Farmer Peter MacSporran has proved more resilient even than the crops he has managed to grow under the blazing African sun.
But the tenacious Scot’s continued role in one of the blighted continent’s rare success stories is now being threatened by Zimbabwe’s despotic leader Robert Mugabe.
MacSporran was forced to flee Zimbabwe last year after armed gangs of so-called War Veterans seized white-owned farms on Mugabe’s orders. Together with dozens of other white farmers, MacSporran, the former president of Zimbabwe’s Commercial Farmers Union (CFU), crossed the border to neighbouring Zambia. There, the farmers have helped transform the country into a self-sufficient food producer, to the extent that Zambia will this year export maize for the first time in decades.
But amid the hate-filled politics of post-colonial Africa success is often short-lived. MacSporran is facing the threat of expulsion from Zambia as friends of Mugabe, embarrassed by his success on their doorstep, seek to discredit him and his colleagues.
Zambia has become an agricultural success almost overnight. Its farmers have produced a record maize crop of well over 1.2 million tonnes this year. About 50,000 tonnes was grown as a first time effort by the white victims of Mugabe’s “land reform” programme. Elizabeth Phiri, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, said: “That’s double the quantity Zambia produced the previous year.”
Meanwhile, in Zimbabwe, farm productivity has declined rapidly in the wake of the eviction of 4,500 white farmers from their land. Aid agencies blame the policy on the food shortages which have left millions of Zimbabweans on the brink of starvation.
Last week MacSporran and the 150 white farming families in Zambia – at least half of whom have Scottish backgrounds – were once again the focus of Mugabe’s sinister attention.
Reports in Zimbabwe’s Mugabe-friendly newspapers accused the white farmers of trying to re-colonise Zambia. One of the president’s leading spin doctors, Nathan Shamuyarira, has even accused them of trying to re-colonise Africa and has urged the Zambian government to expel them.
“This is all rubbish and jealousy on the part of President Mugabe,” said MacSporran, who is rapidly gaining local hero status among white and black farmers in the area around the Zambian capital Lusaka. He added: “The Zambian government has given us a fantastic welcome. They say that if we obey their laws, we can stay as long as we like.”
Nevertheless, informed sources in both Harare and Lusaka say that Mugabe still has the power to influence some African leaders.
A source close to the former Zambian president Dr Kenneth Kaunda said: “Some of Zambia’s leaders might be influenced by what he says.”
MacSporran, who was born in Irvine and brought up on the Isle of Mull, left Scotland in 1972 to attend a friend’s wedding in what was then Rhodesia and decided to stay. He soon became the country’s best known farmer and was elevated to the presidency of the country’s farmers union in 1994, a post he held for two years. He was shocked by Mugabe’s land-grabbing policy which devastated the industry he and his fellow white farmers had built. “I never ever dreamed it was possible that President Mugabe would embark on such a lunatic and chaotic course of action,” says the 54-year-old father-of-three.
Two years ago, MacSporran’s farms were surrounded by Mugabe’s war veterans and he was forced to flee to Harare.
“Today my farms are occupied by Mugabe’s nephews. Everything has been ripped down and stolen,” he said.
“My whole life’s work was in ruins. After sitting around and hoping for a miracle, a few of us got together and decided we couldn’t wait any longer for a regime change. Some went to Mozambique. But I decided on a new life in Zambia.
“Zambia was once seen as Zimbabwe’s poor relation. Today, under Robert Mugabe, it’s Zimbabwe that’s the poor cousin.”
The exodus of white farmers from Zimbabwe to other countries in southern Africa has been dubbed the Second Great Trek. The first, beginning in 1835, involved more than 10,000 Boers who left the Cape Colony and travelled north. The 19th century migration was the result of economic problems and the fear that they would be slaughtered by tribesmen who wanted their farms.
“One day I just packed my bags and drove to the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia,” recalled MacSporran.
“I drove to Lusaka and took up an offer to start again. Soon I joined forces with other Zimbabwean farmers and we formed a company that helps others from Zimbabwe to set up farms here.
“Now, there are hundreds of Zimbabwean farmers working in Zambia and in years to come, there could be thousands.”
MacSporran’s company, Agriculture Advisers International, works closely with the Zambian government and is given financial support from, among others, the European Investment Bank and Barclays Bank International. “A Zimbabwean looking for land and work in Zambia has no collateral but most have excellent financial track records,” he said. “I know these guys are some of the greatest farmers in the world.
“About 50% of the CFU members in the mid-1990s were of Scottish origin. It’s in our blood to kickstart things, to move on when the going gets tough, not to give in. This is the Second Great Trek, if you like. I’m proud to say it’s led by Scottish Africans.”
Two black commercial farmers have also found their way to Zambia from Zimbabwe and MacSporran expects more to follow as the economic situation across the border worsens.
MacSporran, who grows crops on the 1,000 hectares of land he leases outside Lusaka, added: “At long last the Zambians have decided to make farming the driving force in the economy. We’ve been told that we are more than welcome. We did not create the Zambian success story but we are proud to be part of it. Even though many of us are living very humbly in Zambia, we have hope in our hearts once again.”
Chris Thorne, 55, one of MacSporran’s neighbours, said: “Zambia has been through all the hoops. At independence in 1964 Zambia relied almost totally on copper. Now, the government is telling people to work hard and turn the country into an agricultural showpiece. We want to be part of a new African success story.”
Meanwhile, agriculture in Zimbabwe is going to ruin. Between 2000 and this month, over 10 million hectares of highly productive farmlands have been taken over by the government.
Only 6% of the normal hectarage of land has been planted this year and Zimbabwe expects a wheat crop next year of only 22,500 tonnes. Before the takeover of white farms, commercial farmers produced, on average, between 280,000 and 300,000 tonnes of wheat a year. Only yesterday, a spokesman for the Commercial Farmers Union, said: “As poverty and unemployment increase, theft of assets increases, making it difficult for farmers to continue their operations.”
When the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland – comprising Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Nyasaland (now Malawi) – collapsed in 1963, most of its military equipment, its locomotives and finances were taken by Southern Rhodesia’s prime minister Ian Smith, leaving Zambia, under its new leader Dr Kenneth Kaunda, handicapped.
When copper lost much of its value at the end of the Vietnam War, Kaunda told Zambians to go back to the land. Few responded and food production declined dramatically. Now, however, thanks in large part to the former Zimbabwean farmers, the sector is booming.
Although he still has a love for Scotland and recognises the threat posed by Zimbabwe’s tyrannical president, MacSporran has put down roots in Zambia and is determined to stay. “When things were really grim in Zimbabwe, after my farms were taken over, I contemplated returning to Scotland,. But no longer. I’m a Scottish African.”