Land returned to Rob and Darryn Smart

Land returned to white Zimbabwean farmer

The Australian / AFP

3 March 2018

Pupils dig a long jump pit on Thursday at the school funded by Robert Smart on his Lesbury Estates farm. Picture: AFP

When the riot police arrived, Zimbabwean farmworker Mary Mhuriyengwe saw her life fall apart as her job and home disappeared in the ruthless land seizures that ­defined Robert Mugabe’s rule.

Ms Mhuriyengwe, 35, watched as police carrying AK-47 assault ­rifles released teargas to force white farmer Robert Smart off his land in June 2017 — perhaps the last of 18 years of evictions that helped to trigger the country’s economic collapse.

A widow and mother of two, Ms Mhuriyengwe relied on her work as a general labourer at Mr Smart’s Lesbury Estates farm in Headlands, 160km east of the capital Harare.

“It’s the only job I had and I had no husband to turn to,” she said. “I found myself with nothing.”

To her shock and amazement, Ms Mhuriyengwe is now back at work on the farm and back living in her modest house, after ­Mugabe was ousted in November and Emmerson Mnangagwa ­became President.

Mary Mhuriyengwe, centre, leads workers cleaning an abandoned and dusty office desk for Zimbabwean commercial farmer Rob Smart, top.

Mr Smart was allowed to return to his Lesbury Estate farm within weeks of Mr Mnangagwa’s inauguration, becoming the first — and so far the only — white farmer to be given back his property.

But it is far from certain whether Mr Smart’s case will be a precedent enabling other white farmers and their employees to return.

Mr Smart’s farm had been at the centre of a power tussle within the ruling ZANU-PF party ­involving a close ally of Mugabe — whose sudden fall from power saw the property quickly returned to its owner.

Mr Mnangagwa himself has described Zimbabwe’s land ­seizures as “irreversible”, and stressed that white farmers would not get their land back.

Instead, they are being encouraged to take other farms on new 99-year leases as the government seeks to boost the agricultural sector to revive the moribund economy and create jobs.

Evicted white farmers may also receive cash compensation, but where the money would come from is unclear.

Zimbabwe’s often-violent land reform program started in 2000, with thousands of farmers forced off their land by mobs or evicted.

Mugabe said the reforms would help black people impoverished by British colonial rule.

But critics blame the land redistribution for the collapse in agricultural production that led to Zimbabwe’s economy being wrecked by hyperinflation, mass unemployment and emigration.

Rob Smart briefs his workers on the potato crop being planted on 5ha of his 120ha property.

Picture: AFP

Many of the seized farms were given to Mugabe’s loyalists or fell into disrepair.

Now other white farmers and their employees are waiting to see if Mr Smart’s case offers them any hope.

“There might be changes in ­future but as things stand, there is absolutely no change,” former cattle grazier Mike Clark said.

Commercial Farmers Union director Ben Gilpin said he was not aware of any other farmers ­allowed back on their land.

Whatever the fate of other farms, Ms Mhuriyengwe smiled as she watched a tractor leaving the shed to plant a potato crop.

Mr Smart has already recalled 40 of his 300 permanent and casual workers, and has prepared 5ha of his 120ha farm for potatoes.

“It pained us when Mr Smart was evicted and we were ordered to leave,” said Ms Mhuriyengwe, who was among families forced to seek shelter in nearby mountains.

Ms Mhuriyengwe’s daughters attended school on the farm where Mr Smart also ran a clinic for his workers and families.

“Imagine the trauma for the children coming to school from the bush and not knowing whether their parents will still be there after school,” teacher Tecla ­Muyeye said yesterday.

“For some time, the farm resembled a war zone. The occupiers fired guns to scare away the farmworkers and we did not know how it was going to end.”

Workers organised a homecoming party for Mr Smart, breaking into song when he ­arrived accompanied by security provided by the government.

He found the family’s house stripped of furniture and much of his farm equipment and supplies stolen.

But Mr Smart, who inherited the farm from his father in 1965 and is grooming his son to take over, is determined to be upbeat.

“There was a feeling of joy that we were allowed to come back,” he said. “It is about the three generations of us and the guys who work here.”