Early in March 2021, 12,000 people in Zimbabwe were given a government order to leave their land. The displacement, primarily affecting the Shangaan ethnic group in the Southeastern town of Chilonga in the Chiredzi district, was not due to a natural disaster; instead, their move is to make way for the commercial efforts of Darren Coetzee, a white farmer and businessman who wants the land to grow lucerne grass, a crop largely used for grazing and hay, for his family-run dairy business.
Coetzee founded Dendairy in 2004, and markets it as a “proudly Zimbabwean company” that empowers “everybody from local farmers, to nourishing the growing bodies of our countries [sic] youth.” Not everyone has felt so empowered—Zimbabweans have been speaking out against the company’s participation in the Chiredzi land grab for months. In a short video clip from March, a Chiredzi resident detailed his community’s struggle with the company and government bureaucracy stretching back months. “Since last year we have been seeing strangers coming to our land and pegging it with markers for construction,” he said.
The outrage stemming from this mass displacement has seized the national conversation, largely due to the fact that it is impossible and ahistorical to talk about land in Zimbabwe without interrogating the legacy of colonialism and the present reality of anti-Blackness. “There was not one day where government members came and said we should all discuss this endeavor, along with community leaders to give us the opportunity to agree or refuse. They did not do that,” said Livison Chikutu, a father of four and a village head from Chilonga. To engage with Zimbabwe’s present means recalling Zimbabwe’s past, from Britain’s colonial land grab to the return of stolen farmland to Black communities in the early 2000s.
“Obviously the white settlers disagreed,” said Jonathan Moyo, a Zimbabwean career politician who was recently the Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education and Science and Technology Development from 2015 until 2017. “They claimed that they were not part of the colonization of the country, claimed they were the rightful owners of the land. And those who supported them, mainly the British and American government, took the view that we were not entitled to reclaim our land. And if we wanted the land back we would have needed to buy it back.”
This tension, always bubbling beneath the surface, came to a head in September last year when the government of Zimbabwe announced that white farmers could start applying for ownership of land that was reclaimed at the end of the colonial era. A few months prior, the government had announced a $3.5 billion deal to compensate the same white farmers. Like reparations but in reverse, these announcements further complicated the meaning of ownership and inheritance, while completely side-stepping the legacy of colonialism, and the inherited privileges of ownership by right of conquest.
Like reparations but in reverse, these announcements further complicated the meaning of ownership and inheritance, while completely side-stepping the legacy of colonialism, and the inherited privileges of ownership by right of conquest.
In Chilonga, the spectre of eviction hangs over the community. Since news of the displacement, residents have oscillated between states of anger and confusion. With the COVID-19 pandemic, they had to balance weathering a public health crisis with the possibility that they might lose their homes. Schools in the area have recently reopened, but it’s unclear for how long and if proper safety protocols are being followed. “You can’t plan your life properly if you are being threatened with eviction,” said Chikutu. “It’s difficult.”
This isn’t the first time Chikutu’s family has had their land stolen. In 1963, his parents were displaced from Zimbabwe’s southern Section 65 Triangle region by Governor Humphrey Gibbs, an Eton educated politician appointed by Queen Elizabeth II to safeguard England’s interests in the colony then known as Rhodesia. Section 65 had been prime estate for sugarcane, and today, even though production has faltered and decreased due to climate change and economic discord, it remains land good enough to covet. Now, years later, Chikutu lives nearby. “We all still have scars of having land taken from us in the past,” he said, “so we don’t want to have to deal with the same problem we met with a while back.”
The Shangaan are a minority group, underrepresented in government, and with little political power; it’s these reasons that Chikutu and community members believe have made them vulnerable to the whims of a political strongman, current President Emmerson Mnangagwa, and his allies. “It’s almost 60 years since our ancestors were moved from that land [Section 65] without compensation and now the same thing is going to happen again,” said Chikutu. “Meaning generation after generation tongoita vanhu vanosenga madhende [we are treated like people who only get scraps]. Why does it not happen to other people? So now what used to be done by a white government is happening under a Black government.”
“We all still have scars of having land taken from us in the past.”
Like most ethnic groups across Africa, the roots of the Shangaan people extend far beyond the borders imposed during colonial rule. Their movements, shaped by the upheaval of the Bantu migration, the chaos and order of King Shaka Zulu’s expansive reign, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and contemporary resettlement, resulted in a little over 100,000 Shangaan located in Southeast Zimbabwe, with even larger populations in neighboring South Africa and Mozambique. Their lives have been largely molded by the geography and politics of the countries they live in, often against the grain of the dominant groups. In Zimbabwe, theirs is a history of constant movement, and one that has continued to this day as they face off against Dendairy and the Zimababwean government.
“We are all so confused about what the government is doing,” Chikutu said about the months-long battle his community has waged with lawmakers, suspected intelligence officers, and the owners of Dendairy. “In our culture, whenever someone is entering into someone’s home they say, Ngatisvikewo [let us arrive]. That’s what we know in our culture. You ask and then wait for a response. Because what if it’s a thief?”
The displacement of the Shangaan people also echoes the still-present violence of the colonial era. The Land Apportionment Act, passed by the Southern Rhodesian legislature in 1930 and accepted by the imperial British government the following year, made it illegal for Black Africans to own land. They were only allowed within the boundaries of “native reserves” created to corral Black people into small, easily surveilled, areas with the least fertile land. At some point between the passing of the act and 1950, about 108 reserves existed across the country. “We are in this country because we represent a higher civilization, because we are better men. It is our only excuse for having taken the land,” wrote N.H. Wilson, a member of the Southern Rhodesia Native Affairs Department, in 1925. Wilson, the grandson of painter George Housman Thomas, who illustrated Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was in charge of the placement of Black citizens inside of the reserves.
By 1958, the 200,000 white people living in Southern Rhodesia had full access to 48 million acres of land. The 2.5 million Black people on the other hand, had to make do with about 42 million acres, most of which came with small print caveats—land could be taken by white farmers who regularly stated that Black farmers were ill-equipped to handle it—and was largely arid and unsuitable for habitation or agriculture. The issue of land became inextricably linked to the fight for independence. In 1979, following indigenous victory in the 15-year-long Second Chimurenga, Black leaders, representatives of Rhodesia, and overseers of the British empire negotiated a peaceful transition of power during what is now known as the Lancaster House Agreement. Among those present were late President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwean revolutionary Joshua Nkomo, and former Prime Minister of Rhodesia Ian Smith. Most critically, the Lancaster talks were meant to create a solution for the albatross in the room, the issue of land reclamation.
For the white farmers, they armed themselves to guard their property, and for Black Zimbabweans, taking up arms became an extension of the war for independence.
Going into the negotiations, Margaret Thatcher, then the recently-elected prime minister, did not want white farmers to lose their land rights; her representatives demanded that the newly elected indigenous government wait 10 years before reclaiming stolen land. While the Black leaders agreed to the terms set under duress, by the late 80s, policies would see dispossessed Black Zimbabweans once again land owners. One of the ultimatums laid out during the Lancaster talks was that “only under-utilized land, which was required for resettlement or other public purposes could be acquired compulsorily.” So the indigenous government created an initiative known as “willing seller, willing buyer,” where white farmers would sell land to Black farmers for a fair price. Few did so, and those that toyed with the idea would only do so for sums of money that were largely inaccessible.
After a few years of this stonewalling, the Zimbabwean Land Acquisition Act of 1992 was passed; a government-led initiative to reclaim stolen land whether the seller was willing or not. Land that had once been under the ownership of white farmers either born in the country or who had arrived seeking their piece of the colonial pie would be legally seized and returned to those who knew it as an ancestral legacy.
It didn’t go entirely smoothly: violence would later erupt with both white and Black farmers suffering casualties. For the white farmers, they armed themselves to guard their property, and for Black Zimbabweans, taking up arms became an extension of the war for independence.
Speaking to me from an undisclosed location somewhere in East Africa, Moyo, the politician, is currently one of the most wanted men in Zimbabwe. Following the ousting of Mugabe in 2017, arrest warrants were issued for him and several other ministers in Mugabe’s government. Charges range from alleged abuse of power to misappropriation of funds, all of which Moyo has categorically denied. Instead, he says that he has been the victim of a targeted political campaign to smear his name. Still, Moyo’s impact on Zimbabwean politics is far-reaching and has had violent consequences, particularly when it comes to the treatment of the press and those who dare to question the government. In 2002, Moyo, alongside members of the ruling ZANU-PF party, helped draft the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, one of the country’s most stringent censorship laws..The act has made it incredibly difficult for journalists to access information while almost erasing the right to transparent leadership.
Moyo is a uniquely polarizing figure in a country where no politician is fully embraced and everyone is guilty, until someone becomes more guilty. In his home province of Matabeleland, he is beloved, and has consistently brought humanitarian aid to a region that has not adequately seen itself represented in national politics and carries the violent trauma of the 1980s Gukurahundi crisis, which saw hundreds of Zimbabweans, including Moyo’s own father, killed by the national army. Throughout his decades-long career, Moyo has been in politics as an independent candidate, a former minister of information and publicity, and at various points, one of the most audacious defenders and critics of Mugabe, who was one of the main architects of the land reclamation program. “You cannot speak of freedom in a post-colonial situation without its existential connection with the fundamental source of livelihood,” said Moyo. “When we said land is the economy and the economy is land we were making clear that without land, your freedom is either hollow or absent.”
“When we said land is the economy and the economy is land we were making clear that without land, your freedom is either hollow or absent.”
One of the long-standing arguments from white farmers and Western leaders has been that the return of land to Black people in Zimbabwe is what destroyed the economy irrevocably; this, according to Mhoze Chikowero, a professor of African history at the University of California Santa Barbara, is an apocryphal point that lacks both context and accountability. Instead, Chikowero said, Zimbabwe was never allowed to find its footing following independence from white colonial rule, and the sanctions imposed by American and European leaders only further crippled a country still recovering. “Independence is not an event, it is a process and I look at that as a process of self-rehumanization that we were engaged in as Zimbabweans, in a situation that was still very much constrained by the structures of the inherited Rhodesian political landscape. Rhodesia was never a bread basket for Black people. It was a white man’s land.”
The recent announcement of land returns to white farmers have brought back painful memories for him as the historical fight for land in Zimbabwe is directly linked to the deaths of his family members, including his great-grandfather. “His name was Muchecheterwa Chiwashira and he was beheaded as part of that colonial process. His head is in the museums of London as we speak along with many others,” he added.
“Independence is not an event, it is a process.”
Chikowero, who has written extensively on colonialism, self-liberation, and propaganda, also pointed at the little-discussed financial blow imposed upon the new state in 1980. “Zimbabwe inherited colonial debt to the tune of about $700 million at independence. Rhodesia did not leave us any money. It left us in a deep hole, and how did Rhodesia accrue that $700 million loan? By borrowing from its Western friends to buy weapons to fight us,” he said. “Those helicopters, those things that bombed us, those guns and chemicals that they used against us when we were fighting for independence—that’s the money that we the victims of that carnage inherited and are paying off.”
Sanctions and international pressure have also played a massive role in the crippling of Zimbabwe’s economy. Zimbabwe used to be part of Britain’s Commonwealth, a political association of Britain’s former territories, but left in 2003 after being suspended the previous year amid accusations of “discrimination” and “racism” directly linked to the land program. Tony Blair, the British prime minister at the time, accused the Zimbabwean government of being anti-white and violating the terms of the Harare Declaration, which condemns racial prejudice and racial discrimination. Mugabe cited Blair’s refusal to compensate the white farmers, as first promised by Britain during the Lancaster negotiations, as the reason for forceful action. “OK, it’s your money, keep it. It’s our land, we will take it,” the late former president said. “Balance.”
In 2001, the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZDERA) passed in U.S. Congress under President George Bush. According to the U.S. State Department, these sanctions, and the ones that followed, were passed to target “individuals and entities responsible for undemocratic practices, human rights abuses related to political repression, and public corruption.”
“I was invited a few years ago now to go to the U.S. Congress to testify before this committee which renews sanctions every year,” said Chikowero. “They wanted me to testify in support of imposing sanctions, and how they can be improved. And I said no, I am not going to do that. Find other people.” Congress has yet to call any Black farmers to speak of their experiences with displacement and dispossession, and ZDERA was only recently amended in 2018 to allow the country slightly more breathing room for growth.
The issue of land has so thoroughly preoccupied Black people in Zimbabwe that the majority of stories shared by mothers and grandmothers, along with documented literary fiction and non-fiction, is dedicated to ideas of displacement, loss, and alienation. “Land is the major preoccupation of Black writers, and it’s a topic that is both intuitive and inherited,” said Tinashe Mushakavanhu, a Zimbabwean writer and research fellow at the South African University of Witwatersrand. “There is a history and genealogy in writing about land that goes back to the very beginnings of our written literature.”
“Land is the major preoccupation of Black writers, and it’s a topic that is both intuitive and inherited.”
When I was young, growing up in Zimbabwe, I remember the fast moving green and brown shapes I saw from the car window as my family drove from the capital of Harare to the district of Mazoe. The shifting scenery always felt like a familiar, well loved movie; you knew what was coming, but with every watch you saw something different. Mazoe was where our family plot was, purchased by my father shortly after the war’s end. The scenery was bucolic with lush green fields stretching for miles, and irrigation sprinklers working in tandem with the tilled soil and the warming sun to offer a healthy yield of maize, sorghum, tobacco, or any other type of cash crop. Some farms had a main house where the landowner lived. By the time my family and I would make these drives in the early 2000s, chances were high that a Black family lived there. Less than two decades earlier, that would not have been the case, and especially in Mazoe, with its proximity to reliable water sources by way of the Mazoe river and its rich red soil.
In 2019, the region of Mazoe was in the news following an announcement that white farmers who had previously claimed that land as their own would have it returned as an act of good faith to Western governments. This, the government thought, would signal to the aid-giving world that Zimbabwe, under purported new leadership, was now ready to right an alleged wrong. When the decision for financial restitution to white farmers was announced the following year, and the larger land returns months after that, the question of who reparations were for, and who owned the land of Zimbabwe itself, became tortuous.
“The reason why the Zimbabwean crisis persists is because the wealthy people are happy for the status quo to remain,” said Mushakavanhu. “They benefit from the Black market and everything going on in the country. And so the crisis has been so prolonged for the benefit of a few people.” According to the IMF, the country’s 2021 inflation rate stands at 99.3%, a steep drop from the previous year’s 552%, though still a staggering number.
Darren Coetzee, the owner of Dendairy, is part of a small but powerful class of white farmers. He attended Lomagundi school in the North of Zimbabwe, which was founded to educate the country’s wealthy white populace and has a relationship with Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s current president: Mnangagwa owns at least 10% of Dendairy.
When Coetzee’s mother passed away in 2016, Mnangagwa spoke at the memorial service and told the white attendees that their presence in the region was made possible by his own personal relationship with the Coetzees. Mnangagwa said that during the land resettlement programs of the early 2000s, he had made sure to protect their farms. “The majority of you are still here because of Neville [Coetzee] and his wife [Estelle]. Every morning they would be at my house bothering me left and right to protect you. If you did not know it, it’s because of the good nature of the Coetzee family, who I have worked very well with over the past 40 years, that you are still here,” he said.
It’s those whose socioeconomic status is vulnerable, like Chikutu and his community, who have been most affected by these personal dealings. “Why can’t the government see how valuable we are and our contributions?” he told me. “We plant sorghum, we also rear cows, more than 100,000, which surpasses those of Dendairy.” While they have been promised relocation stipends and housing, Chikutu and his community have steadfastly refused what they see as insincere bargaining chips. “They said they would come and see how the people lived, count how many of us were in the area so they could see what the impact would be if we were moved,” he said. “But the way they came we did not like. They came in unregistered cars carrying members of the intelligence and we clearly saw that they were trying to intimidate the people and people were not happy about that.”
When you have something that does not belong to you, you should give it back. But the simplicity is complicated by the fraught conversations of colonial legacies, their generational impact both for those who lost and those who gained, and ultimately the question of who is really to blame.
In times of crisis in Zimbabwe, unregistered cars are usually used by allies of the government, acting as unrestricted tentacles of the governing body. The plight of the Shangaan has galvanized politicians from different political parties to lobby for the community, including members from the warring ZANU-PF and MDC coalitions. While their reasons are less than altruistic, it has been apparent that the current conversation about land is one both sides of the aisle find particularly vital to their political organizing. Coetzee has not publicly addressed the Shangaan people, but according to Chikutu they crossed paths in 2020 when he came to survey the land.
“He once came last year some time in September to an area known as Chipinda Bridge, and we went there to kick him out,” said Chikutu. “He was digging meter deep holes and we asked him, ‘Well what do you think you are doing?’ And he said he was sent by his excellency. And we asked him how can his excellency send you here without any kind of DA or government representative. And we told him to go back.” As it stands, the land battle is currently being fought between a Black minority group and its government, while Dendairy has managed to largely stay out of the spotlight. Coetzee and Dendairy representatives have not replied to multiple requests for comment from VICE World News.
“The people are prepared to die for this.”
At its most basic level, the land reclamation question answers itself. When you have something that does not belong to you, you should give it back. But the simplicity is complicated by the fraught conversations of colonial legacies, their generational impact both for those who lost and those who gained, and ultimately the question of who is really to blame.
“The people are prepared to die for this,” said Chikutu somberly. “People went to war because they wanted to regain our land. No one wants to leave their land and we are owed a debt.”