One of Zimbabwe’s last remaining white farmers was strangled and burned to death in an attack inside his home yesterday.
Don Stewart, 68, was set upon shortly before dawn in the bedroom of his tightly-guarded homestead near Norton, 25 miles west of Harare. He was one of the last 300 white farmers left in Zimbabwe. There were 4,000 five years ago.
Police insisted that Mr Stewart’s murder was the work of common criminals and had no political motive.
His assailants were unable to penetrate the barred windows and reinforced doors of his homestead on Ingwerati dairy farm.
Instead, they entered through the roof and strangled Mr Stewart in his bed. Then they covered him with a mattress, doused it in petrol and set him alight.
Several of Mr Stewart’s workers tried to rescue him. But when they got inside the house, also through the roof, he was already dead. Nothing was stolen but a hunting rifle.
Mr Stewart, who was born in Zimbabwe, lived alone. After the strain of five years of continuous violence against white farmers, his wife, Margaret, had moved to Britain.
His son, David, worked alongside him on Ingwerati farm and lived a mile away in a cottage. He was too distraught to speak yesterday.
John Worsley-Worswick, the chief executive of Justice for Agriculture Trust, a pressure group, said: “We are appalled at the cold-blooded murder of yet another of Zimbabwe’s few remaining productive commercial farmers. It was particularly abhorrent at this time of Zimbabwe’s acute food crisis.”
Zimbabwe’s summer rains started last week but few crops have been planted. Commercial agriculture has collapsed following President Robert Mugabe’s purge of white farmers.
Mr Stewart’s murder came as the self-destruction of Zimbabwe’s opposition allowed President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party to sweep to an easy victory in elections for a newly-created senate.
President Robert Mugabe’s war against white farmers has entered its last stage, with the few hundred left becoming the targets of a final assault on their property.
Every day last week Zimbabwe’s army and police indulged in an orgy of theft, stealing millions of pounds of farm equipment while claiming the looting was legal.
Ominously, it is now unclear who is in charge of the latest expropriations, the government or local strongmen desperate to grab assets.
Andrew McMurdon, 85, thought he had survived the worst when Mr Mugabe’s thugs slung him into jail and kicked him off his farm three years ago. Now living in Masvingo, south of Harare, close to where he farmed for 50 years, Mr McMurdon has become a victim again.
His equipment, rescued when he lost his farm, was stolen last week by the police from the warehouse where it was stored. Like many old white farmers who lost their homes and their livelihood, he had been selling it off to earn enough to live.
A former Second World War fighter pilot, Mr McMurdon grew up to 1,000 acres of food crops and was one of the largest sunflower growers in southern Africa. Now only weeds grow on his old farm.
“I suppose they will carry on taking our stuff until it’s all gone,” he said.
Mr McMurdon is recovering from two cancer operations and he and his wife Naomi are barely able to support themselves and their disabled son.
Police roamed across Masvingo province and southward towards the South African border last week, hunting down tractors, trailers, planters, weeders and irrigation equipment. More than 20 armed policemen arrived at the ranch of Catrina Kloppers, 75, at night, turned off the electricity and cut off her telephone. They loaded everything on to lorries, including her only tractor and trailer.
Mrs Kloppers, widowed 13 years ago, shares her ranch with a ruling Zanu PF deputy minister and a member of parliament who took two thirds of her land. They need her to keep the boreholes running. “They told me if I complained they would take the borehole pumps. I told them the deputy minister’s cattle would die without water, so they left them.”
Police tell white farmers the looting is legal because of last year’s Acquisition of Farm Equipment or Material Act which allows the government to seize tractors and tools but stipulates that compensation must be paid. Farmers know Mr Mugabe’s pledges of compensation are a joke.
Armed policemen were posted last week outside dozens of homesteads and warehouses where farmers’ equipment is stored. Farmers who survived six years of Mr Mugabe’s land grab are shocked by their sudden eviction at a time when export crops such as tobacco are ripening and Zimbabwe has no foreign currency.
The police commissioner, Augustine Chihuri, added to his portfolio of stolen white farms by helping himself to another recently. A Harare high court judge, believed until now to be one of the few professionals left on the partisan bench, has also taken his first white-owned farm.
Annual inflation has topped 400 per cent and food prices have shot up by 80 per cent in a month. Zimbabwe is on its knees with millions hungry.
The reserve bank governor, Gideon Gono, a Mugabe loyalist, regularly argues in the state media that economic recovery is only possible if skilled farmers—code for white—who survived the ethnic purge are allowed to increase production again. He loaned money to many of those kicked out recently.
The lands minister, Didymus Mutasa, professed ignorance at the surge of evictions and seizures. “Why don’t they contact me?” he asked. “I know nothing of this”.
Many of the militants who launched the original campaign against the country’s 4,000 white farmers are also being kicked off land they claimed, apparently to make way for Zanu PF leaders.
“Zimbabwe is in danger of becoming ungovernable,” said the political analyst, Brian Raftopoulos. “The battle is over who is in control as the state has run out of resources for patronage.”