2 July 2017

Zimbabwe: Bishop in Ugly Fight Over Farm

Photo: Frank Chikowore/News24
Some of the workers guarding Robert Smart's property.

Chipo Sautsani cut a forlorn figure at a mountain top in the Tandi area of Rusape, which had become her home for over five days.

Sautsani (32) had not been taking her life-prolonging anti-retroviral medication for several days. She and other workers at Lesburry Farm were violently thrown out of the property on June 23 by the new farm owner.

Perhaps what makes her case more poignant is that the new farm owner is a "man of God" --Bishop Trevor Manhanga.

Sautsani, together with 79 other families, until Friday were living in the mountains, without food, shelter and no roof over their heads.

She shared two blankets with her three children and could not get warm clothing because the farm she had called home since childhood had become a no-go area for the workers.

Sautsani said the "hired goons" had put her life at risk by forcing her to default on her medication for six days.

"They came pretending that they wanted to address us on the farm wrangle which has been going on for years.

I had no clue that I would be here, with no food, no clothes," she said.

"These men are evil. I am worried for your [the reporter's] safety. They can harm you once they know that you are here."

As she recounted how armed police officers led by a Zanu PF member only identified as Mujati besieged Lesburry Farm, forcefully evicted them, Sautsani broke down. The farm outside Rusape town was owned by Robert Smart.

"I was prevented from taking my medication; they gave us no chance to do anything," she said.

"We are suffering because we have said our employer must be allowed to continue farming at this place and not these people who have failed to utilise their land somewhere and are envious of the success story here."

"I am sleeping in this open place, it's cold. We have no food.

"We have been stopped from getting our foodstuffs by these youths, some of whom have never worked in their lives but are being paid by the new farm owner to be violent against defenceless people."

President Robert Mugabe's ruling Zanu PF party youths and suspected members of the Central Intelligence Organisation were also present during the eviction.

Sautsani said during the eviction the police fired live ammunition and teargas to disperse the workers and villagers who had gathered at the farm in solidarity with Smart.

"Some of my workmates are currently hospitalised because they were assaulted by the police," she said.

As she was narrating her ordeal, Sydreck Mutakunika joined the discussion, saying the armed youths ransacked Smart's farmhouse before removing all the household property and throwing it by the roadside about 200m away.

"Nothing is left in the farm house," Mutakunika said.

When The Standard news crew arrived at the farm at around 3pm on Thursday, scores of Smart's employees were in the mountain hiding from the marauding armed youths .

The road leading to the farm's main house and its compound was barricaded with logs and some armed youths were on guard.

Smart, who is a beneficiary of command agriculture was barred from delivering foodstuffs to the stranded workers as his truck was seized by the armed youths who accused him of sponsoring a revolt by his employees in a bid to resist eviction.

Another farm worker, who identified himself as Innocent Chisasa, said it was shocking that the person who was behind their predicament was a man of the cloth, who by nature, should be compassionate.

"This man does not deserve to be called a man of God. He is heartless," he said.

"Look, he hired youths from Mutare, promoting lawlessness and putting the lives of children at risk just for a farm.

"The most unfortunate part is that he has two farms already and he wants a third one. he is greedy."

Besides enjoying a good working relationship with the workers, Smart had the support of the local Zanu PF MP who is also deputy minister for Local government, Christopher Chingosho.

Smart has been dragged before the courts in the past charged under Section 3 (1) as read with Section 3 (3) of the Gazetted Land (consequential provisions) Act Chapter 20, 28 which criminalises the occupation of gazetted land without lawful authority.

He denied the charges, saying his stay had the blessings of senior government officials who promised him an offer letter.

During his court case, Chingosho wrote to the court pleading with the magistrate to allow him to stay on the farm on the basis that he was helping the local community with inputs and assisted the ruling Zanu PF party.

The prosecutors said Lesburry Farm was gazetted for resettlement by the government on June 29 2001 but Smart continued to occupy the farm without an offer letter.

Smart's son Daren said losses caused by the disturbances could be more than $2 million.

"I have 70ha of maize under command agriculture and with the way I have been removed from the property, the crops are bound to be looted and destroyed," Daren said.

"Those youths have been looting and stealing our property. It is very bad. We also had 60ha under tobacco.

"We have over 300 workers whose livelihoods depended on this project."

He said besides Manhanga, there were two other people who had been allocated part of the farm, but the local community was against the move as they enjoyed a cordial relationship with the farmer.

Manhanga confirmed he was the new owner of the farm, but denied allegations that he was involved in the eviction of Smart and his workers.

He said it was the sheriff of the High Court working on a basis of a court order who carried out the forced removals.

"I was only allocated 100 hectares of the farm which has 700 hectares and we went to court to evict the occupants legally. The court gave us an order which the sheriff was then implementing. I was not even involved. I have papers supporting my claim of the farm," Manhanga said.

He said despite being ordered to leave the farm 18 months ago by the High Court, Smart did not comply and the Sheriff had to give him a notice of eviction.

"The notice of eviction was served on Mr. Smart on Wednesday 7th June giving him 48 hours to comply with the High Court order," Manhanga said.

"When the sheriff went to serve the notice of eviction, the sheriff was met with resistance and threats of violence and this led to the sheriff requesting the assistance of the police with the eviction.

"In light of the above, to therefore state that Smart was summarily and violently evicted is patently false.

"Those who claim to be adherents to the rule of law cannot turn a blind eye when an officer of the court is threatened and stopped from carrying out a lawful order of the court simply because the order is not in their favour.

"Either we all adhere to the rule of law or we don't."

Meanwhile, the Tandi community has joined the fight and want Smart to continue staying at the farm.

They have since filed a Constitutional Court challenge through one Peter Muchatisi against Manhanga and government, protesting against the move to evict the farmer, saying the area has historical ties linked to their ancestors.

"For the record, I have never been approached by or spoken to Muchatisi or anyone representing the Tandi people to seek my response to the matters they are raising in the court application," Manhanga said.

"Suffice to say that this matter is before the courts and I will be bound and abide by any ruling or order granted by this court."

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