in November, the conversation around race and land has taken a remarkable turn. While reversing the land seizures is politically effectively impossible, a consensus has emerged that the displaced farmers must somehow be paid the compensation they are owed.
Last Saturday, President Emmerson Mnangagwa promised Harare’s tiny and ageing white community that remaining white farmers would be issued with 99-year leases.
He acknowledged that the land reform programme had been disastrous for the economy and appealed to former farmers to lend their expertise to rebuild the country.“We became beggars,” he said. “Come and help us. We used to do horticulture ... we must get back to it and become a bread basket.”Drive south from Harare on the road towards South Africa, and for kilometres it is flanked by abandoned fields covered in two decades’ worth of low-lying scrub. Occasionally, the road passes a gate in a rusted fence with an empty signboard.
A handful of farmers survived, often with the help of political patronage, and continue to raise beef and grow tobacco. Others have found a new role, hired by agricultural finance multinationals to advise black farmers. They include Chris Shepherd, who was evicted from his farm in 2002. “I went to look at living in Australia and New Zealand, but both my wife and I knew we could not settle over there. This is home,” he says.Back in Hatcliffe, Markham puts the changes in political rhetoric down to the economic crisis. “They realise they are in a deep hole. And the only way out of a hole is together. The crisis here has definitely brought black and white together.”
But this election, he says, has nothing to do with colour and everything to do with political disillusionment sweeping the country.
“We need roads and we need water,” says a local Zanu-PF official, who on condition of anonymity says he thinks Markham likely to win. “Just because of his involvement. People really want change.”
– © The Daily Telegraph