The unthinkable happened in Zimbabwe. Under loud applause from the local population, the white farmer Robert Smart, accompanied by a military escort, returned to his farm. The show of joy and hope is characteristic of the optimism expressed by the people since the arrival of President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
“We have come to claim our land”, black men and women sang as Robert Smart made his entry. Smart is the first white farmer in Zimbabwe to has recovered his farm after about 4,500 white farmers were expelled by force since 2000. The expectation is that more white farmers will benefit from the economic wind that seems to be blowing under the new president Emmerson Mnangagwa. “We can not reverse land reforms, but landowners will be compensated,” Mnangagwa promised last month at his inaugural speech. Mnangagwa, appointed by government party ZANU-PF as successor to the ousted President Robert Mugabe, promises to pull Zimbabwe out of the economic valley that it is in right now and wants to make agriculture the spearhead of that development. This creates expectations among the thousands of whites in Zimbabwe, who have remained in the country after the land reforms and who have not returned to Great Britain or the Netherlands. Many hope to be able to return to their beloved farms, others are still waiting for the financial compensation they have never received.
Zimbabwe was known as the granary of Africa at the beginning of the Mugabe era around 1980, but after the forced land reforms in 2000, production collapsed. The land was divided among the poor black inhabitants, party friends and war veterans who have fought for independence with Mugabe. Most of the new farmers lacked agricultural knowledge and were too poor to invest in good seeds or agricultural machinery. Many larger landowners, who had received the land for political reasons did not even bother to cultivate it.
Mnangagwa is expected to be fully committed to economic recovery, especially in order to meet the reform requirements of international lenders: the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. One of those demands is to compensate the expropriated farmers, says Zimbabwe expert Hugo Knoppert from the organization ZimbabweWatch. “Actually, these reforms have already been deployed under Mugabe.” For example, eleven Dutch farmers have already secretly reached a settlement with the government about compensation last year. For some forty other Dutch farmers, it will be clear in the coming period what compensation they can expect. “Mnangagwa and his finance minister are pragmatists, and if the economy has to be pulled out of its misery, they are the right people,” says Knoppert.
At the Lesbury farm, Smart was welcomed with open arms by former farm workers, but also by war veterans and local politicians – his former political enemies. “When he was expelled from his country, he continued to support the farmers with knowledge and materials,” explains the village chief Peter Tandi to AP. “This man supported the guerrillas during the war and gave us shelter to hide from the colonial government soldiers,” said the war veteran and local ZANU-PF member Gift Maramba.
Many white farmers who have stayed in Zimbabwe still enjoy great support among the population. After the expropriation, agriculture went downhill and poverty increased significantly. In recent years, white farmers have quietly found their way back to the fields by working together with the new black landowners. Peter Steyl, the white chairman of the Union of Commercial Farmers, told journalists that “the telephone is red-hot” with requests for white farming knowledge. “I advise our members to be patient and to wait,” he said. “But it really seems that this government wants to get agriculture back on track.”