Farai Mutsaka, Associated Press, December 22, 2017
A white Zimbabwean farmer evicted by the government of Robert Mugabe has returned to a hero’s welcome as the first to get his land back under the new president, in a sign of reform on an issue that had hastened the country’s international isolation.
With a military escort, Robert Smart made his way into Lesbury farm about 200 kilometers (124 miles) east of the capital, Harare, on Thursday to cheers and song by dozens of workers and community members.
Such scenes were once unthinkable in a country where land ownership is an emotional issue with political and racial overtones.
“We have come to reclaim our farm,” sang black women and men, rushing into the compound.
Two decades ago, their arrival would have meant that Smart and his family would have to leave. Ruling ZANU-PF party supporters, led by veterans of the 1970s war against white minority rule, evicted many of Zimbabwe’s white farmers under an often violent land reform program led by Mugabe.
Of the roughly 4,500 white farmers before the land reforms began in 2000, only a few hundred are left.
Smart is the first to have his farm returned. On Thursday, some war veterans and local traditional leaders joined farm workers and villagers in song to welcome his family home.
“Oh, Darryn,” one woman cried, dashing to embrace Smart’s son.
In a flash, dozens followed her. Some ululated, and others waved triumphant fists in the air.
“I am ecstatic. Words cannot describe the feeling,” Darryn told The Associated Press.
The Commercial Farmers Union, which represents mainly white farmers, said it plans to meet the lands minister.
“I am advising our members to be patient and give it time. But I do see many of them going back into farming,” said Peter Steyl, the union’s vice president. “The government seems serious about getting agriculture on track but how it is going to achieve this, I don’t know.”
The firmness with which the government ensured Smart’s return signaled resolve.
Left untouched on the walls were a portrait of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and a photo of Zimbabwe’s last colonial leader, Ian Smith, officiating at an agricultural fair.
Local chief Peter Tandi led efforts to lobby Mnangagwa’s administration to allow Robert Smart to return. “He voluntarily gave up his estates to the community when the land reform program started. He continued helping us with technical knowledge, equipment and other inputs,” Tandi said.
“That man supported the guerrillas during the war…. He gave us a place to hide from colonial government soldiers,” said Gift Maramba, a war veteran and local ZANU-PF official.