Saturday, June 14, 2008


I've chanced across a very interesting book, WHEN A CROCODILE EATS THE SUN which is written by Peter Godwin. The book is Mr. Godwin's memoir of Africa and specifically Zimbabwe. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 5 which is titled April 2000.

They are a good-looking middle-aged couple, tanned and fit from an outdoor life, surprisingly calm and considered, given their current situation. We sit down at the dining table for lunch, and Jenny reaches to tinkle the bell to summon the cook, and then remembers it is not there. She apologizes for the second-best cutlery we are using too.

Rob slices the rare roast beef. "This place was mostly unpopulated when we arrived," he says. "There were tsetse flies, so no cattle could survive. No cattle, so no people. Whites used to come here to hunt lion, that's all."

His grandfather came out to Africa as a veterinarian with the British cavalry fighting the Boer War. His father served in the police force of old colonial Bechuanaland (now Botswana). Rob's uncle wrote the Kenyan constitution.

[ . . . ]

But as we drive through it, most of the land -- once some of the most productive in the country -- stands empty of crops, choked with undergrowth. Farms lie abandoned, their buildings stripped of their tin roofs.

"Just look at it," says Webb in dismay. "It's such a terrific waste."

Webb shows me the Farm Development Trust, an old commercial farm converted into a tobacco training center by white farmers. More than a thousand black farmers pass through it every year taking courses to learn how to grow tobacco commercially. "Some of the farmers being trained there are those now invading us," he says. His wife choruses this hymn of despair. "This will never end. If they get more farms, in five years' time when our corn is ten feet tall and theirs is only two feet, they'll come again and say, 'We want your land.'"

Only now does Rob take me on a tour of his own farms -- he has three, combined into one unit. Here he grows coffee, paprika, wheat, sugarcane, soybeans, asparagus, tobacco. At his tall brick tobacco barns, workers are busy grading and packing leaves. "There's millions of dollars' worth of tobacco here," he says. "And they've warned me that they'll burn it all down if they lose the elections."

He employs 620 people, and, with their families, some two thousand live on the property. "We run an elementary school for the laborers' children and a fully staffed clinic."

Rob webb has tone to great lengths to stay on good terms with the ruling party as a political insurance policy for his business. . . .

But this was no use to him when a mob of a hundred people armed with pangas and rocks marched up the drive chanting hostile slogans and beating tom-toms and dancing the toyi-toyi, an African war dance.

"They demanded to speak to me, and when I came down, they shouted, 'We have come to take your land -- that is what we have been told to do.'"

They pegged land claims on his soybean fields, which were just about to be harvested, and demanded they be plowed immediately. When Rob insisted on reaping his crop first, they tried to set fire to it: only the greenness of the shoots prevented it from catching. Now Webb is combine-harvesting day and night to salvage as much of the crop as he can.

[ . . . ]

The farm, a big business built up over decades, in on the verge of collapse. Webb is unable to plant winter wheat, unable to water his soy crop, unable to enter or leave his property without permission. His workers are scared and worried about their future. The occupiers spend much of their time drunk or stoned. . . .They live parasitically, depending on the farm for their survival even as they destroy it. . . .

"As far as I can see, they're nothing but little warlords," says Rob.
There are a few other stories like this, at least one which was deadly in nature, in this chapter on April 2000. One aspect of the stories is that government seems unable or unwilling to protect and enforce the private property rights which seem to me to have been integral to the economic development that was part and parcel of the successful farms. Perhaps government is even doing the telling to the people who are trying to take over the farms. These sorts of stories seem to epitomize an economy of predation, not an economy that will experience much prosperity.

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