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A new class of land grabbers

A new breed of land grabbers has emerged in Zimbabwe taking land from both white commercial farmers and black peasants as the country's controversial land redistribution programme continues.
Rodrick Mukumbira

While history has it that over a century ago the first pioneer colonist came on horse back, this new breed is using quite a different mode of transport. These are high profile land grabbers who drive the state of the art Pajeros, Mercedes Benz or a rough terrain, all-wheel drive Toyota Hilux. Unlike the pioneer colonists, they are not only targeting virgin bush land but are also confiscating mansions, agricultural equipments and everything on the farms.

This new breed is made up of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party elite and those connected to them, who are grabbing white owned farms claiming to be emissaries of the indigenous people in contrast to the colonists who took land on behalf of the Queen of England to extend her sphere of influence.

In the countdown to the 2000 general elections the ruling ZANU-PF mobilised veterans of the liberation war that brought independence from Britain in 1980 and its rural area support base to invade commercial farms as it launched its controversial land redistribution programme.

The government said it wanted to address the disparity in land whereby 4000 white people owned 70 per cent of the country, while the rest was distributed unfairly to over 11 million people. But now the hapless peasants and war veterans, who launched the farm invasion campaigns, watch helplessly while the ruling elite scurries to grab prime pickings. As it is turning out, their campaign served to clear the decks for the ruling elite to enrich itself.

In the past 33 months, more than 4 000 white commercial farmers have lost their land in a disastrous campaign that has left formerly lush farmland barren. The government touts its land repossession programme as a black empowerment success despite evidence to the contrary. It has christened the controversial land distribution programme, "The Third Chimurenga" (Chimurenga stands for war of liberation in English).

But, it is fast becoming evident that land repossession has now been heavily tilted in favour of the ruling elite. Tatenda Mandaza, 55, gazes rather lost in the horizon over his wilt maize crop field on a sloppy rocky area in a village in Masvingo, in southern Zimbabwe.

"We thought we would be resettled first, seeing that we are cultivating along hill slopes," he says. "We have submitted our names and have not heard anything. What we hear now is the issue of a ZANU-PF chairman who is demanding thousands of dollars in grazing fees from a cattle rancher somewhere in the commercial farming area."

What Mandaza does not know is that he is talking about Samuel Mumbengwegwi, the ZANU-PF provincial chairman for Masvingo and the Minister of Industry and International Trade. He is accused by the Vosloos, a cattle ranching family in the area, of demanding monthly grazing fees of $35 000 or US$70 from their farm which he has seized. But Mumbengwegwi is not alone in this. His peers in Cabinet have also scrambled to grab some prime properties and in a number of instances, set themselves on a collision course with the war veterans who had initially invaded properties and claimed them as their booty.

And the list has grown in this scramble that began last August to include the service chiefs, judges, doctors and other ZANU-PF political heavyweights.

Even President Robert Mugabe's wife, Grace, has not been left out. She is said to have appropriated a $100 million or US$200 000 mansion from an elderly white couple, purportedly to establish an orphanage, setting the pace for other senior government officials.

Ignatius Chombo, the chairperson of the National Land Committee, which is responsible for allocating retaken farms, has also joined the rush and is currently embroiled in controversy after ignoring a provisional High Court order barring him from interfering with farming operations on two farms owned by one Jean Simpson.

Air force Commander, Perence Shiri, has also displaced villagers from rural Svosve in Marondera, east of capital Harare. These villagers spearheaded the land invasions in 1998 and they were brutally crashed by the government, which later resettled them on a prime farm in 2001. Now that farm has been taken over and they watch helplessly.

Not to be upstaged, junior minister of Information and Publicity, Jonathan Moyo wrote his own script of the on-going tragicomedy. Moyo's department produced a jarring advert "Chave Chimurenga" (This is War) to show the intensity of the land distribution programme, which is currently riling television viewers and radio listeners alike because of its sheer frequency. He has however, clashed with war veterans after he tried to evict them from a farm they have been occupying in northern Zimbabwe since 2001.

Instead of overseeing the maintenance of law and order as his portfolio demands, Home Affairs minister, Kembo Mohadi reportedly sold $31,5 million or US$5,8 million worth of oranges from a farm in southern Zimbabwe owned by one Eric Wheeler.

In the on going drama is also a British woman, Anne, married to a high ranking ZANU-PF official, who has also benefited from a 1 500 hectare farm in northern Zimbabwe after moving from Essex, United Kingdom to Zimbabwe with her husband less than a year ago.

She reportedly told the former owners of the farm that she was "reclaiming our land" "Get off our land: we are taking back what you stole from our forefathers," she screamed at the former owners.

The list is endless and includes Jocelyn Chiwenga, the wife of Constantine Chiwenga, the commander of the national army who reportedly told white owners of a farm in northern Zimbabwe that she had not tasted white blood since 1980 and missed the experience and that she needed just the slightest excuse to kill somebody, although she does not have liberation war credentials.

Joseph Made, the lands, agriculture and rural resettlement minister, denies that that Cabinet ministers and senior government officials are grabbing farms saying it is the work of people trying to derail the land distribution programme. "I do not know of senior government officials who have allocated themselves land," he said.

In response to criticism the government in November ordered a national audit. Made says its interim report has been completed and forwarded to President Mugabe. Early March, UK-based newsletter "African Confidential", said it had obtained a copy of the audit, and alleged that there was "evidence of corruption and the use of violence by senior politicians and military officers to evict landless small farmers - the very people that President Robert Mugabe claimed the land reform would help". While confirming that ZANU-PF chiefs have helped themselves to farms, Sam Moyo, a land expert with think-tank Southern African Regional Institute for Policy Studies, says that does not invalidate the entire land reform programme. "A certain opportunism happens within a process of change and a process of redistribution," he says. "We should recognise this, but it should not be overblown."

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