Rose grower Aart Nugteren: ‘Any change in Zimbabwe would have been good’

After a long period of Robert Mugabe’s destroying regime, Zimbabwe finally seems to be on the verge of a new start. The dictator has resigned. Rose grower Aart Nugteren is optimistic about the change of power. “Any change would have been good. Things simply couldn’t get worse.”

By Arie-Frans Middelburg

“It’s calm in Zimbabwe”, says Aart Nugteren. “Everything’s normal, everybody is relaxed and we’re all just getting on with things. People who have a job, are going to work as normal.”

The streets are ruled by the army, tanks are positioned in a number of places. The police force has been neutralised. They can no longer take any random action whenever they’re instructed by a minister or the president. “The police can no longer give you a false ticket”, jokes Nugteren. He’s currently in Zimbabwe, at his company.

The only one left

Nugteren is the only Dutch grower who stayed on in the country, throughout all those years of disastrous reign by president Robert Mugabe. He expanded his nursery not too long ago, with 7.5 hectares of greenhouses imported from Belgium. It brought the total acreage of his farm to 16 ha.

The change of regime seems to be taking place peacefully. There was a vote to remove Mugabe from office last Tuesday. Before the vote took place Mugabe resigned as president of Zimbabwe.

It means an end to many years of dictatorship by the man who basically left Zimbabwe in ruins. The country is in a deplorable state. “90% of the population is unemployed”, says Nugteren. “And even the people who do have a job, can hardly make ends meet. There isn’t a single currency that functions in this country. The value of scriptural money is totally different from that of cash. It’s a complete mess.”

Entrepreneurs have also been having a hard time. They’ve had to comply with all kinds of regulations that don’t exist at all in other countries and there were continuous inspections, to check whether businesses were fulfilling those requirements.

People are happy

The change of regime, something that many people in Zimbabwe had been hoping for for years, is quite sudden. Everyone was getting ready for the next big ZANU-PF meeting in December. However, Mugabe overplayed his hand by pushing out his intended successor and introducing his wife Grace as the new president of Zimbabwe. The army didn’t accept that.

Now that change is near, all Zimbabweans, without exception, are happy, according to Nugteren. But still. The intended successor, who becomes interim president, has been part of the Mugabe clan for years. Is it realistic to think things to improve? Nugteren is optimistic. “I consider it the beginning of the change we’ve been waiting for for many years. Besides, any change would have been good. Things simply couldn’t get worse.”

Nugteren points out that Mnangagwa is planning to form a Cabinet of National Unity until the elections. Is there any chance that opposition parties will come to power? Nugteren: “That’s hard to know. Elections and Africa generally don’t go well together.”

But he does expect to see some changes. “It’s going to be a gradual process. Zimbabwe will initially turn to the international community. They’re going to ask for help from the IMF, the SADC and the World Bank. Eventually, we’ll see the country shaking off the decades of dictatorship by Mugabe.”

Breadbasket of Africa

Mugabe’s expropriation politics meant that the country’s agricultural and horticultural industries were almost completely destroyed. There are a few farmers and growers left.

Nugteren feels that Zimbabwe could eventually return to being the breadbasket of Africa again. “But only if the expropriation laws are going to be changed. Nobody wants to invest in a farm that isn’t his own.” At the moment, all farms have two owners. The original owner and an entrepreneur who runs the farm. Like a joint venture. Nugteren admits it’s far from ideal.

His own business activities in Zimbabwe – he’s been there since the mid eighties – are going to become easier, too.  Although the last couple of years haven’t been bad. We’ve been making quite a nice profit for a few years. The premium that we received for bringing hard currency into the country has really helped. It was as high as 60% sometimes. While the costs remained the same, so that wasn’t bad.”

Zimbabwe was once known as Africa’s breadbasket. Everything changed in the year 2000. President Mugabe wanted to do something about the unfair distribution of agricultural land. At that time, 80% was still in the hands of white farmers and only 20% was used by black colleagues. So, he decided to implement land reforms.

As a result, white farmers were brutally driven off their land. Most of the farms ended up in the hands of the Mugabe family and the members of his party, ZANU-PF. But the new owners weren’t farmers, so they couldn’t maintain production. The entire agricultural industry collapsed in a few years time. The country is nowadays still struggling with a major economic and political crisis.

Many people were looking forward to the moment when the now 93-old Mugabe was going to hand over power. During the prosperous nineties, there were still around 40 Dutch farmers in Zimbabwe, nowadays there are only 7 left. In the year 2000, there was 1,000 hectares of flower cultivation in Zimbabwe.

Now, in 2017, there’s no more than 50 hectares left. There are currently 7 flower growers in Zimbabwe, Aart Nugteren is the only Dutch flower grower that stayed on. He exports to the Netherlands. KLM ships 70% of all Zimbabwean flowers to Amsterdam. The remainder is distributed in South Africa and locally.

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