Grace Mugabe — Philanthropist or self-aggrandiser?

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AWAY from the usual hustle and bustle of politics, the Harare International Conference Centre last Friday hosted an evangelical fellowship conference of Christian women from all parts of the country to deal with issues affecting women.

Report by Herbert Moyo

One preacher exhorted women parishioners to follow the example of virtuous womenfolk like the beautiful Queen Esther whose humility and moral integrity were so vital in saving the Jewish race from extinction at the hands of cruel Haman.

The Bible and world history are replete with examples of powerful women who used their influence for either good or evil designs, leaving an indelible mark on human history.

Queen Esther used her influence for the positive when she exposed an evil plot of genocide by Haman to her husband King Xerxes, risking her own life.

There are, however, many other powerful not-so-virtuous women like 19th Century French Queen Marie Antoinette who, when informed that ordinary citizens were starving due to bread shortages, infamously quipped that they should eat cake instead.

Queen Jezebel connived with her husband King Ahab to not only dispossess Naboth of his one and only vineyard, but to kill him as well. The Ahab/Jezebel story of dispossession is one of pure greed as the royal pair owned so much land and could have acquired more elsewhere, but cast their envious eye on Naboth’s only vineyard.

They say history repeats itself and this seems to be the case in Zimbabwe following recent revelations the First Lady Grace Mugabe had grabbed 1 600 hectares of agro-producer Interfresh’s Mazowe Citrus Estate in Mashonaland Central.

The question is: Is Grace Mugabe a force of good or evil? No doubt those who know her say she a good-hearted person who has a strong compassion for helping the under-privileged in society and always tries to use her position and influence to change communities for the better.

Her supporters say she is full of love for humankind in general and thus makes charitable donations intended to increase human well-being, particularly the welfare of the poor.

There has been a series of interviews in the state media covering acres of space detailing how good a person she is and the community projects she has been doing to help the needy.

Even her critics would agree that her humanitarian projects are welcome and need to be encouraged so that the poor benefit from her generosity, care and charity. However, her approach and the manner in which some of her projects are conceived and executed have left a sour taste in the mouths of some, mainly those affected by her activities.

The case of Interfresh is one such an example. Interfresh says the First Lady has taken a portion of its estate, which represents 46% of Mazowe Citrus Estate’s total arable land, 30% of its budgeted revenue for the 2013 financial year and 52% of the value of immovable and biological assets.

As if that was not enough, Mashonaland Central governor Martin Dinha promised more land for the First Family, which is already accused of owning more than 10 farms directly or indirectly.

“We offered you land and we will continue to offer you land for other projects if you want it,” Dinha said at the official opening of the Amai Mugabe Junior School in Mazowe last week.

“We will do it in broad daylight and we are not ashamed of it. Detractors can say what they want, they can write what they want, but this is our land in Mashonaland Central and we will do what we want with it.”
The latest land grab by Grace follows hard on the heels of recent other seizures which have affected high-profile and ordinary rural dwellers, prompting analysts to question the graciousness of her methods and projects.
Bulawayo-based political analyst Godwin Phiri said it is unfortunate that Grace — who has in recent years drawn parallels with Marie Antoinette due to her shopping sprees and flamboyant lifestyle — had embarked on a path of dispossession and self-aggrandisement, deviating from the mother-of-the-nation concept popularised by President Robert Mugabe’s late first wife, Sally, in the 1980s.

“Sally was viewed as caring and motherly, especially through her work in the Child Survival Foundation; and even if Grace has built an orphanage, this has done little for her reputation which has been tainted by reports of self-aggrandisement and dispossessing Zimbabweans of their land and property,” Phiri said.

While Grace says she is pursuing a noble humanitarian cause, her approach of expropriating land from locals — which implies abuse of power and disdain for the rule of law — is undermining her charity activities.

After initially taking a farm from an old white couple in the area at the height of land invasions, High Court judge Justice Ben Hlatshwayo accused her company, Gushungo Holdings, of grabbing his Gwina farm in Banket in 2009.

His court papers said he had been operating his farm in “quiet, undisturbed, peaceful possession, occupation and production” since it was allocated to him in 2002 during the controversial fast-track land reform programme until the First Lady arrived on the scene.
Grace followed up on that by seizing Manzou Farm in 2011, this time from ordinary rural people who had grabbed the former game park in 2001 with the backing of Zanu PF.

When the Zimbabwe Independent visited Manzou Farm last year, the paper was welcomed by scores of peasant farmers who spoke of a bleak and uncertain future following the appropriation of the former game park they invaded in 2001 at the height of Zanu PF’s violent land grabs.

One elderly man, who said he was originally from Gokwe, spoke of how he had invested heavily in seed, fertiliser and other inputs while pointing to a thriving maize crop which he was never given time to harvest after being kicked out into the open together with his children and personal belongings.

At the time Dinha, who was again assisting Grace’s land grab activities, denied that she was taking over the farm saying she was quite content with the area allocated to her for the orphanage project.

“The First Lady is not interested in taking over Manzou. In fact, it is the Mashonaland Central (Zanu PF) executive which identified Manzou as a priority project and we will be resuscitating the game park in partnership with Chinese investors,” said Dinha then, adding, “illegal squatters had caused environmental degradation to the nearby Mazowe Dam through their farming and illegal gold mining activities.”

What Dinha chose not to mention is that these “illegal settlers” were in fact ordinary people who had participated in Zanu PF’s land seizures? The fact families came from different parts of the country including Gutu, Uzumba-Maramba-Pfungwe and Gokwe suggested their settlement could have been a well-orchestrated party programme only to be ditched when Grace decided she needed the property.

The First Family also owns Gushungo Dairy Estate in Mazowe (formally Foyle Farm) in contravention of government’s one-man one-farm policy which Mugabe espoused during the land reform programme.

Habakkuk Trust chief executive officer Dumisani Nkomo said the latest land grabs were a continuation of the Zanu PF culture of self-aggrandisement and greed which cannot even be disguised as indigenisation and empowerment.

“Those who already have are getting more at the expense of the poor, deserving people and the economy,” said Nkomo, adding that “Dinha may actually be in a difficult position where he cannot resist Grace’s insatiable demands even if he feels they are morally reprehensible”.
Phiri said Grace’s expropriation spree is probably in preparation for post-Mugabe life “especially if you look at the area (Mashonaland Central) she is targeting with its potential for immense economic benefits”.

While the First Lady sets about further safeguarding her interests, there is no doubt that the land grabs have caused serious damage as well as suffering for some Zimbabweans.

Given all this, analysts say Grace’s charity activities — which are now being questioned due to her brazen and selfish approach — risk being seen as self-aggrandisement under the cloak of philanthropy if she continues grabbing other people’s properties while leaving them stranded and impoverished.

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