Status of Debshan Ranch still unclear

The status of Debshan ranch, which is owned by the Oppenheimer family, one of the richest families in Southern Africa, remains unclear more than six months after the government ordered settlers to leave immediately because the farm was not designated for resettlement.

There are now fears that the ranch has been handed back to the powerful De Beers and Anglo-American boss, or it is being lined up for a senior ZANU-PF officials or one of his children. The fears are being compounded by the fact that no one wants to talk about the issue.

The manager of the ranch, who declined to give his name, referred all questions about the status of the ranch to a James Maphosa at the Anglo-American head office in Harare while Special Affairs Minister responsible for Lands John Nkomo referred The Insider to Matabeleland South governor Angeline Masuku.

Settlers at the ranch, some of whom were officially allocated plots way back in 2000, said they had been told privately that the issue was a political hot potato and was now being handled by the presidency.

Some local ZANU-PF officials, including members of the party's central committee, however, maintain that settlers should stay put while the farm manager, a Mr C.R. Edwards, who seems to be now in full control, has ordered them not to prepare land for the coming season.

The ranch is now guarded and patrolled by green-uniformed Debshan (Pvt) Limited security guards who take details of anyone entering the ranch, including phone numbers and the purpose of one's visit.

The guards are reported to have been granted special constabulary status by the Zimbabwe Republic Police and have radio equipment, which settlers say is used to inform Debshan management about everyone entering the ranch.

To add to the confusion a brand new Zimbabwean flag flies at the main entrance to the ranch alongside that of Debshan an intimidatory tactic which gives settlers and visitors the impression that whatever the guards are doing has government approval.

According to settlers, the flag was hoisted sometime in May shortly after Edwards sent out a circular purportedly trying to clear the issue about the status of Debshan.

The letter dated, 5 May 2004, read: "There appears to be continued confusion over the status of Debshan Ranch. It would seem that certain individuals who are trying to fulfill their own personal agendas by illegally allocating land to unsuspecting individuals are deliberately creating this confusion.

"The only legal authority that may legitimately allocate land in the Insiza District of Matabeleland South is the Insiza District Lands Committee together with the Insiza District Administrator, based in Filabusi. Anyone else allocating plots or claiming to have authority to do so, is acting fraudulently and should therefore be reported to the relevant authorities.

"Senior Government officials in public meetings have clarified the situation with respect to Debshan on numerous occasions. Attached is a newspaper report on the most recent meeting held at Joseph's Block. The situation and status has not changed at all since then.

"Should you require any further clarification on the situation it is strongly recommended that you contact any of the following: the Office of the District Administrator in Filabusi, the Office of the Chairman of the Insiza Land Committee, the Office of Insiza Ward 14 Councillor, the Officer-in-Charge Zimbabwe Republic Police Fort Rixon, or the Office of the Minister of Special Affairs in The President's Office Responsible for Lands, Land Reform and Resettlement in Harare."

The letter was signed: CR Edwards, senior manager.

The newspaper cutting referred to was from the Sunday News of February 8, 2004. It quoted the District Administrator of Insiza, Peter Mandebvu, as saying 70 settlers at Debshan Ranch should leave immediately as the farm was not designated for resettlement.

"You are ordered to leave with immediate effect as the ranch was not acquired by the Government under the resettlement programme" Mandebvu was reported to have told settlers at Joseph's Block.

It was not clear what Mandebvu meant because according to documents produced by the settlers, Joseph's Block and Bulawayo Syndicate, around which the current dispute is centred, were listed by the government on 13 August 2003, as lot 100. They were items number 14 and 16, respectively.

Three other properties owned by the Oppenheimer family were listed under the same lot. These were Esmyangene Block, Farm Mbati Tiabetsi Block and Subdivision A of Mbati Tiabetsi Block.

One of the first settlers, Zefania Mutero Sibanda, produced documents which showed that the District Administrator of Insiza, who happened to be Mandebvu, had allocated him plot number 57 on 15 November 2000.

Sibanda paid land tax of $500 for 2001 on 23 March 2001, for that plot, leaving a balance of $1 500. The receipt, number AA 403317, was issued by the Insiza Rural District Council and bares its official stamp.

Mandebvu resigned from the government a few months ago in unclear circumstances. Some reports say he was forced to resign because of the way he had mishandled the land issue.

Settlers said they were fighting a losing battle because Edwards was being backed by a senior police officer at Fort Rixon, who at times patrolled the farm urging settlers to leave using Edwards' vehicle. He had also been receiving support from Mandebvu and the councillor for Ward 14 which borders with the ranch.

When The Insider phoned Debshan and asked for Edwards, it was transferred to someone who confirmed he was a manager but said he was not Edwards. The manager said the issue of the ranch could only be discussed with James Maphosa at Anglo-American head office in Harare.

The Insider failed to talk to Maphosa. His secretary kept saying he was busy on the phone. Though it left contact details, Maphosa did not phone back.

John Nkomo referred The Insider to Mrs Masuku who was out of the office on the first and the second day and was reported to be the only person who could clarify the issue.

Reports soon after Mandebvu's visit to Joseph's Block said the two pieces of land had probably been given back to the Oppenheimer family in an attempt by President Robert Mugabe to win the support of one of Africa's wealthiest families and bolster prospects for attracting elusive foreign investment.

The Oppenheimer family owned 137 000 ha of land in Zimbabwe. It offered the government only 34 000 ha. and US$200 000 to help settlers begin farming. The government rejected the offer insisting that it should take at least 65 000 ha.

Other reports said because of the vast resources at the farms, especially Bulawayo Syndicate which is not yet fully resettled, a senior ZANU-PF official was eyeing the property and was using Edwards to drive out the new farmers. These reports said the ageing politician was probably lining up the ranch for one of his children.

These reports may not be far off the truth because war veterans who drove off a white farmer, barely 10 km away from Debshan, were it turn forced out by a junior minister who now occupies the farm.

But while the debate rages on, the procrastination over the ownership of the two pieces of land could be costing the cash-strapped government millions of dollars in foreign currency.

Though the two pieces of land, Joseph's Block and Bulawayo Syndicate are only 10 419.3 ha. and 17 499.1 ha., respectively, it is not the size of the land that people are interested in but the vast resources at the farms.

Bulawayo Syndicate, which has barely been settled, has piped water on all its paddocks. It could therefore be turned into a greenbelt over night. The water is supplied by the government-owned Tiabenzi Dam which also supplies the nearby Shangani Nickel Mine.

To add to that, it has abundant wildlife. This includes elephant, zebra, antelope, impala, sable and giraffe, just to name a few. A report in South Africa's Business Day last year said Debshan was earning at least US$500 000 (a staggering $2.8 billion) a year from safaris and hunting concessions on the property.

When The Insider visited the ranch, professional hunters had just killed an elephant and were dishing out meat to security guards. It was not clear on which part of the ranch the elephant had been killed and who had been paid the hunting fee.

But while the confusion continues, the people of Matabelelend will continue to wallow in poverty while a potential money spinner is wasted, simply because leadership in the province cannot make up their minds.

Sadly, by the time they wake up, settlers will probably have killed most of the wildlife on the ranch because of rampant poaching.

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