Future of Grace Mugabe's farms, assets an open question in Zimbabwe

The Arnold farm in Mazowe district is a centrepiece of assets likely to come under scrutiny as many Zimbabweans believe Robert and Grace Mugabe enriched themselves at the expense of the country's citizens before Robert Mugabe resigned as president this week.

Dairy farm, wildlife preserve were among the initiatives on seized land that led to evictions

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace in Masvingo on Feb, 27, 2016. Many Zimbabweans believe the Mugabe enriched themselves at the expense of citizens before the president's resignation this week. (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Associated Press)

For years, a group of Zimbabwean villagers resisted efforts by the wife of President Robert Mugabe to force them off a farm near the capital, enduring police raids and the demolition of their homes.

Now that Mugabe has resigned, the farmers say they are able to move more freely in a blow to Grace Mugabe's efforts to expand her land holdings.

"God bless her, we suffered," said 57-year-old Violet Mazvarira, who described a hard life on the disputed farm in an area of rolling hills, 40 kilometres north of the capital, Harare.

The Mazowe district is a centrepiece of assets likely to come under scrutiny as many Zimbabweans believe the Mugabe family exploited its power to improperly take control of land and other resources in a country where many struggle to get by.

Reports emerged Thursday that he president was granted immunity from prosecution and assured that his safety would be protected in his home country as part of a deal that led to his resignation, but what, if anything, will become of their assets and holdings is not clear.

Grace Mugabe, whose ambitions to succeed her husband as president triggered a military takeover, has attracted criticism in the past for lavish shopping trips. In October, she went to court in an attempt to seize assets of a Lebanese businessman who allegedly failed to deliver a diamond ring worth more than $1.35 million.

She set up a school and runs a dairy farm in Mazowe, projects that she said would boost Zimbabwe's devastated economy but were widely seen as an attempt to build a business empire for personal gain. Those ambitions are now in question after her 93-year-old husband resigned Tuesday following pressure from the military, parliament and street protesters, ending nearly four decades in power that saw Zimbabwe slide into economic ruin.

Villagers forced out

The conflict over Manzou farm, also known as Arnold farm, was a flashpoint for national anger over perceptions that Grace Mugabe thought she was above the law in her efforts to evict residents and turn the area into a wildlife park. Earlier this year, human rights lawyers secured a court order allowing hundreds of villagers to stay on the farm, but police or guards showed up again and tried to force people off the land, according to community leader Innocent Dube.

Grace Mugabe "never followed the court order," he said. "She was still bringing police here."

Violet Mazvarira says she and other Zimbabwean villagers suffered while resisting efforts by Grace Mugabe to force them off a farm in Mazoe, near the capital of Harare. Now that Mugabe has resigned, the farmers say they are able to move more freely. (The Associated Press)

Now, however, things are different. After news of Mugabe's resignation reached the farm, villagers staged a demonstration, marching in nearby roads without interference from security forces. Police who used to watch the farm's entrance appear to be hunkered down in their compound. A sign says "trespassers will be prosecuted," but people come and go.

"I can do any project that I want, freely, without any interference," said Dube, who nevertheless remains concerned that people on Manzou farm don't have formal ownership of the land where they grow crops and raise livestock.

The villagers first moved into Manzou farm around 2000 as part of a wave of land seizures and evictions of farmers from Zimbabwe's white minority, which relinquished power in 1980 after a guerrilla war by black nationalists. Mugabe said the often-violent reform program was meant to redistribute resources to poor blacks, but many prime farms instead ended up in the hands of ruling party leaders, party loyalists, security chiefs, relatives and cronies.

Critics said many invaded farms were mismanaged, hurting Zimbabwe's agricultural production and the economy.

Several years ago, Grace Mugabe said people on Manzou farm were panning for gold, and she accused a local lawmaker of trying to incite people to resist her claim to the land.

"I might have a small fist," she said at the time. "But when it comes to fighting, I will put stones inside to enlarge it. Do not doubt my capabilities."

Many villagers were forced out, but some remained.

"We are now happy because we are just planting and we have got another government," said farmer Gifmo Tsaratsa, who hopes his community "can talk to them about what we need."