Zimbabwe White farmer battles to keep land


David Coltart

Peta Thornycroft

JOHANNESBURG – There is a slither of land near Zimbabwe’s southern border that is classified as semi-desert, too arid to support either humans or livestock.
But it teems with eland, leopard, wildebeest, giraffe and other animals of the African bush. Found 20 miles north of the town of Beitbridge, Denlynian is one of the last few privately-owned game farms in Zimbabwe.
Ian Ferguson, 79, bought this desolate patch of land 30 years ago and transformed it into a wildlife conservancy. His property is now besieged by 50 invaders from President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party.
Last week, the government took the unusual step of giving six other white farmers official permission to stay on their land. But the intruders on Denlynian seem determined to drive Ferguson away.
They have ignored a High Court ruling which ordered them to leave Ferguson’s land and take their cattle with them. The police have declined to enforce the court’s decision — and Ferguson has run out of money to pay solicitors, pump water or repair the fences broken by the squatters’ cattle.
“Cattle and wildlife do not do well together,” he said. “Disease between some wildlife and cattle is part of it, but there is also the problem with grazing. It is so dry that the annual grass is scarce, even though we had late rains and have more than usual this year. I need that grass for the wildlife — but it is being eaten by their cattle.”
Many of the invaders do not live on Ferguson’s land. They turn up at weekends to cut down trees for firewood. Far from being the landless masses of government’s rhetoric, one of the occupiers is an official from the local magistrate’s court.
Ferguson’s dogged struggle to hold onto his land began more than 10 years ago. The first invaders turned up, forcing the farmer to go to court to seek their removal. He mounted about a dozen cases —and won every time.
Then there was a lull in hostilities, but two years ago a particularly aggressive group moved onto the farm at night, killed some wildlife and assaulted foreign tourists. The court again ruled that Ferguson must be allowed to stay and the police warned the invaders they would be arrested if they went near the farm again.
But more invaders arrived earlier this year — and the police steadfastly refused to act. “We don’t get any tourists nowadays as many feel it is not safe here. So there has been no income for a long time,” said Ferguson. “Now this year we have new invaders with their cattle and the police will not evict them.”
The property is kept viable by the income that Ferguson receives from an irrigated citrus farm nearby. Determined to drive him away, his tormentors are now trying to deprive him of this lifeline.
Last week, his lawyer received papers from a new group of invaders — who are mostly junior civil servants — claiming to have been awarded the citrus farm by the regime.
“I don’t yet know if the letters are legal or not, but I was shocked,” said Ferguson. The farm has 25 000 citrus trees beside the Umzingwane River.
Whether any more oranges will be harvested is uncertain. “We don’t know what we can do now as we are in a muddle,” said Ferguson.
Today, the elderly farmer is the sole target of the invaders in the area. Most of the other white landowners in this corner of Zimbabwe have long since fled their homes. But a few wealthy white neighbours have been allowed to continue working without persecution.
“Ian Ferguson has always confronted the government: he won’t stay quiet,” said another farmer from the same province. “He takes them to court. That may be moral — but in Zimbabwe it is stupid.”
David Coltart, a prominent lawyer and former education minister, said that Ferguson was being singled out in retaliation for a “principled battle”.
Coltart added: “He always stuck to non-violence, always used the courts, and he has always been polite in the face of outrageous abuse. Now they are destroying pristine riverine woodland which only has value to tourists and hunters.”