RUSAPE, Zimbabwe (Reuters) - The last time white Zimbabwean farmer Rob Smart left his land it was at gunpoint, forced out in June by riot police armed with tear gas and AK-47 assault rifles.
He returned on Thursday to ululations and tears of joy from former workers and their families who were also kicked out - a jubilant return and the first sign that the president who has replaced Robert Mugabe is making good on a vow to stop illegal land seizures and restore property rights.
Scores of jubilant black Zimbabweans nearly knocked the 71-year-old off his feet as he and his two children stepped out of their car and onto their land for the first time in six months.
Smart’s case was taken up by Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s then vice-president who heard of Smart’s violent eviction while at an investment conference in Johannesburg.
Mnangagwa became president last month following a de facto coup that ended 93-year-old Mugabe’s rule. In the latter half of his 37 years in power, Zimbabwe’s economy collapsed, especially after the seizure of thousands of white-owned commercial farms under the banner of post-colonial land reform.
Land ownership is one of Zimbabwe’s most sensitive political topics. Colonialists seized some of the best agricultural land and much of it remained in the hands of white farmers after independence in 1980 leaving many blacks effectively landless.
Twenty years later, Mugabe authorized the violent invasion of many white-owned farms and justified it on the grounds that it was redressing imbalances from the colonial era.
White farmers complained that well connected people used state security forces to force them off their farms, sometimes in the middle of harvesting, even after the Mugabe government indicated, some four years ago, that land seizures were over.
“We are overjoyed, over the moon. We thought we would never see this day coming,” Smart’s son, Darryn, told Reuters.
“Getting back to the farm has given not just us, but the whole community hope that it’s a new Zimbabwe, a new country.”
Rob Smart, whose father said he started the farm from “virgin bush” in 1932, expressed confidence in the new government’s pledge to protect the commercial farming sector, a mainstay of the struggling economy.
“It’s early days but so far what they (the new government) said they are going to do they are doing,” he told Reuters.
“We just hope this whole incident will give hope to other farmers, who’ve had the same situation.”
Mnangagwa, who is under pressure to revive the economy ahead of elections next year, said on Thursday that he was resolute about the changes he was introducing.
“There is no business as usual. Things have changed, it’s a new era,” he said at a meeting with business leaders in South Africa.
“I‘m from the military. If it’s ‘left turn’ then it’s ‘left turn’. If it’s ‘right turn’ it’s ‘right turn’. No confusion.”
Mnangagwa’s new agriculture minister, Perrance Shiri, last week ordered illegal occupiers of farms to vacate the land immediately, a move that could ultimately see some white farmers who say they were unfairly evicted return to farming.
Shiri, a military hardliner who was head of the air force before being picked for the crucial ministry this month, called for “unquestionable sanity on the farms”.
For 83-year-old Anna Matemani, whose late husband worked on the farm, Smart’s return was long overdue.
“I‘m so happy he is finally back. He always helped us and the farm provides jobs for many of our young people,” said the grandmother of 15, who grew up and raised her children on the farm and witnessed Rob’s birth, wiping away tears.
Some of the Smarts’ joy subsided as they walked into their ransacked farmhouses.
The occupiers had looted property, including clothes, the children’s toys, three guns, bottles of 100-year-old wine and Smart’s late father Roy’s medals from when he served with the Police Reserve Air Wing in the former Rhodesia.
“I‘m sad about my grandfather’s medals,” Darryn Smart said, surveying a ransacked room.
“You can buy tables and chairs, you can’t buy that family history. But thank goodness we’re here.”
Additional reporting by Tanisha Heiberg in Johannesburg; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Matthew Mpoke Bigg