Zimbabwe white farmers flee to Canada after land seized

Since Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe first launched his controversial land reform policies in 2000, some 4,000 white farmers have had their lands seized.

And the few remaining white farmers are being driven out — like the McKinnon family.

Danielle and Mark McKinnon, with their three kids, fled their farm just outside of Harare as the local sheriff, a court official and a group of men sought their eviction.

“That day just felt so uncertain. They were just in your face. They were coming into the house,” Danielle tells The Current‘s Anna Maria Tremonti.

“They wanted us out, then and there,” says Mark McKinnon.

Danielle McKinnon recalls leaving in the truck with their animals in the back as they were being laughed at and videotaped.

“It was actually quite a shock because we’ve never given in before. That feeling of defeat… It was unfair.”


Since president Robert Mugabe first launched his controversial land reform policies in the year 2000, some 4,000 white farmers have had their lands seized (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

The McKinnons say they had a great relationship with their surrounding community. They were helping schools and orphanages and there was no one unhappy with them.

“It had nothing to do with happiness or race or colour or anything, it was money,” Mark tells Tremonti.

In 2013, Mark said he was kidnapped by a group with very high connections to ministers and government. They were promised land and told to help themselves to farm plots close to Harare, according to McKinnon.

He was violently attacked for hours, says McKinnon.

“They wouldn’t let me go… they wanted me to sign over a piece of paper saying that I allowed them to have a piece of the farm.”

“I kept assuring them that I wasn’t the person to give land. [It] wasn’t my land anyway. It was state responsibility to give land.”

Eventually Mark was released when police came but says confrontations like this happened all the time.

Now the McKinnon family lives in Stouffville, Ont. — just outside of Toronto but Danielle and Mark both agree that Zimbabwe is home.

“It’s just bad politics. It will come right.”

Zimbabwe white farmers flee to Canada after land seized

Guests: Mark McKinnon, Danny McKinnon

ANNA-MARIA TREMONTI: Hello, I’m Anna-Maria Tremonti, and you’re listening to The Current.

[Music: Theme]

AMT: Still to come, it could be the ultimate disrupter. What if after our biological life is over our minds could live on as consciousness in the cloud or a digitized afterlife? We will hear about the intriguing possibility of disrupting death in half an hour. But first, out of Africa.

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AMT: Well, this next story is about a family from the African continent fleeing chaos at home and arriving in Canada to make a new life. The McKinnon family is different from most we see in the headlines, they’re white farmers from Zimbabwe. They were among just a few hundred left in this southern African country. Since President Robert Mugabe first launched his controversial land reform policies in the year 2000, some 4,000 white farmers have had their lands seized. The intent was to redistribute wealth among the majority black population. But in the years since land reform, the economy has collapsed. In recent months it’s been growing drastically worse. Unemployment stands at about 90 per cent, 30 per cent of the population is dependent on food aid. Political dissent is mounting and the few remaining white farmers are being driven out. Mark and Danielle, or Danny, McKinnon packed up their family and fled their farm just outside Harare, as the local sheriff and a group of young men seeking their eviction had them surrounded. Mark and Danny McKinnon are with me in our Toronto studio. Hello.

MARK MCKINNON: Hi, how are you doing?

AMT: Well, how are you doing? You’ve just been in Canada a few weeks.

MARK MCKINNON: Yes, yeah. We arrived two weeks ago Saturday.

AMT: Well, tell me about your farm, what were you growing?

MARK MCKINNON: We were mainly growing row cropping soybeans, maize, but we were big into horticulture before all the problems started.

AMT: Mm. And how long has it been in your family?

MARK MCKINNON: My grandfather would have bought the farm in ‘58. And I think we moved in in the early sixties.

AMT: Your grandfather was originally from British Columbia?

MARK MCKINNON: Yes, yeah, he left just after the depression and got a job with Anglo American as a geologist and ended up in Zambia. My dad and my aunt were both born in Zambia. I think my dad was six when they left to go to Zimbabwe, Rhodesia then.

AMT: OK and you were born in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia?

MARK MCKINNON: Yes, I was born in Zimbabwe.

AMT: But you’re a dual citizen.

MARK MCKINNON: Yes. When we were born, thanks to my mother, she registered us with the Canadian embassy. Likewise, with our children when they were born we also registered them with the Canadians. We’ve always known we’ve had the heritage, and granddad was very proud to be a Canadian. So we kept it alive, not knowing one day how it would save our lives.

AMT: Mm. Danny, are you originally from Zimbabwe?


AMT: And are you from an originally, a farming family?

DANNY MCKINNON: No, I lived in Bulawayo and then met Mark, and yeah.

AMT: You became part of a farming family.


AMT: So we know that in 2000 President Mugabe sanctioned the seizure of white owned farmland to try to undo the remnants of colonialism by returning land to black Zimbabweans. How did that affect your family Mark?

MARK MCKINNON: Going back to 2000, where the blame was put on the war veterans, and it was like a people’s movement to give land to the landless. Wasn’t the case, it was state sponsored right from the beginning. The war veterans got a bad rap if it was, they were used and there was a need, if I could say that, for land reform or something, but not the way things happened.

AMT: And when you say the war veterans, you’re talking about the black war veterans. So they were supposed to get land, but in fact that’s not really what happened?

MARK MCKINNON: No, the British government had been paying for years prior to the land invasions for redistribution and there was a willing buyer, willing seller basis, where Britain were paying for land for redistribution. But unfortunately, the land wasn’t getting redistributed, it was going to the big fat cats and anyone politically connected.

AMT: Mm. And you and your family stayed on your farm though, you were able to keep your farm.


AMT: Why? Why did you want to stay?

MARK MCKINNON: Well, it was the only thing we owned. We carved the farm out of virgin bush, if I can explain it that way. As long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be on the farm and farm.

AMT: And was it a choice? Like, you kept your farm. You were allowed to keep it, like how did that happen?

MARK MCKINNON: Yes. They did acquire us in 2001, under the land reform program. So we went to the ministry and pleaded our case the small farm fell within the criteria that it wasn’t suitable for land reform, and we were delisted I think.

AMT: And so, what kind of rapport did you have with the black community and with the workers that you had on your farm?

MARK MCKINNON: Oh, we had a fantastic community and a fantastic rapport with all our community. They towards the end had been fighting and lobbying the government to keep us in their community, because we were assisting a number of farmers. There was schools and an orphanage that we were also helping.

AMT: Mmhmm. And so, as things were spiraling in other places, you guys were actually, like, living in relative harmony with your neighbours?

MARK MCKINNON: Yes, our neighbours were, we also had a military base as a neighbour. They had a 2,500 hectare farm, ammunitions factory, and artillery headquarters. So we had very good communications with the army in our area, and our farm was actually part of a containment area which was exempt, should I say, from the land reform program, because they didn’t want too many people moving in closer to the security area.

AMT: So you had good relations, who was unhappy with you being there?

MARK MCKINNON: Nobody. It had nothing to do with happiness or race or colour or anything, it was money.

AMT: So what was it like on the farm Danny? Like the last decade or more, what’s it been like on that farm?

DANNY MCKINNON: It’s been interesting, stressful, but amazing lifestyle for the boys. I mean, you couldn’t wish your kids to grow up anywhere else but there, it was lovely. But then this last year has really taken its toll. It was yeah, it was getting to that point where we were old enough now.

AMT: And so when did things start to change though, you were kidnapped at one point weren’t you Mark?

MARK MCKINNON: Yeah, that was just before the elections in 2013.

AMT: Mmhmm, what happened?

MARK MCKINNON: About 20 to 30 youth, all with very high connections to ministers and government were promised land, to go and help themselves basically to farms, plots close to Harare. One of the minister’s sons was actually our neighbour and I recognized him and tried to talk to him because we were on a friendly basis. But yeah, got a bit–

DANNY MCKINNON: Out of hand.

MARK MCKINNON: Out of hand.

AMT: What happened? Danny, do you remember?

DANNY MCKINNON: No, I was at the house, he had to go down to the shed. And he was by himself, which was really scary for us at the house.


AMT: And they grabbed you?

MARK MCKINNON: Yeah, they wouldn’t let me leave. They pushed me around a bit and everything. And then yeah, things got out of hand, but they were drinking.

DANNY MCKINNON: They used a panga.

AMT: What’s that?

DANNY MCKINNON: It’s like a machete knife, yeah.

MARK MCKINNON: That cut my hand.


MARK MCKINNON: Kicked me, and yeah.

DANNY MCKINNON: He has missing teeth and he had bad bruising all over him, big black eyes.

AMT: And how long did that last? Like how long did they keep you?

MARK MCKINNON: [sighs] Most of the day.


MARK MCKINNON: It was most of the day.

AMT: Like hours and hours?

MARK MCKINNON: Yeah. And basically, these were young 23, 24 year-old youth.

AMT: Who grabbed you?

MARK MCKINNON: Yeah. And wouldn’t let me go until, they wanted me to sign over a piece of paper saying that I’d allowed them to have a piece of the farm or something. And I kept reassuring them that I wasn’t the person to give land. It wasn’t my land anyway, it’s the state responsibility to give land, so I just kept playing on that. Eventually, back and forth between phone calls and that to different people, we managed to get released. I think it was the police eventually came and then defused the situation.

AMT: So that was about three years ago?

MARK MCKINNON: Yeah, yeah, three, four years ago.

AMT: And you stayed?

MARK MCKINNON: Yes. No, but that’s happened all the time. We would have different groups of ZANU-PF come to the farm. I knew most of them because we had to deal with what’s it called, the local party members.

AMT: Right, and ZANU-PF is the Mugabe supporters right?


AMT: OK. Danny how many kids do you have?

DANNY MCKINNON: Four boys. We lost our oldest five years ago on the farm.

AMT: What happened?

DANNY MCKINNON: He was playing, we were actually extending our house and he was playing in a sandpit and he dug a tunnel, he was 14, dug a tunnel and the sand collapsed on him and no one knew. So by the time we did call all the boys for supper, we couldn’t find him.

AMT: Oh, that’s terrible.


AMT: And so how old are your other boys?

DANNY MCKINNON: Our second one is Steven, he’s 16. And then we got Jeffrey. [voice quivering] Sorry. [long pause] You tell her how old the kids are.

MARK MCKINNON: Yeah, Steven’s 16, Jeffrey’s, now you got me confused.

DANNY MCKINNON: [laughs] You probably don’t even know. Jeffrey’s 13 and David’s 11.

MARK MCKINNON: David 11, yeah.

AMT: And I don’t know, I mean, you’ve had to leave that farm, that’s where he died. That must have been hard.

DANNY MCKINNON: Yeah, that was difficult.

AMT: Because that’s your connection to him.

DANNY MCKINNON: Yep, that was it.

MARK MCKINNON: Yeah. There’s good days and bad days but–

AMT: How long ago was that?

DANNY MCKINNON: Five years ago. It’s his birthday next week.

AMT: Not long at all.

DANNY MCKINNON: No. It’s still very fresh.

AMT: What happened in the last few months to escalate things?

MARK MCKINNON: Well, it started June last year with the ministry of lands allocated three recipients, offer letters for our farm. So they rocked up at the farm with these fancy cars and everything and we basically said well, we’re not moving, we were stubborn. So they took us to court, the ministry of lands took us to court. So we went, I think it was probably 14 or 15 court appearances at the local magistrate’s court. Where the charges were that we were occupying state land without authority. So we challenged in court that the ministry of lands had no authority to allocate our land because one, our farm was acquired under the city of Harare as urban land. And also the fact that we were in a military containment area was exempt from the land reform program. But the magistrate ruled against us anyway, which was fine, we wanted to go to a higher court anyway.

AMT: You wanted to fight for your land within the law–


AMT: As it existed and you were willing to appeal and keep moving up the courts. At some point your parents were arrested?

MARK MCKINNON: Yes. After we lost the magistrate’s court, and while we were waiting, because we lodged an appeal with the High Court, appealing basically the case. The police came and arrested us because we were still on the farm, they didn’t care about our appeal. So they took my parents off.

AMT: These are a group of people who just decided they wanted your house and that you’re fighting it in court, but in fact in the days when the land reform started, again, you were exempt. So suddenly this is political, that suddenly you’re in the midst of all of this?

MARK MCKINNON: No, it was never a political.

AMT: Like, it’s not political that they wanted the farm?

MARK MCKINNON: No, it had nothing to do with politics at all. It was about money. They wanted the land for subdivision. Our farm could be subdivided off into smaller plots where they could sell the plots off to people who were looking to buy.

AMT: OK, but who was it? It wasn’t the government that wanted the land, it was these individuals who decided they wanted this land?



MARK MCKINNON: No government official ever came to our property and evicted us, apart from the one beneficiary who is the lands official in the ministry of lands, who allocated himself the farm.

AMT: Right, OK, so what you’re talking about is getting lost in a place that has a lot of lawlessness.

MARK MCKINNON: Yes, when we phoned the police this last time when I told the Danny and the kids to pack a bag and we got to get out of here, Danny was in town and went to the police to report what was happening.

DANNY MCKINNON: Yeah, I went to go and pick him up and I said to them please we’ve got a disturbance at the house and we need your assistance. And he got ready, he got the gun, because I said to them we’re not sure if they’re armed or not. So he got his gun and everything and then I had to fill out a piece of paper to say where he is going to, and as soon as I put our farm name he said no I can’t help you.

AMT: What did that tell you?

DANNY MCKINNON: That we’re on our own.

MARK MCKINNON: We’re on our own, yeah. That there were bigger people behind, the people that were after our farm.

AMT: And so what was the final straw? Like what made you decide to go and how did you leave?

DANNY MCKINNON: They were determined to get us. I mean, they had put Markham’s folks in jail and that was traumatic. It really really was. Then on top of that they trumped up charges against our oldest son now Steven, and we actually had to put him in hiding because we weren’t sure. They were capable of doing anything. And for Steven to be put in jail and seen everything that happened, we said no we can’t do that.

MARK MCKINNON: And the day we actually decided to leave the farm, there was over 30 youths with an official from the courts that was basically the sheriff of the court, had come to serve us an eviction notice. So when we were in the house with the parents and everything we phoned the lawyers and everything to say what do we do, what should we do, what’s the steps and all that? And she said she was aware, because she had phoned the sheriff of the court and he said that they had an eviction notice. So she said has he served you yet? While we are in the house, and I said no he hasn’t served us. So she said that’s great, pack a bag, come into town and let’s deal with this, because they can’t evict you.

DANNY MCKINNON: There was too many of them for us to actually there.

MARK MCKINNON: And there was too many and they were all around the house shouting at us to get out.

DANNY MCKINNON: It was a different atmosphere. We’ve had them in the yard before, but I don’t know that day just felt very uncertain.

AMT: Tell me more about that, what were they?

DANNY MCKINNON: They were just in your face. They were coming into the house. They just felt they were–

MARK MCKINNON: They were enough of being blocked and basically the courts system was working too slowly for them. They wanted us out, didn’t they?

AMT: What did you take?

MARK MCKINNON: I ran and got all our paperwork and IDs and passports and any form paperwork that I thought we would need, because I envisaged that they would trash the house. I didn’t think we were going to get evicted in the manner, but I thought they are going to go in and trash the house. And then I also took all my firearms out of the house as well, we put those in the truck and then grabbed–

AMT: [interposing] How many firearms did you have?

MARK MCKINNON: Nine. I think we had nine.

AMT: Did you have a hunting, like, you had a game?

MARK MCKINNON: Yeah, we’ve got a game park conservancy on the farm as well.

DANNY MCKINNON: And Markham shot for Zimbabwe.

MARK MCKINNON: Yeah, I used to shoot for Zimbabwean clay pigeon shooting. I’ve represented Zimbabwe for the last 16 years, the national team. We’ve traveled all over the world.

AMT: What did you take Danny?

DANNY MCKINNON: I got Dylan, because he was cremated, so we still have his ashes. And–

AMT: [interposing] You went for them.

DANNY MCKINNON: I went straight for it. And then I was such a good wife I packed my husband’s things [laughs]. And then I suddenly thought oh I haven’t packed mine. [chuckles] No, and just, yeah, Steven went and packed all of his fishing rods. Anne packed her cats and David, our precious little one, all he wanted was his hair gel.

AMT: [laughs] His hair gel. [laughs]



AMT: So you left and obviously you had to, like, go right by this group of people to get out of there.

DANNY MCKINNON: And they were laughing.


DANNY MCKINNON: And videoing us. And we had all our animals on the back of the truck, and it was actually quite a shock because we’ve never given in before. And it was oh, that feeling of defeat. It’s unfair.

MARK MCKINNON: Yeah, there was no right for them to take over a house like that.

AMT: And then what did they do to your house when you got out?

DANNY MCKINNON: Well, we locked it.

MARK MCKINNON: We locked it up and left. We haven’t been back. We don’t know. After they had finished evicting us out of our house and my parents out of the main house, they carried on and went to our labour and evicted our managers and all our labour off the farm in the same manner, and put their property with ours on the road. So we were busy running around organizing transport to move their property back to their rural homes and wherever they had family to move their stuff.

AMT: You came here, you’ve got all dual citizenship, Danny you don’t, right?


AMT: And how difficult was it to get to Canada?

MARK MCKINNON: Well, initially I wasn’t going to come. I was going to stay behind. Now I had the CIO, the president’s secret police after me, and like, because we weren’t there when they broke into our strong room and safe and everything, it would have been very easy for them to plant something there and blame it on us. So we basically went into hiding. I got the folks from home and my mother, their half was really, you know, my dad’s had two hip replacements and a knee operation lately.

AMT: Where are your parents now?

MARK MCKINNON: They’re in Vancouver with my sister.

AMT: So they came out with you?

MARK MCKINNON: We sent them out to South Africa.

DANNY MCKINNON: No, we got kicked off on the Tuesday, they left on the Wednesday.


AMT: What was that like for you, Danny to get on that plane?

MARK MCKINNON: It was frightening.

DANNY MCKINNON: It was, it was really scary because we had to go through all the police checks to get to the waiting area before the plane. And it just felt like everyone was watching you. And when we finally got on that plane that relief was amazing.


DANNY MCKINNON: But then flying over [unintelligible], yeah, that was that was really hard, because then that was just like your whole life was just, it was just gone. It was quite something.

AMT: You realized you were leaving it all behind.


MARK MCKINNON: Yeah, all the friendships and friends that we were leaving behind.

DANNY MCKINNON: Families. I mean, I’ve still got family back in Zim.

AMT: Did you get a chance to say goodbye to everyone?


AMT: Where are you living now?

MARK MCKINNON: We’re staying with my aunt, my dad’s sister, in Stouffville.

AMT: Outside of Toronto.

MARK MCKINNON: Just outside of Toronto.

AMT: And what is it, what’s it like for your kids right now?

MARK MCKINNON: They’re loving this. We’ve just got them into school there and they have made so many new friends and it’s yeah, they’ve picked it up so quickly and made new friends and loving their schools.

AMT: What do they ask you about home?

DANNY MCKINNON: It’s hard, because you don’t know what to say to them. You just keep saying no, we’ve got to look forward. And you’ve got to tell them the truth, that we’re not going back, because you can’t give them that glimmer of hope. It’s not going to happen.

AMT: So the land reforms, you make the point, they were always suspect but they were ostensibly to write some of the wrongs of history. All these years later, the country cannot feed itself and inflation is like, through the roof. We see pictures of empty shelves in grocery stores. Until recently, you obviously still felt you had a place there as farmers, as contributing to the country. What should we make of your experience when we think of Zimbabwe?

MARK MCKINNON: It’s a beautiful, beautiful country.


MARK MCKINNON: It’s home. It’s just bad politics.

DANNY MCKINNON: It will come right.

AMT: You hope to go back one day.

MARK MCKINNON: I can’t see dragging my kids back to Africa.

DANNY MCKINNON: Not twice. You can’t do it twice.

MARK MCKINNON: We always said if we leave Zimbabwe, we’re leaving Africa. We’re not going to move to Zambia, we’re not going to move to Mozambique or South Africa for example. If we leave, we’re leaving. To go and start again in Africa, so that it can be stolen from you again, no. We would rather start a new life where whatever we build it’s ours.

AMT: But you are starting from scratch here.


MARK MCKINNON: Yeah, we are.

DANNY MCKINNON: We really are.

MARK MCKINNON: We’re still young enough, I think. We’ve got a few good years left in us to work hard. [laughs]

AMT: Well, thank you for coming and sharing your story, and it’s important to hear your experience in Zimbabwe, we don’t hear enough about it.


DANNY MCKINNON: Thank you for having us.


AMT: Mark and Danielle McKinnon. They fled their family farm in Zimbabwe just a few weeks ago with their children, arrived in Canada just three weeks ago. They joined me in our Toronto studio.

[Music: Extro]

AMT: Coming up next, there is nothing more certain in life than death. But that just makes death ripe for disruption. How technology could somehow digitize our minds and let us live forever. I’m Anna-Maria Tremonti, this is The Current.

[Music: Extro]

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