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Zimbabwe the mother of all ranches. (Feature).

In the heartland of Zimbabwe's semi-arid provinces of Midlands and Matabele-land lies DEBSHAN, short for De Beers Shangani Estate. It belongs--since the 1930s--to the Oppenheimer family, the super wealthy owners of the now privately owned De Beers Diamond Corporation and good for a large stake in the Anglo American mining conglomerate.

Some say it is as large as belgium, but Oppenheimer's Shangani Estate sprawls over only - just only - half of zimbabwe's rural provinces. And the government wants some of it. P. Kazungu and Ishmael Dube visited the estate recently. This is their report.

Driving from the capital Harare to the second largest city Bulawayo, at about one hour before the city, one comes across the Shangani River. On the banks of this river in 1896, the impis of the Ndebele king, Lobengula, defeated the infamous Shangani patrol, a select party of Cecil Rhodes' pioneers, that had set out to occupy Matabeleland. None of the members of the patrol survived the expedition.

A few kilometres to the south, just past the Shangani shops, a little dust road leads to Debshan Estate. The dust track, baptised "De Beers Road" in a previous century, is probably one of the roughest tracks to drive on in Zimbabwe. If you manage to negotiate the deadly hazards and slides, the track brings you, after 34 kms, to the bush headquarters of the Debshan Estate.

Clive Swanepoel, the South African on-the-site manager of the estate, receives his visitors from an old fashioned narrow office. The headquarters consists of a few residential houses, a water depot and a workshop. Nothing would suggest this is the nerve centre of a 137,000 hectare estate that sprawls over four of Zimbabwe's eight rural provinces. (One hectare is 2.471 acres).

From this headquarters, the drive to the other end of the estate takes about 70 kms. Swanepoel had not many comments to make. "External relations", he told us, are handled from Charter House, the impressive headquarters of Anglo American on the corner of Samora Machel and Nyerere avenues back in Harare. But even there the fingers point at Nicky Oppenheimer's headquarters in London.

No wonder this giant estate could not escape the Zimbabwe government's land reform programme that started in earnest in 1998. Already in 1997, the government had designated more than 1,000 large-scale farms (the appropriate terminology should be land, not farm) for acquisition and redistribution. Debshan was one of them.

The nearly 140,000-hectare ranch raises generally about 21,000 cattle. Every year, it exports 4,000 prime cattle, earning the country, and the owners, an average of US$1.5m in foreign exchange.

But Swanepoel and his bosses saw the political dust rise and have been innovative. Since the early 1990s, the ranch has been remodelled partly into a game ranch. Herds of impala and wildebeest are seen in the landscape, next to many zebra, some giraffe and even some rare elephants.

The wildlife came to maturity in recent years and Debshan could boost three hunting concessions in 2000 that earned it half a million US dollars. Mostly American big game hunters come down to take a trophy to their mansions in the US.

The management team, assisted by about 200 permanent workers to run this huge estate, is proud to have the estate lifted to world class standards of cattle and game ranching.

This idyllic enclave of rural dust, oligarchical wealth and agro-ecological management was suddenly disturbed when in March 2000 several thousands of new settlers arrived on the outskirts of the estate. "Occupiers", as the mixture of ex-freedom fighters and land hungry peasants were called by those not sympathetic to their cause and methods.

Hardly two weeks after the 14 February 2000 referendum over a proposed new constitution for Zimbabwe, which was neatly voted down, the war veterans or ex-freedom fighters had decided to rake the situation into their own hands and started occupying mostly white-owned land. The movement originated in Morgenster in the Masvingo province and swept through the whole country within a couple of weeks.

The war veterans had not taken lightly that the white farmers had put their weight behind opposition forces in the country--including fat cheques handed over before the cameras--to help derail the adoption of a draft constitution. The veterans were most worried because the referendum defeat had denied the government the opportunity to acquire farmland without compensation. They also suspected the band of British imperialist machinations behind the move.

The wealthy Oppenheimer family and hundreds of aspirant new settlers are now at loggerheads over the 137,000-acre estate. The government, which had designated the farm a few years earlier, finds itself in the middle of this hornets nest.

Already in early 1998, President Robert Mugabe had made his comments: "Nicky Oppenheimer wrote to me about the designation of his vast estate," the president said. "We can't leave him all that land. But we have given his objections to our teams.

Nicky Oppenheimer, since 1998 chairman of the huge De Beers Corporation and also vice-chairman of Anglo American, had come to visit President Mugabe on various occasions. Between September 2000 and May 2001, he appeared at least three times at State House.

Oppenheimer even made an offer to the government for sharing the land. Of the 137,000 hectares, 34,000 were offered for resettlement. Another 6,000 hectares of the total land holdings of 820,000 hectares owned by the Oppenheimer family and various subsidiaries of Anglo American in Zimbabwe was offered.

The offer was later sweetened with a US$l0m "loan" (about US$200,000 at a time) by the Oppenheimer family for a "Shangani Empowerment Trust" (SET), to help the new settlers make a start in farming.

Too little, too late, according to the reactions of the Zimbabwean government and public opinion. Nevertheless, the government de-listed the estate in a gesture to allow smooth negotiations to continue "in good faith".

The solemn good faith was brutally smothered when in early 2001 it appeared that the Debshan management had filed documents stating that the estate measured 137,000 ACRES. "Shame", decried government officials, "they are trying to cheat us, using hectares for acres. (One hectare is 2.471 acres).

A special team, headed by Vice-President Joseph Msika who is also the head of the National Land Committee, other government ministers and high powered officials descended on Debshan at the end of May 2001.

"We came to establish the real magnitude of the estate," said a government official. "This ranch could be the size of Belgium," decried another.

So the myth was born, in the minds of Zimbabweans at least, that Oppenheimer owned an estate in Zimbabwe as big as Belgium. Gross exaggeration of course, though the estate can indeed compare with one of the small provinces of Belgium.

The myth caused both Belgian diplomats and Anglo American Corporation to send concerned statements to the press in an attempt to "moderate" the arithmetic of the skewed foreign land ownership in Zimbabwe.

Since 1930, Debshan has been a much-vaunted family estate considered as a highly symbolic and even an emotionally-rewarded property by the Oppenheimer family, although Nicky Oppenheimer himself, in contrast to his predecessors, has given indications that he feels less romantic about it.

Still, signs are that this estate remains historically a pearl in the crown of the Oppenheimer wealth. At least much more than would be justified by its stated actual earnings of at least US$2.5m per annum.

Still, the Zimbabwean government seems determined to fully play the negotiation card. And not to allow undue--in its opinion--dust or shuffles to cloud the sky.

Since the ruffled feathers of May 2001, a special negotiating team has been set up under the strict authority of Vice President Msika. Provincial and district authorities, and also the war veterans structures in the field, are strict with denying access to visitors and journalists to the disputed estate unless explicit clearance is given by the vice president's office.

The vice president himself made it clear during his tumultuous visit to the estate a year ago that "no new settlers will be allowed to come on the estate and to upset the situation".

Clearly, the government appears determined to make this highly symbolic case a pearl in the crown of its own attempts to negotiate settlements with foreign land owners in the country.

The vice president's office remains tight-lipped about the state of the negotiations, and about the actual position that the government wants to push or defend.

At the Oppenheimer headquarters in London, his spokeswoman is slightly more talkative: "Mr Oppenheimer is currently engaged in talks with the Zimbabwe government about the land. This will soon be finished. Until such time, Mr Oppenheimer prefers to make no comments."

The stakes are high indeed, since Anglo American owns a few other stakes in the Zimbabwean economic pie. In the mineral field, there is nickel mining and refining by Nickel Bindura. And in the central lands of Gweru, there is Zimbabwe Alloys which mines and refines ferrochrome.

Anglo American further runs several smaller gold mines, and an exploitation of iron pyrite in Mazoe.

Hippo Valley Estate is Anglo American's huge sugar cane concern which, together with Triangle Estate (Lonrho), dominates the entire economy of the Low Veld, situated between Masvingo and South Africa. These estates provide the bulk of Zimbabwe's sugar needs plus nice export proceeds.

Anglo American's indirect interests in the country comprise a stake in National Foods, a nation wide retailer which is essential for the provision of food in the country.

The question remains whether the owners will stick to the negotiation spirit. Rumours have it that the Botswana government is under heavy pressure to be very strict with Zimbabweans in the country.

Since the second half of last year, thousands of Zimbabweans living in Botswana have been deported. In September and October alone, over 3,000 Zimbabweans were sent home. That bites hard in the pockets of so many families in Matabeleland who often depend on a nice remittance from their relatives who toil in Gaborone and Francistown in Botswana.

It is clear that Oppenheimer has a megaphone voice in Botswana and over its diamond economy. The totality of Botswana's diamond riches is exploited by the Debswana Diamond Corporation, a joint venture between De Beers (Oppenheimer) and the Botswana government.

Although Botswana has a slight majority stake in Debswana, the management and technical knowhow is strictly dominated by the De Beers partner in the joint venture.

The same applies to the quasi-monopolistic marketing operations that prevail in the diamond sector which accounts for nearly half of Botswana's GNP. And the country is 75% dependant on diamonds for its foreign exchange earnings. Botswana, as a country, (though not the vast majority of rural Motswana) lives comfortably hut only by the spoils of the diamonds.

In recent weeks, Anglo American has also been under fire due to disputed operations inside Zimbabwe. On top of the many shortages that the population faces, salt disappeared from the shelves of supermarkets this June. Salt is not only essential for the common household, but it is also a strategic input for many industries.

After much fire had been emitted, a stockpile of several tens of thousands of tonnes of salt was discovered in the warehouses of National Foods in Bindura. National Foods argues that the scarcity of foreign exchange and the cost of the US dollar on the parallel market did not allow it to sell salt profitably on the local market.

On its part, Anglo American argues that it does not manage National Foods, but it is just one of the shareholders through its subsidiaries.

In Zimbabwe, salt is a gazetted commodity that still falls under the regime of price controls. In October last year, the government introduced price controls for most essential food products in an attempt to stem the spiralling price increases of basic foodstuffs of the previous months.

The sometimes huge price increases were interpreted by the government as an attempt by big industry to fuel discontent within the people and to discredit the government.

The move was also the last clear demonstration that the government was now dumping its neo-liberal policies adopted under the decade-old Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP).

From salt on the plates to gems in the crown, it becomes crystal clear that in this case, tough partners are looking each other in the eye.

Knowing that one party holds nearly half of the diamonds of the world in its vaults, it doesn't take much imagination to guess that the negotiating table could easily become something like a roulette.

For now, the settlers at Debsham are waiting for the final: game, set and match.
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Author:Kazungu, P.; Dube, Ishmael
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6ZIMB
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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