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‘The First White Farmer Had Been Murdered’

Thursday, April 15, 2010

An eyewitness account of Zimbabwe’s collapse.

"I was five thousand miles away, drunk and happily unaware at a friend's birthday party in Berlin, when I learned that the first white farmer had been murdered." So begins the book The Last Resort, by Douglas Rogers. Rogers grew up in Zimbabwe on a chicken farm and vineyard; his parents presently own a small resort called Drifters, hence the title. “Own” is used here very loosely, since the concept of ownership in President Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe is only tangentially related to the concept of ownership as we know it. The book chronicles the life of Rogers's parents since that first farmer died in the Zimbabwe land invasions that began in 2000.

Faced with increasing political opposition in early 2000, particularly in rural areas, Mugabe announced a "land reform" policy that led to the invasion of large white-owned commercial farms by "war vets." The interlopers staked out small plots on the white farmers' land, and with an unremitting campaign of both psychological terror and physical violence, drove those owners from their homes and farms. Five years after the beginning of land reform, only 300 of the original 4,500 white farmers remained. Rogers was aware of that campaign when he heard of the murder. He was immediately frightened for his parents’ safety and called them at their home in Zimbabwe. His mother answered:

"Hello, yes, who's this?"

"Mom, it's me Douglas. Jesus, what's happening? Are you guys all right?"

"It's terrible," she said.

"What's happening, Mom, What's happening?"

"We've already lost four wickets."

In nine short years, Zimbabwe has fallen from boasting a world-class agriculture that was the country's leading export industry to a subsistence agriculture that can't feed its own people.

Mom and Dad were watching a cricket match. Rogers expected them to be manning the barricades, packing their bags, hunkering down in anticipation of the worst. The scene sets the tone for the book. Various misfortunes befall the elder Rogers while their son urges decamping to more civilized parts. But Mom and Dad stay, fortified by brandy, Coca-Cola, cigarettes, and a seemingly endless capacity for facing bad news with humor and grit.

The Rogers' resort has a group of cottages, originally built to serve backpackers and other tourists trekking through Zimbabwe. Tourism ended with the political unrest. The cottages didn't sit empty; the decline in Zimbabwe's fortunes was mirrored in the procession of visitors to the cottages. The first residents after the land invasions began were white refugees, as farmers used the Rogers' cabins as a way station on their trek out of the country. Rogers heard from his parents only intermittently, and then only late at night, as electricity was often absent during daylight hours. This problem improved temporarily when several of their cabins were occupied by technicians from the electric company.

On a trip to visit his parents in 2005, Rogers found his parents cheerier and enjoying a new television complete with satellite dish. On a trip down to the Drifters' lodge, he discovered the reason for the newfound prosperity. They'd leased the lodge and cabins to a local man, a former manager on a nearby farm that had been invaded. When Rogers stopped by the bar, he was almost immediately propositioned. His parents’ resort was now a brothel, with local working girls frequenting the place at night and businessmen and members of the government bringing their mistresses and second wives in the day time. The culture is still polygamous, and because of the collapse in the economy, men with two wives were no longer able to afford a "small house" for the second wife, and had to make do with the cottages at the Drifters. The resort later enjoyed another boost in visitors when diamonds were discovered nearby and the lodge became a hangout for illicit diamond dealers.

Rogers's reaction to all this?

The invaders arrived as the couple was attempting to flee. After eight years of tension, they were finally facing eviction from their home.

"I could hardly judge my parents for cashing in on the trade. Prostitution appeared to be the only growth industry in the country. For the first time in five years they were making money from their business. And it dawned on me now that they weren't facing up to their own mortality at all. They were adapting, surviving, hanging on."

In 2009, Zimbabwe printed a Z$100 trillion note. That's a one, followed by 14 zeroes—the highest denomination currency in the history of the world. The destruction of agriculture caused a crisis in confidence and a loss of foreign exchange, which set off an inflation of historic proportions. Before land reform, Zimbabwe had been the bread basket of Africa, raising enough food for her people and providing 40 percent of the foreign exchange earnings of the country. Zimbabwe was a major flue-cured tobacco exporter, and grew nearly a tenth of Europe's horticultural imports. After land reform, Zimbabwe papered over the loss of foreign exchange with printing presses.

The Rogers had managed to move a small amount of money outside the country. When they needed funds, the hard currency was so valuable on the black market that their savings actually went further in Zimbabwe than it would have outside the country. A similar paradox explains the reluctance of the government to clamp down on inflation. In 2007, the official exchange rate was Z$30,000 to the U.S.dollar, while the black market rate was 1 million Zimbabwean dollars to the U.S. dollar. Only officials of Mugabe's regime had access to money at the official rate. They could become wealthy with just a few black market transactions.

Five years after the beginning of 'land reform,' only 300 of the original 4,500 white farmers remained.

The Rogers' money-changer is Mrs. Moneypenny. She plies her trade at no small personal risk, but says she stays in Zimbabwe because she loves to play golf and is afraid she isn't good enough to play on the more competitive South African courses. She asked the elder Mr. Rogers, a retired lawyer, for advice. According to him, he did not offer  "conventional legal advice," but advice more appropriate to Mugabe's Zimbabwe. The senior Rogers was helping her locate and hire a witch doctor to cast a spell on her biggest enemy. In one of the funniest scenes in the book, Mrs. Moneypenny describes how her enemy was rushed to the hospital shortly after she followed the witch doctor's instructions by spreading ashes on the 13th hole of the local golf course.

In my own interviews with farmers who were victims of land invasions, I learned of the all-night-long indoctrination sessions with forced attendance by farm employees, and I listened to farmers describe being poked with machetes by invaders high on dope and power. I talked to one farmer who had emigrated to the United States and taken a job on a dairy farm in Georgia, and listened while he tearfully described leaving the country with no money and no possessions, happy to escape with his life. I corresponded with another farmer who had lost the work of generations of his family in weeks, and saw the greenhouses he had built sold as scrap by new farmers who lacked the knowledge or skill to continue raising crops in those facilities. It was clear from our interview that the wanton waste was almost more painful to him than the loss of his property. Those stories were hard to listen to, but somehow the humor in Rogers's book makes his description of this tragedy even more real. No matter how awful Zimbabwe has been in the last decade, life goes on—at the Drifters as well as in the rest of the country.

Before land reform, Zimbabwe had been the bread basket of Africa, raising enough food for her people, and providing 50 percent of the foreign exchange earnings of the country. After land reform, Zimbabwe papered over the loss of foreign exchange with printing presses.

Mugabe set about destroying the agriculture of Zimbabwe for his own political reasons, and in that endeavor he has been successful. In nine short years, Zimbabwe has fallen from boasting a world-class agriculture that was the country's leading export industry to a subsistence agriculture that can't feed its own people. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates corn production in Zimbabwe in 2008–2009 at 0.59 tons/hectare. U.S. farms yield about 13 times as much. According to the USDA, farmland hasn't been limed (to lower the acidity of the soil) in many years, fertilizer production in the country is at 20 percent of capacity, and the farmers are eating their seed corn. While the people are starving, the area devoted to corn production is actually decreasing. For those whose definition of “sustainable” includes no outside inputs, Zimbabwean agriculture is the perfect example and the predictable result.

The latest election in Zimbabwe resulted in a runoff and a coalition government. Just before the runoff election in June 2008, the Rogers' tenuous situation came to a head. The Rogers received warning of the presence of 25 "war vets" who were headed toward their home. The invaders arrived as the couple was attempting to flee. After eight years of tension, they were finally facing eviction from their home. The mob demanded to enter the Rogers home, but Mr. Rogers declined. The confrontation moved to the garden, where the leaders of the invaders demanded that Rogers support Mugabe's party in the upcoming election. The situation was defused by the arrival of Tendai, the operator of Drifters, a man who lived on the property and was a relative of "Top Man," an unnamed but powerful official in the local area. Tendai staged a cell phone call with a Brigadier General in the Zimbabwean army, who asked the invaders to leave, which they did. But not before asking Mr. Rogers for beer.

In other reviews, Rogers has been criticized for the lack of politics in the book. These critics would prefer the dispassionate tone of a foreign correspondent to the personal approach of the memoirist. I think those criticisms are misguided and the book more powerful because of its focus on Lyn and Rosalind Rogers. The simple telling of their story allows the reader to draw his own conclusions about the regime, and those conclusions will be all the more harsh because of the personal nature of the book. The Rogers are a truly exceptional couple, dealing admirably with an awful situation, and are lucky indeed to have Douglas Rogers telling their story.

Blake Hurst is a Missouri farmer.

FURTHER READING: In July, Hurst wrote “The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-Intellectuals,” countering opponents of industrial farming. In November, he wrote ''Give Thanks for This Harvest.'' In an American Enterprise Outlook, C. Peter Timmer questions the existence of “A World Without Agriculture.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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