Advertisement

Angry and unyielding, a white farmer digs in

Times Staff Writer

The copper telephone lines have been stolen. The giraffes, zebra and other game have been trapped, killed and eaten. The birds have been poisoned and the thatched safari lodge burned down.

But Mike Campbell clings to the remains of Mount Carmel farm, his anger leavened only by the company of his wife, Angela, his three children and six grandchildren, his dither of excitable dogs and the ancient horse, Ginger, who lives on the veranda.

One of a few hundred white farmers left in Zimbabwe, Campbell is resisting the government’s final push to evict the last of them. A sunburned, feisty fellow of 73 who glares out at the world from under the wide brim of an old felt hat, he believes that ownership is defended by never giving up.

Every last mango, every orange and every potato on his 3,000-acre farm must be fiercely guarded, with guns if need be -- 12 guards patrol the farm. Whenever a radio call from his security outfit comes in at night, he grabs his pistol and drives out into the dark.

Advertisement

He sleeps with his front door wide open, as if to show he’s afraid of no one, the dogs scampering in and out of the night at a whim. But he’s enough of a realist to hide the one thing he cannot bear to lose if the government does take away his farm: his photographs.

Nothing in Zimbabwe is as bitterly contested as land. It arouses the tangled resentments and prejudices going back to colonization, a bitterness that has only hardened after nearly 30 years of independence from the British. There are blacks who see whites as foreigners who have no right to the land. There are whites who think blacks don’t make good farmers or that they have no feelings for animals or trees.

The regime of President Robert Mugabe has gone further than most African governments in systematically unraveling the colonial pattern of land ownership.

But the cost to the country has been enormous. It transformed Zimbabwe from a modern agricultural economy that exported food across southern Africa into a country of subsistence farming, leaving millions on the brink of starvation.

Advertisement

“If you are going back to small-scale pre-colonial traditional farming, you are subjecting yourself to the same constraints that those people suffered from, that kept the population of this country at a few hundred thousand for thousands of years. The country has become poorer because of what’s happened, much, much poorer,” said John Robertson, an independent economist in Harare, the capital.

Zimbabwe’s land reform began after independence on a willing-seller, willing-buyer basis. Britain initially helped its former colony with the program. But in 1992, the Zimbabwean government enacted legislation enabling it to seize land in return for compensation. Britain stopped its funding in 1997, demanding greater transparency and proof that land reform would benefit the poor and not hinder investment.

In 2000 Mugabe, blaming the British for reneging on the funding deal, encouraged war veterans and others to invade white farmers’ land, and farms were seized without payment.

Mugabe has handed out the land to cronies in a system of patronage reminiscent of a traditional chief, Robertson said.

“The government was dispossessing people of land rights so that they could allocate land and restore what was essentially a patronage system, distributing the best land to the most loyal supporters,” he said. “Individuals have no ownership rights and can be dispossessed at the first sign of disloyalty.”

The man planning to move into Campbell’s stately farm homestead is one of the country’s big men, Nathan Shamuyarira, official spokesman for the ruling ZANU-PF party.

On the brink of losing everything, Campbell is unafraid of giving offense. He is quick to anger and is not exactly politically correct. He relates with some satisfaction that, though he opposed apartheid in his youth as a military officer in South Africa, where he was born, he soon changed his mind.

If someone in Hollywood stumbled upon Campbell’s story and decided to script him as a rough diamond making a heroic last stand, it would be tough going to find that sentimental silver lining. He’s like an ancient tortoise who determinedly keeps his soft side hidden.

Advertisement

In rural Zimbabwe, with black farmers living beside white landowners such as Campbell, tension is ever-present.

Driving in his pickup past the cotton crop planted by black farmers, Campbell gives a contemptuous bark of laughter.

“Pathetic!” he snorts at the straggly plants on what used to be Carskey Farm, owned by his son Bruce until it was invaded in 2002 by ZANU-PF youths. The farm was divided among more than 50 black families. “They’re producing nothing,” Campbell said. “With that many people on the land, it doesn’t work.”

The bitterness runs both ways: Many white farmers lost everything, the toil of a lifetime, without compensation. Even the white social networks are frayed, with whispered gossip about those seen as “yes men” and collaborators who pay off local ZANU-PF officials, to keep trouble away.

The black newcomers struggling to succeed doing one of Africa’s toughest jobs believe they haven’t gotten enough support from the government.

Sometimes the new farmers drive their cattle into Campbell’s front garden. Trees are chopped down. The Campbells see the moves as belligerence, a way to wear them down.

Last year in the rainy season, old Ginger went missing. Campbell’s son and son-in-law rescued him from one of the new farmers. Campbell said the animal was knee-deep in mud, unable to move, tethered overnight with barbed wire, a wire bit in his mouth running tightly over his ears. There was a scuffle as the Campbell side tried to free Ginger, who whinnied and charged away the moment he was set loose.

“It was just to get at us,” said Bruce Campbell, whose pregnant wife and 6-month-old son and daughter died of malaria four years ago.

Advertisement

“He doesn’t like men very much, any more,” Angela Campbell said of the old horse, offering him a lump of bread. When she wanders around the farm, Ginger follows her like a lumbering, oversized Great Dane.

The government gave most of the remaining white farmers until the end of September to harvest their crops and leave. Dozens have been evicted by the army and police in recent months.

But everything on Campbell’s farm outside Chegutu, about 60 miles southwest of Harare, trumpets his determination to stay: the golden orbs hanging like extravagant Christmas decorations from his mango trees, the fruit on his citrus trees, the corn and the potatoes.

With the ax likely to fall and the possibility of eviction any day, Campbell is still pruning, irrigating, fertilizing and planning to plant new trees for harvest in 2013. His survival tactic is to keep moving.

“You’ve got to keep investing in the farm. The moment you stop, they’ll take it away from you,” he said. “Make no mistake -- a very large part of what has been going on is, the person who is on the land owns it. The moment you move off, you’re finished.”

At one point, he moved his valuables away for safekeeping, but that seemed too much like surrender.

“When the servants see you bringing stuff back and buying some new stuff, that sends out a message,” he said.

On the dusty road that leads to Campbell’s farm, brightly hued birds called bee-eaters sit on the electricity wires, and a flash of green in the undergrowth betrays a snake.

The thatched family homestead seems snipped from the pages of Country Life magazine, its sitting room stuffed with trophies of another age. There is a pride of delicate bone china, a couple of enormous tusks, a silver pheasant statuette on the mantelpiece. High on the wall, a huge stuffed kudu trophy, a type of antelope, blindly surveys the room.

Campbell’s three pointers dash around at dizzying speed, outraced only by a small grandson. The gruff farmer’s face is wreathed in smiles as he trots off with the boy to find the candy jar.

He says one of his ancestors was a German sea captain in the Dutch East India Company who took up farming in 1713 in the cape of what is now South Africa, and had the largest herd of white-tailed wildebeest in the world.

“We’re not British or Scottish or anything. We’re African,” said Campbell, who grew up on the family farm in South Africa and served in the South African army for 13 years under the apartheid regime. In 1974, he sold his timber business and dairy farm and moved to Zimbabwe, then Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, which was facing an indigenous rebellion.

“It was a very bad time. I was given a rifle and told to go out into the bush,” he said, settling into a long, nostalgic reminiscence about the war.

When he wasn’t fighting for Smith’s regime, he ran his farm, which at the time was “like an armory.”

After independence in 1980, he built up his game farm to sustain a safari business. Campbell remembers the day his first four giraffes arrived by truck in 1982. “I had a dream as a young man. I wanted to have a farm with as many wild animals as possible,” he said. “Two years ago, we had 45 giraffe, 50 eland, 150 wildebeest, 300 impala. We had zebra, wart hogs. We had all manner of game here.

“I achieved my dream. We had people coming from all over the world. We had a magnificent setup,” he said. “It’s been unraveled over the years, and last year it was all burned down.”

He also raised game birds for hunting, until he came out one morning to find them all poisoned.

“It was heartbreaking. They poach the game, and the game gets less and less. You grow accustomed to that and you harden your heart. You just block it out,” he said, the same way he blocked out the grief of his mother’s death, when he was 21.

The safari operation is dead, but Campbell’s citrus and mango farm is still one of the most successful in the area: His mangoes are flown to Europe and sold packaged, peeled and sliced by the British chain Marks & Spencer.

With the collapse of labor-intensive tobacco farms and a government crackdown on illegal gold panners, there are many unemployed men in the district.

“These guys have got no means of earning a living,” Campbell said. “Their families are starving if they don’t steal.”

Sometimes there is a confrontation. In March, Campbell’s guard shot the front tires of a getaway car stuffed with stolen mangoes. When Campbell turned up to retrieve the fruit, he faced about 20 angry men. “I was abused for five or 10 minutes while we loaded the mangoes. It was political. It was: ‘Zimbabwe belongs to us now. You whites go home to Britain.’ ”

Campbell bluntly rebuffs visits by ruling party officials. In 2005, he rejected an offer by Shamuyarira to let him stay on after he moved in -- as manager. Earlier this year, Shamuyarira’s brother arrived. “They brought 12 guys and wanted to move into the house here with us. I said, ‘You move into the shed.’ They said no.” Campbell said he then called the police, who moved the visitors on.

Shamuyarira was not available for comment, his office said.

Several months ago, three local ZANU-PF officials dropped in seeking a donation to sponsor Independence Day celebrations.

“I said, ‘What are you going to celebrate? There’s nothing to celebrate. The country’s flat broke. We have no diesel, no electricity, no tea, no sugar. I’m not giving you any donation.’ ”

In September 2005, to speed land redistribution, the parliament passed a controversial amendment to the constitution: Farms listed for acquisition were declared state land, with no compensation to be paid. Farmers were denied the right to a hearing in court to challenge farm seizures.

Campbell and his son-in-law, Ben Freeth, took legal action, arguing that the amendment was contrary to the spirit of the constitution.

They are still awaiting judgment. Freeth and Campbell also plan to take their case to the Southern African Development Community tribunal, a regional judicial body. They are determined to exhaust every legal avenue.

In Campbell’s garage, there is a curio on one wall: the skull of a giraffe that caught a poacher’s copper snare on its head when it was young. As it grew, the snare cut into its brain and eventually killed the animal. To Campbell, it symbolizes the fate of his own farm.

--

robyn.dixon@latimes.com


Advertisement