HARARE — Land grabs of white-owned property have hit Zimbabwe for the second time as the southern African country’s strongman, 93-year-old Robert Mugabe, calls a familiar play as he seeks yet another term in office.
Ruling Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980 — the country holds regular elections that critics say Mr. Mugabe routinely rigs — the president is evicting all the white farmers remaining in the impoverished nation and giving their highly productive farms to his supporters.
“All the white farmers remaining on the land must move out to pave way for our youth and ordinary Zimbabweans who have no access to land,” Mr. Mugabe said at a recent rally in Marondera, about 50 miles east of the capital of Harare. “The land is ours, and it must benefit our people. To those who oppose us, we have said to them, ‘Mind your own business.’”
It’s not the first time Mr. Mugabe has played the land-grabbing card, which harks back to the tangled racial politics that existed before modern Zimbabwe was established with the end of a minority white-run government.
In 2000, Mr. Mugabe promised similar so-called reforms to win office against the newly created opposition political party, the Movement for Democratic Change, whose leaders had long called for kicking out the landowners whose wealth dates from the country’s colonial past.
More than 4,000 white farmers — whose land was among the most prosperous and productive in the country — lost their properties without compensation at the height of the chaos, according to the predominantly white Commercial Farmers Union. A 2002 report by Human Rights Watch concluded that at least seven farmers and dozens of farmworkers were killed during the program.
Only a few hundred white planters remain.
Now Mr. Mugabe is facing another tough election slated for mid-2018, having failed to keep his campaign pledge in the last election to create more than 2.2 million jobs amid Zimbabwe’s stagnant economy.
The country’s unemployment rate is 85 percent, according to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, though the state-run Zimbabwe Statistical Agents puts the figure at 11 percent.
Western sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe after Mr. Mugabe’s first wave of land grabs haven’t helped. But most economists blame the 2000 land reforms for an economic meltdown that resulted in plunging exports, a foreign investment slump and hyperinflation in 2007 and 2008.
At the height of the crisis, as grocery store shelves went bare, Zimbabweans were buying basics like bread from neighboring South Africa. Prices of other domestic goods doubled or tripled in one day.
Wave of assaults
Following Mr. Mugabe’s call to oust whites off their land, a wave of assaults targeted white-owned properties throughout the country.
In June, police and armed youths from Mr. Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or the ZANU-PF, kicked white farmer Robert Smart, 70, off his Lesbury Estates, a 1,500-acre corn and tobacco farm around 200 miles east of Harare, and gave the property to Trevor Manhanga, a priest reportedly linked to the party.
“I had put 70 hectares of land under [corn], and the rest of it was under tobacco,” Mr. Smart said.
The corn crop “is currently being harvested and sold by the armed people who are now occupying my farm. I wonder how I am going to repay the loan that I took from the bank.”
Mr. Smart, like many other white farmers, has deep roots in the country.
“I was born here in Zimbabwe. My family was at the farm since 1932. I have known no other place than Lesbury Estates,” he said. “My forceful eviction has rendered my family homeless. I have left machinery worth several thousands of dollars at the farm. I can’t access the farm anymore as the roads leading to the farmhouse have been barricaded by the armed men.”
Lesbury Estates farmhand Fabian Bangura, 44, lost his job, and workers have nowhere to go after being evicted from the site.
“We have sought refuge here in the bush,” he said near Lesbury Estates. “We sleep in the nearby mountains, and we have nowhere to go. Our kids can’t go to school anymore because they would be hungry and afraid because of the violence that they saw when we were being evicted.”
Another Lesbury farmworker, Peter Tandi, 63, said white landowners like Mr. Smart were treated unfairly. “There should be no difference between black and white people,” said Mr. Tandi. “We are all Zimbabweans, and we must be treated equally by authorities.”
In suburban Harare, military chiefs and senior ZANU-PF officials have seized parts of Blackfordby Estates, a horticultural farm that houses one of Zimbabwe’s biggest agricultural training institutes, the Blackfordby College of Agriculture. Mr. Mugabe, who has repeatedly called for a “one man, one farm” policy, reportedly owns several farms across the country. Most were expropriated at the height of land reforms years ago.
Commercial Farmers Union President Peter Steyl said his members were happy to pursue an overhaul of the country’s agriculture polices if the reforms were implemented differently.
“There are vast tracts of land that are not being utilized,” said Mr. Steyl. “The Lands Ministry says there is about 2.4 million hectares of land that are not being utilized countrywide and that land can be put under irrigation and create more jobs for people. There is therefore no need to grab productive farms.”
Reform vs. favoritism
Obert Gutu, a spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, said reforms should be done systematically to expand the economy instead of parceling out land to a coterie of the president’s friends and political allies.
“We would like to ensure the agricultural sector is developed and strengthened by offering security of tenure to all resettled farmers, as well as making sure that resettled farmers are given access to advanced training facilities as well as bank loans to enable them to produce on a commercial scale,” said Mr. Gutu.
Zimbabwean Lands Minister Douglas Mombeshora argued that authorities were conducting an audit to determine the best use for farms and untilled land. That audit wouldn’t stand in the way of helping ordinary people, he added.
“The president and the government have made it clear that land should be repossessed from the white minority to the black majority,” he said. “We have no regrets whatsoever.”
The policy, as well as other problems in the country, are fueling the opposition.
Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai and critics like Mr. Mugabe’s former deputy, Joice Mujuru, are proposing a coalition that they hope would end Mr. Mugabe’s reign. A hero of Zimbabwe’s independence movement, the frail Mr. Mugabe is one of the longest-serving nonroyal national leaders in the world.
“We need to have a coalition of progressive minds so that we take the people out of the economic crisis that they were put into by Mugabe’s poor administrative practices,” said Ms. Mujuru, who was expelled from Mr. Mugabe’s government and the ruling party on accusations of plotting to assassinate him. She denies the charges.
But ZANU-PF supporters like Spencer Mackenzie, 38, insist Mr. Mugabe is only defending the nation’s interests.
“We asked for land, and we got it,” said Mr. Mackenzie. “Now what is left is for the West to remove sanctions so that our people can start doing business with the outside world.”