A white Zimbabwean farmer evicted under the government of Robert Mugabe has returned to a hero’s welcome as the first to get his land back under new President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Robert Smart’s return to his farm, with military support, is a sign that the new leader is reforming an issue that had hastened the country’s international isolation. Hundreds of farmers were evicted, often violently, under a programme Mr Mugabe called a righting of colonial wrongs.
Now Zimbabwean officials are reaching out to other white farmers who lost their land, including those who have moved to neighbouring countries. Mr Mnangagwa (pictured in centre below) is desperate to revive the once-prosperous southern African nation’s economy after years of international sanctions.
He has months to win public support before elections scheduled for August at the latest.
Mr Smart made his way into Lesbury farm, about 120 miles east of the capital, Harare, to cheers and songs from dozens of workers and community members.
Such scenes were once unthinkable in a country where land ownership is an emotional issue with political and racial overtones. “We have come to reclaim our farm,” sang black women and men, rushing into the compound.
Two decades ago, their arrival would have meant that Mr Smart and his family would have to leave.
Ruling ZANU-PF party supporters, led by veterans of the 1970s war against white minority rule, evicted many of Zimbabwe’s white farmers under an often violent land reform programme led by Mr Mugabe.
Whites make up less than 1% of the southern African country’s population, but they owned huge tracts of land while blacks remained in largely unproductive areas. The evictions were meant to address colonial land ownership imbalances skewed against blacks, Mr Mugabe said. Some in the international community responded with outrage and sanctions.
Of the roughly 4,500 white farmers before the land reforms began in 2000, only a few hundred are left.
But Mr Mugabe is gone, having resigned last month after the military and ruling party turned against him amid fears that his wife was positioning herself to take power.
New president Emmerson Mnangagwa, a longtime Mugabe ally but stung by his firing as vice president, has promised to undo some land reforms as he seeks to revive the once-prosperous economy.
On Thursday, some war veterans and local traditional leaders joined farm workers and villagers in song to welcome Mr Smart’s family home. His return to the farm, facilitated by Mr Mnangagwa’s government, could mark a new turn in the politics of land ownership.
During his inauguration last month, Mr Mnangagwa described the land reform as “inevitable”, calling land ownership and management key to economic recovery. Months before an election scheduled for August 2018 at the latest, the new president is desperate to bring back foreign investors and resolve a severe currency shortage, mass unemployment and dramatic price increases for food and household items.
Zimbabwe is mainly agricultural, with 80% of the population depending on it for their livelihoods, according to government figures. Earlier this month, deputy finance minister Terrence Mukupe travelled to neighbouring Zambia to engage former white Zimbabwean farmers who have settled there.
The Commercial Farmers Union, which represents mainly white farmers, said it plans to meet ministers later.