White farmers defy eviction orders in Zimbabwe


As a group of defiant white farmers waited for Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's next step in a two-year-old bid to drive them off the land, a senior official said there would be no reprieve on their eviction.

The official, who declined to be named, told reporters Mr Mugabe would address supporters at on tomorrow morning and was unlikely to change his tough stance on land redistribution.

About 2,900 of the country's 4,500 white commercial farmers faced a weekend deadline to surrender their farms to landless blacks without compensation or face jail.

A new farmers' lobby group estimated that about 40 per cent of farmers targeted in the latest land seizure had quit their farms by Thursday's midnight deadline, leaving about 1,740 on their land in defiance of government eviction orders.

The official said Mr Mugabe would speak at a Heroes Day rally in Harare tomorrow and not today, as some had expected.

"There is very strong anger within the government now that the farmers are lying, misrepresenting issues and portraying themselves as victims of injustice without telling the world how much land they are holding," the official told reporters.

About 70 per cent of the best land was left in the hands of a tiny white minority when British colonial rule ended formally in 1980, after more than a decade of conflict between former Prime Minister Ian Smith's white regime and black guerrillas.

"I think this is one of the questions the president will address, but there is no change in policy," the official said.

In most cases, the eviction of each white farmer means unemployment for scores of black workers as peasant farmers take over and work the lands themselves.

Ms Jenni Williams of the new Justice for Agriculture (JAG) pressure group told reporters that 40 per cent of the targeted farmers - about 1,160 farmers - had now left for safe havens in urban centres, resorts or abroad.

"From the end of the first 45 days, up to 30 per cent of the farmers left their properties. A further 10 percent have followed nearer the midnight Thursday deadline," she said.

Mr Mugabe set a 90-day deadline in May with 45 days to wind down farming operations and another 45 to pack homes and move. Farmers said the deadline expired on Thursday.

"Some 60 per cent of the farmers are staying put -- or about 1,740 farmers -- not waiting to be evicted, but to be allowed to farm their lands," Ms Williams added.

Commercial Farmers' Union (CFU) President Mr Colin Cloete said many farmers had left their properties ahead of the weekend because they did not want nasty confrontations that could lead to their being jailed over a long bank holiday. He said he had no exact figure on how many had left the farms.

The land redistribution, which started early in 2000, has slashed food production in the midst of a regional food crisis caused by drought and mismanagement in six countries.

Of those who defied the Thursday deadline, some have said they hope the courts will overrule Mugabe and let them stay.