Farmer’s escape from death’s jaws

AFTER spending 80 years on the same farm, building a school that the late Defence minister Moven Mahachi once attended, the Smart family thought nothing would uproot them from this property they had grown to call home.

Bernard Mpofu

After all, they had voluntarily surrendered three other farms at the height of Zimbabwe’s chaotic and violent land reform programme when thousands of white farmers violently lost vast tracts of land to locals. Some were maimed, while others were killed. But just when everyone thought the land grabs were now a thing of the past, all hell broke loose last year when a man of the cloth, Bishop Trevor Manhanga, invaded Lesbury Estates demanding that they pack their bags and vacate.

This week the Zimbabwe Independent drove to Lesbury Estates in Rusape and spoke to Rob Smart (71) and his 40-year old son Darren, who missed out on the tobacco season, but managed to grow potatoes. Rob’s father Roy, who is now late, first settled on the property in 1938. For a country with a checkered history of human and property rights violations, theirs is somewhat a miraculous story of purpose and unity.

“In August we were parked outside talking to our chief (Tandi), the community and our workers and all of a sudden a guy who was hired started firing at us, in broad daylight about 10 metres away and luckily none of us were hurt,” Darren Smart said.

“The community was very angry and no one ran away. They confronted that man and said if you’re gonna shoot anybody, you will have to shoot all of us. It was a frightening time and we tried hiding behind the community. Eventually this guy who was shooting at us realised that he is not gonna get anyone and we reported it to the police.”

While many were at home on Workers’ Day, the Smarts, who nearly lost their lives and only farm to Manhanga, were busy working on their crop and trying to pick up the pieces. Rob and his family returned on December 21 to ululations and tears of joy from former workers and their families who had also been kicked out.

According to Darren Smart, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was then Vice-President, took a personal interest in Smart’s violent eviction, while at an investment conference in Johannesburg when news broke out that the tobacco farmer had lost his farm to a Zanu PF-associated cleric.

Investors fretted and Mnangagwa, who had painstakingly assured them of investment security, was left with egg on his face.

Mnangagwa was to later become President after long-time leader Robert Mugabe was toppled last November in a military coup that made international headlines. Farm grabs and threats of taking over foreign-owned companies had become the epitome of Mugabe’s rule under the guise of correcting historical legacy issues. Agriculture, which used to be the backbone of the economy employing more workers than any other sector, floundered.

During the land reform programme, white farmers complained Mugabe’s cronies used state security forces to kick them off their farms, sometimes in the middle of harvesting. A number were killed in the process.

“Before we were kicked-off, we were growing 60 hectares of tobacco and another 70 hectares of maize and we were planning of another 80 hectares of tobacco this season and also boosting the maize production up to another 100 hectares. Previous to that we used to do 200 hectares of tobacco and another 220 hectares of maize when we had the other farms. We lost a lot of tobacco and maize because we were grading at the time,” Darren Smart said.

“In picking up the pieces it’s been difficult, but the main thing is that we are back. The government, the police and the military have been extremely helpful and they have helped us get back here. The community is over the moon, Chief Tandi is happy and the school is operating again. The school has 225 pupils and the parents working here can get some income. We are slowly retooling and getting everything back to normal.”

With elections beckoning, the Smart family says Zimbabwe needs a leader who brings peace and stability. “I think it doesn’t matter who wins, I think people just want peace, stability and jobs. We just want to continue moving. I think Zimbabwe’s agriculture needs a lot of investment and trust to move forward,” Darren said.

In December, Agriculture minister Perrence Shiri ordered illegal occupiers of farms to vacate the land immediately, a move that could ultimately see some white farmers, who say they were unfairly evicted, return to farming.

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