Harare. Eighty-year-old Isobel Simons calmly narrated how she and her late husband lost their 728 hectare Zimbabwe farm two decades ago to Robert Mugabe’s controversial land reforms.
Then she broke down and sobbed. “It was my home for 47 years,” she said.
Her home is now a tiny one-bed-room cottage in a retirement home in the capital Harare, where she spends her time cross-stitching and reading.
“I am very happy here,” she said after composing herself.
She was happier on the farm, where she spent her teen years riding horses.
“I am a country girl at heart.”
Sixty-kilometres away in Glendale, Benard Chinyemba, 60, took over an 80-hectare farm in 2002, offered to him by the government as part of land redistribution to blacks.
The ex-engineer is thriving, grow-ing maize and soya beans, while rear-ing goats, sheep, fish and chickens.
“There was no real farming going on here,” Chinyemba told AFP sit-ting on a garden chair on a well-manicured lawn.
“We renovated the house when we moved in,” he said.
Twenty years after Zimbabwe’s land reform began, the cases of Simons and Chinyemba illustrate the deep lingering divisions over what became a symbol of Mugabe, who ruled for 37 years until he was toppled in 2017. He died two years later.
Two decades ago, Mugabe seized more than 4,000 farms from the country’s 4,500 white large-scale commercial farmers.
He justified the land grabs as a way to correct historical wrongs by claiming back land that was forcibly taken from the blacks.
Critics blame the land programme for wreaking havoc on the agriculture sector -- a mainstay of the economy.
Economic output fell by half following the land seizures and the economy has been hobbled since -- shrinking 7.5 percent last year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube in a letter to the IMF in April, projected the economy could contract by between 15 and 20 percent, partly due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Food shortages experienced over most of the post-land reform years are widely blamed on the loss of white farmers.
The coronavirus pandemic has only worsened the shortages.
Two successive droughts have stunted agricultural harvests, leaving 7.7 million, half the population, and food insecure.
According to the World Food Programme, 56 of the country’s 60 districts are experiencing “crisis” hunger and the virus pandemic risks driving people into “deeper desperation.”
President Emmerson Mnangagwa has promised to import food to feed them “so that no one will starve”.
For Chinyemba, the government was right “repossessing” land from the whites, but they deserve compensation, if only for improvements.
“I don’t feel any remorse at all. The land belongs to the indigenous people. If the whites want to farm, they should do so on our terms.”
He said while black “people were killed,” when their land was taken from them, but “in all fairness, (whites) should get compensation” for improvements.
For white Zimbabweans, the programme was an invasion of their property. To the blacks, it was the final battle in the country’s liberation since they first rose against British colonialists in the 19th century.
The land issue almost derailed the negotiations with Britain that led to the birth of Zimbabwe in 1980.
Ultimately a deal was struck that the new government would not embark on any land reforms in the first decade in power.
After that, a “willing buyer, willing seller” principle came into effect with Britain to fund the buying of white-owned farms.
But in 1997, Clare Short, then British Secretary of State for International Development told Harare that London had “no special responsibility to meet the cost of land purchases.
”Sporadic invasions of white-owned farms ensued, but the government curbed them, with Mugabe assuring white farmers that “squat-ting” would not be tolerated.
Simons said white farmers deluded themselves into thinking they were untouchable and indispensable “royal game” because agriculture was key to the economy.
All that changed when in February 2000 after a constitutional referendum with a clause that would legalise expropriation of white farms without compensation, was rejected.
Days later, veterans of Zimbabwe’s liberation war started running white farmers off their land.
A year later, the government formalised the reform programme. Farms were either sub-divided into six-hectare plots or handed out whole to blacks.