CHEGUTU: At its zenith, the Mount Carmel farm in northern Zimbabwe boasted 500 livestock and shipped its mangoes and lemons to Europe, a continent away.
In 2009, that halcyon time ended abruptly when the farm was seized by thugs operating in the name of Robert Mugabe’s land reform.
Ten years later, Mount Carmel has just 15 cows and an overgrown orchard.
“This wonderful land is untapped,“ said its former owner, Ben Freeth.
He is among the thousands of white farmers violently evicted by Mugabe’s land reform policy, which almost at a stroke turned Zimbabwe from a bread basket into a basket case.
Zimbabwe’s founding president died during a medical trip to Singapore last week, aged 95.
He was toppled by his former military allies in 2017, ending a 37-year rule marked by political repression and economic mismanagement, and leaving a nation torn over his legacy.
“Before we had an orchard, now it’s a forest,“ said Sinos Mlauzi, a black Zimbabwean who used to work for Freeth.
“When I heard Mugabe died, I was overjoyed,“ he said, lifting his cap to show scars left from 2009. “He took away our means of subsistence.”
Mount Carmal’s 1,200ha lie in the bush, near the northern town of Chegutu.
Two dismembered tractors lie in a shed, while a pickup truck outside is riddled with bullet holes.
Brick ruins and an empty swimming pool are all that remains of the Freeths’ luxurious farmhouse, which was torched.
Freeth, 50, recalls the six months of “hell” he and his family suffered as mobs repeatedly attacked his property.
“(Mugabe’s followers) kicked down the front door and dragged blazing tires inside,“ said Freeth, sitting in the lush gardens of the house he now occupies in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare.
“They were banging on oil drums outside the house. They were threatening my children.”
Freeth’s employees were beaten with steel rods and his parents-in-law were seriously injured.
The violence culminated on August 30, 2009, when the Freeths returned from church to find their house was in flames.
Mugabe’s land reform was launched in 2000 to re-distribute land awarded to whites during British colonial rule, which ended with Mugabe’s election in 1980.
Twenty years ago, 18% of the best land belonged to white Zimbabweans, which represented less than 1% of the population.
But the brutal eviction of white farmers, and their replacement by people who often had negligible skills, capital or experience in agriculture, caused a collapse in output, and with it Zimbabwe’s economy.
“We have the best climate in the world and we are no longer capable to feed our population,“ said Freeth.
One third of Zimbabweans are dependent on food aid, according to the United Nations.
Hundreds of farms were placed in the hands of Mugabe’s allies and of underqualified, poorly-equiped farmers.
Mount Carmel was awarded to Zimbabwean nationalist and ruling party ZANU-PF supporter Nathan Shamuyarira.
The workforce of 150 employees shrank to less than a tenth of its size, said Mount Carmel’s newly-appointed manager, Simon Shema.
“Us blacks, we had no land to cultivate. Mugabe gave us the opportunity to farm,“ Shema told AFP.
He said he would be heading to Harare for Mugabe’s funeral on Saturday to “thank him”.
Surrounded by broken-down machinery, Shema was convinced the farm would be running within the next two months.
Paprika, peas and corn would be planted. And the mangoes on the trees — yellowed from the lack of irrigation — would be exported.
“We will start small, and grow,“ said Shema.
‘Stole their education’
Although ZANU-PF acknowledged some of the failures of Mugabe’s land reform, it said the benefits were still to come.
“Around 30 percent of the seized lands are not being used,“ said Tatenda Gwinji, a ZANU-PF representative in Chegutu. “We are heading in the right direction.”
Freeth’s former workers have been unemployed for the past decade.
“We had a good life. Now we have nothing, not even food to eat,“ Peter Assan, 62, told AFP.
“Once the white farmer had left, my children had to stop going to school because we had no money to pay for their fees,“ he said. “Mugabe stole their education.”
“The (land) reform did not accomplish the desired objective,“ said Mlauzi. “And Mugabe caused productive farmers to flee.”
Of the 4,200 white farmers counted in Zimbabwe’s last population census in 2000, only 400 work land in Zimbabwe, according to Freeth.
Hopes raised by the change in regime were rapidly quashed.
Mugabe’s successor President Emmerson Mnangagwa pledged to revive the economy, but “prices are soaring and our lives are even more difficult,“ said Mlauzi.
Mugabe’s death was a “non-event,‘’ said Freeth. “His legacy is still alive. A legacy of injustice, of absolute power and violence.”
Behind him, a cross pays tribute to Freeth’s father-in-law, buried in a farm he can no longer access. — AFP