Zimbabwe's white farmers see opportunity in Mugabe exit
Standing outside the gates of the farmhouse from which he was evicted in 2008, white Zimbabwean Deon Theron knows he will never get his land back.
But he does believe Robert Mugabe's fall after almost 40 years in power could lead the new government to encourage white farmers to play a part in reviving the country's key agricultural sector.
Thousands of white farmers were forced off their land by violent Mugabe-backed mobs or evicted in dubious legal judgments, supposedly to help black people marginalised under British colonial rule.
The farms, however, were often allocated to Mugabe's allies and fell into ruin, leaving tens of thousands of rural labourers out of work and sending the economy into a tailspin as food production crashed.
"I was evicted after intimidation, violence and court cases," said Theron, 63, who now runs a guesthouse in the capital Harare and a dairy-processing business.
"I don't expect my land to be returned, but I do think the government will explore getting people who have the skills back on the farms - and that means younger people from evicted families."
Days after Mugabe's fall on November 21, Theron took reporters back to Zanka, the 400ha farm that he bought in 1984 and where he built his own house and lived for 24 years with his wife, raising three children.
"It was given to a top official in the reserve bank," he said, looking through the locked wire fence at the house and abandoned tennis court in Beatrice, Mashonaland East, two hours south of Harare.
"I blocked out a lot of memories and have tried to move on," he said, close to tears as he recalled how his foreman was beaten to death in 2005 apparently while in police custody during the height of the evictions.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who came to power after the military forced Mugabe to resign, is a veteran hardliner from the ruling Zanu-PF party. But he does not appear to share Mugabe's ideological hatred of white farmers and has prioritised agriculture to revive the economy.
Mnangagwa used his inaugural speech to emphasise that the land seizures would not be reversed, vowing instead to compensate evicted farmers and to put the vast tracts of idle land back into production.
Zimbabwe was known as the breadbasket of Southern Africa in the early years of Mugabe's rule after independence from Britain in 1980. But, starting in 2000, about 4500 farms were seized with the approval of Mugabe in a furious reaction to white landowners increasingly backing the MDC opposition party.
Just a few hundred white farmers are still in business and agricultural output fell from $2.9-billion (R40-billion) in 2001 to $880-million (R12-billion) in 2008, according to the World Bank.
On his return visit last week, land that Theron used to cultivate with a tractor decades ago was being ploughed by ox.
The number of functioning tractors has dropped from 25000 in 1996 to only 5000 now, according to Zimbabwe's Agricultural Dealers and Manufacturers Association.
Its chairman Marco Garizio said he drew encouragement from his regular past meetings with Mnangagwa.
"He owns farms himself that he runs reasonably successfully," Garizio said.
"I don't say he will be a champion of 'white farmers', but he will definitely be a champion of getting production going again and allowing qualified farmers to be able function properly.
"We still have the nucleus of farmers in this country to recover to an extent."
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