The Zimbabwean farmer looked older than his 47 years. He could barely stop coughing, having walked 12km to catch a bus to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second town, to look for medicines for his daughter. The ticket had cost $Z45,000 – barely $1 at the parallel market rate – his last remaining cash.

That morning elephants, ranging free from the Hwange National Park, in one of the more bizarre manifestations of the lawlessness spreading across Zimbabwe, had rampaged over his small pumpkin patch. In a minute his winter larder was no more.

The tale of Christopher Ncube’s attempts to survive as a smallholder is grimly emblematic of the consequences of Operation Murambatsvina, or Clear Out the Trash, the government’s forced removal of hundreds of thousands of people from urban to rural areas that began two years ago on Friday.

It also sheds light on the implosion of Zimbabwe’s agriculture, once the mainstay of the economy. Shadreck Mlambo, a senior official in the Ministry of Agriculture, had to admit to parliament this week that only a tenth of the required winter wheat crop had been planted.

Mr Ncube was one of many in the informal settlements around Harare and Bulawayo who woke two years ago to the sound of policemen bashing at his door. Within minutes he was outside with his family, as the police set light to his shack.

Days later his town life was over. Instead he was on his way to a five-hectare plot outside Bulawayo to start again as a peasant farmer.

He was to be a foot soldier in what President Robert Mugabe’s supporters hailed as a new agricultural army, which would plough and sow their way to a new prosperous future.

His eyes flashed when reminded of that day – and the accompanying government spin. “I had never farmed before,” he said. “The land was not cleared. We don’t have cattle or farming implements …the government has given us nothing.”

Mr Mugabe’s government said the operation was a slum-clearance aimed at reducing disease and driving out black marketeers. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change saw it as an attempt to undermine its strongholds, Zimbabwe’s two big towns.

The government’s subsequent neglect of the evicted – estimated at between 700,000 and more than 1m – lends credence to the MDC’s argument. Amnesty International reported last year that a government rehousing programme had provided just over 3,325 new homes. Many of them, it added, were still incomplete.

Two years on Mr Ncube and his household – his wife, five children and three Aids orphans from his dead brother’s family – are still struggling to understand rural ways.

Other evacuees echo their experiences. Edward Sibanda, a former security guard, has an 11-acre plot in Nyamandlovu, outside Bulawayo, on what used to be a highly profitable farm. The white farmer had to give up most of his land six years ago when Mr Mugabe sanctioned the occupation of most of the country’s commercial farms.

Most of the plot, however – and indeed most of the expropriated part of the farm – lies sunbaked and untended. Mr Sibanda has a few chickens, and a scrappy vegetable patch but he too lacks tools and the know-how to feed even his family, let alone anybody else.

The government is trumpeting a new initiative to revive agriculture. Gideon Gono, central bank governor, is calling on local industry to build 100,000 ploughs and as many harrows, cultivators and ox carts.

In theory the equipment is to be handed out to the new smallholders. Companies have been told to rush through orders by early next year, conveniently for the ruling Zanu-PF, just before March’s parliamentary and presidential elections.

With the official inflation rate at 3,779 per cent, contracts are welcome. But businessmen have heard such talk before. “I am surprised we weren’t asked to stamp Zanu-PF on the equipment,” said the chief executive of a small manufacturing company. “While Zimbabwe could probably produce 100,000 ploughs, even if you can make them there aren’t the oxen. There just isn’t the capacity to pull them.”

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