Zimbabwe the Mother of All Ranches. (Feature)

Article excerpt

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. …