‘Ah, and no cake to offer you!’ Mrs H— said. ‘I would have baked one if only I’d known you were coming.’ It was teatime in Zimbabwe. A golden afternoon sunlight streamed across the shrivelled garden lawn and the mopani woodland beyond. Mr H— chipped in, ‘But of course the telephone is cut off, so you could not have called.’ We all made polite noises but one thing was clear. This elderly couple had no cakes to bake. I looked into their faces and saw they were starving. A neighbour had encouraged me to visit the couple to boost their spirits. He had said, ‘I’m very worried about them. I won’t be surprised if I hear they’ve shot or hanged themselves.’ So my group drove over there and as the car entered the drive we found them, looking suspicious and scared.
Mr and Mrs H— (to reveal their names would put them at more risk than they already are) settled in Zimbabwe 29 years ago, investing all they had into a livestock and game farm. ‘We liked the people,’ the man said. South Africa was becoming tense and, with the end of the civil war, Zimbabwe seemed a good bet. In other words, the family had not acquired the land unfairly in the colonial past; they paid for it after independence.
When Mugabe launched his ‘fast track land reform’ nine years ago Zanu-PF war veterans invaded the H— farm. No compensation was ever paid and dozens of African families were resettled on the land. This was a rare example of redistribution. Most properties stolen from white landowners went to Mugabe’s political cronies, who had no interest at all in farming. All they ever did was loot the machinery, use their party credentials to access farm ‘loans’ that were never repaid and use the white people’s houses for weekend barbeques. The farms themselves returned to bush, which is why despite the best rains in 15 years this season will have the lowest harvest in Zimbabwe’s modern history.
The H—s were able to stay in their home. They clearly get along with their new African neighbours, about whom they say nothing bitter. The Africans allow them to graze their few cattle on the verges between the matches of maize. And that’s good, because the cows are their only source of income.
Mr H—has a haunted look. ‘There’s no money and I’m too old to be of use to anybody,’ he said. In youth his wife must have been beautiful but she is ravaged by age and stress. The state of their bungalow adds to the atmosphere of despair. ‘It’s all we have, but now they say we have to go. Go where?’
Recently, an army colonel turned up at the house, barged in and declared that he wanted the place for himself. ‘The only way we’re leaving is in a box,’ said Mr H—. A few evenings later the colonel returned with 150 soldiers and thugs. All night they paraded up and down beyond the garden fence, banged drums, lit fires and chanted ‘Hondo!’ — which means war in the Shona language. The colonel had deployed his thugs several times and the couple were nervous wrecks. ‘The stress is endless. If you hear a car, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.’
Mr H— was summoned to appear in court, accused of illegally staying in his own home. He had to borrow money to travel 200 kilometres to the courthouse. On the appointed day he turned up and was told the date had been changed and he would have to come back another day. As a result of this, they were unable to buy provisions. ‘To beg for food on the street doesn’t make you feel good,’ said the old man. There were children in South Africa but when I asked why they didn’t go to them they screwed their faces up and murmured about not wanting to get in the way. As we left I slipped $100 into the woman’s hand. ‘For housekeeping,’ I said. She burst into tears.
While driving away one of the white Zimbabweans who had accompanied me criticised the old couple for whining about how tough life was. The Zimbos are a tough lot after nine years of this. Though many whites have been forced to stay because they are too poor or elderly, others have chosen to stick it out, hoping for the day ‘when things come right’. But that may not be soon enough for the H—s.