About 73 whites are still farming in Mashonaland East province.
The farmers mostly grow tobacco – Zimbabwe’s second-highest foreign currency earner after mining.
“Each of these farmers contributes upwards of $2m to $3m per annum to the exchequer,” said a Commercial Farmers’ Union (CFU) spokesperson.
“Each of these farmers employs some 200 farmworkers, and when one adds at least four dependants per farmworker, the numbers really swell. A significant number will join the growing list of unemployed in Zimbabwe, as black commercial farmers do not want the burden of farmworkers on their bill.”
The number of farmworkers in Zimbabwe has declined from more than half a million in 2000, when land reform began, to less than 20000 currently. The number is likely to drop further after the new wave of farm invasions.
General Agricultural and Plantation Workers' Union of Zimbabwe general secretary Gift Muti said farmworkers were getting a raw deal as indigenous farmers were reluctant to pay wages, with most workers going for months without payment.
“The farmworkers are being subjected to rampant abuse, particularly by indigenous farmers, commonly referred to as ‘new farmers’.”
Out of the 4500 commercial white farmers who used to till the land in December 2008, only a few hundred still remain. Of these, 73 are in Mashonaland West, 80km east of the capital Harare.
Addressing thousands of his ruling Zanu-PF party supporters in the farming town of Marondera, Mugabe said white commercial farmers should be removed from their properties because “most Zimbabweans were in need of land”.
“We told (former British premier) Tony Blair to keep his England and we keep our Zimbabwe because land is our heritage. We have discovered that in Mashonaland East province alone there are 73 white commercial farmers who are still occupying some farms when our people do not have land."
The CFU spokesperson said most of the farmers had been on the land for more than 40 years.
“Some bought the farms they are on from previous owners and still others are owned by foreigners, who ideally should be protected by bilateral agreements between their countries and Zimbabwe.
“The biggest problem we face is that none of the farmers are willing to go on the record as they fear reprisals. Our history as a country is replete with gory details of farmers at the receiving end of vicious Zanu-PF land invaders.”
Zimbabwe embarked on a chaotic land-reform exercise at the turn of the millennium, which resulted in mainly white commercial farmers losing large tracts of land to indigenous people.
The land grabs have continued, disrupting agricultural activity and spooking foreign investors.
A recent study by the Zimbabwe’s auditor-general revealed more than half of the country’s irrigable land was underutilised, due to dilapidated state-owned irrigation equipment, posing a threat to food security.
Many farms taken over during the land reform programme are lying idle and have been overgrown by weeds. The new farmers lack the knowledge and finances to make the farms viable. Many are leasing the land to its white former owners and sharing the profits.
Mugabe slammed this, saying “such disturbing behaviour was tantamount to reversing the historic land reform programme”.
He challenged beneficiaries of the land reform programme to put the land to maximum use by themselves.
“Regrettably, this feeling of inadequacy and duplicity in some of our people threatens even the very programmes Zanu-PF put together for their economic empowerment."