A white Zimbabwean farmer evicted by Robert Mugabe’s government is the first to get his land back since new president Emmerson Mnangagwa came to power.
With a military escort, Robert Smart,71, made his way into Lesbury farm about 120 miles east of the capital Harare almost six months after he was ordered to leave by riot police armed with teargas and AK-47 assault rifles.
He was greeted by cheers and songs from dozens of workers and community members in scenes that were once unthinkable in a country where land ownership is an emotional issue with political and racial overtones.
Mr Smart’s son Darreyn said: “We are overjoyed, over the moon. We thought we would never see this day coming.
“Getting back to the farm has given not just us, but the whole community hope that it’s a new Zimbabwe, a new country.”
Locks to some rooms had been changed by the “new owner” – a cleric with close ties to Mugabe’s family who has been forced to leave.
Other rooms had been ransacked and most property was missing, but left untouched on the walls were a portrait of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and a photo of Zimbabwe’s last colonial leader, Ian Smith, officiating at an agricultural fair.
Ruling ZANU-PF party supporters, led by veterans of the 1970s war against white minority rule, evicted many of Zimbabwe’s white farmers under an often violent land reform programme led by Mugabe.
Although whites make up less than 1% of the southern African country’s population, they owned huge tracts of land while black people remained in largely unproductive areas.
Mugabe justified the policy by saying the evictions were meant to address colonial land ownership imbalances skewed against black people.
Before the land reforms began in 2000, there were about 4,500 white farmers – now there are only a few hundred left.
Mugabe resigned in November after the military and ruling party turned against him amid fears that his wife was positioning herself to take power.
Mr Mnangagwa, a long-time Mugabe ally, has vowed to undo some land reforms as he seeks to bolster the broken but once successful economy.
With an election scheduled for August 2018 at the latest, the new president is desperate for foreign investors to return to the country and resolve a severe currency shortage, mass unemployment and soaring inflation.
Zimbabwe is mainly agricultural, with 80% of the population depending on it for their livelihoods, according to government figures.