Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

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How a General stole a farm: My family’s story – Guy Watson-Smith (2004)

How a General stole a farm: My family’s story – Guy Watson-Smith (2004)


August 25th, 2011

This narrative was written by Zimbabwean farmer Guy Watson-Smith in 2004, recounting his experiences at the hands of General Solomon Mujuru. We are re-printing it as he wrote it at that time. General Mujuru died in a fire earlier this month on August 17th. You can read our obituary for the General here.


Our farm in Beatrice had been two smaller units, but was consolidated in the 1960’s, decades before I bought it. It was designated in1997 for acquisition and then again in 2000, and of course we did what was legally our right, and proper to do, and that was to launch a detailed and fully backed up objection to the Minister of Agriculture. To this day we have not had a response and it must be fair to assume that nobody in the Ministry has read, let alone considered our submission or the thousands of others.

We bought our 1400 hectare farm in 1983, with Government funded Agricultural Finance Corporation backing, 70 Kms. south of Harare near Beatrice. My wife and I devoted the next 14 years to extremely hard work and heavy investment in a Zimbabwe where black and white worked together, the country produced surpluses of every commodity it put its mind to, and phrases like “the Switzerland of Africa” and “the breadbasket of Africa” were commonly heard.

Our farm became a garden of production. In a relatively arid part of the country we managed to capture water in a series of huge reservoirs built during the droughts of the late 1980’s. By 1997 when the farm was first designated for compulsory acquisition we had a model village of over 300 families employed full time on the farm. We produced the largest ‘single-farm’ crop of tobacco in the country, with all of it under irrigation, and more each year being committed to an Israeli ‘drip’ system, for the most efficient use of all resources. The rest of the arable land on the farm was under irrigated pastures. Our breeding herd of 460 simbra beef cattle had been bred over years, with the use of semen imported from the USA, and introduced under a scientific programme of artificial insemination which we ran. The non-arable area of the farm was fenced and we had introduced viable breeding herds of all the 15 main species of plains game found on the ‘highveld’ of Zimbabwe, including giraffe, sable antelope and waterbuck, and numbering over 600 in total.

Unfortunately this jewel was to prove too attractive for someone to resist just a few years hence, however we remained blissfully unaware of the cruel twists that lay ahead.

The strangest thing was that from the beginning of the violent farm invasions in March 2000 until late in 2001 our farm was never interfered with by anyone, and we were never hampered in our production.

Strange because I was high profile amongst the commercial farmers, and perhaps too outspoken in my condemnation of our government’s methods for my own good. I spoke regularly and without fear to the press any time they asked me to, I was a thorn in the side of the governor of the province (Mugabe’s cousinDavid Karimanzira), the provincial administrator, the police, ministers, and the highest ZANU PF figure in the province, General Mujuru. I met with the national ‘war veterans’ leadership, including Chenjerai ‘Hitler’ Hunzvi before he died, and later Patrick Nyarhwata, the diplomatic corps, and the British High Commissioner.

I visited the Foreign Office in Whitehall in August 2000, in January 2001 and in August 2001, and put the case of our country’s farmers to the head of the Africa desk Dr. Andrew Pocock on each occasion, and appeared on numerous television and radio interviews which I actively courted, because I wished to tell the story of what was happening at home in the hope that it would make a difference. I had meetings with numerous British and Euro M.P’s. and politicians and briefed them too.

I and one other farmer presented to and were questioned on the land issue by the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers in Harare. Secretary General Don MacKinnon was there, as was Baroness Amos, and the Foreign Ministers of Kenya, South Africa, Canada, Australia, Jamaica, Zimbabwe, and one or two others.

9\18 and the next three months.

Eviction. Deception. Threats.

It was seven days after 9/11, 2001, and we had just returned from a trip to Europe with the family, to the horror of the Twin Towers. We were still trying to absorb the absolute enormity of that awful event, when our world crashed too.

A car pulled up in our drive at home, and out stepped the awful Comrade Zhou, so well known to me. He was with two other well dressed and menacing individuals that I had never seen before. One of them was huge, and because I had never seen them before I knew that they were not local, and I knew that they were on serious business. The two said nothing. We sat down at the table on the patio, my wife and I, our two farm managers and the three of them.

Zhou said “you leave this farm now.” I protested and asked that we should perhaps discuss the issue….

He replied, “You are not listening – we do not want what happened to Dunn to happen to you now.”

I saw the menace in the eyes of the three of them and felt cold. I knew then without any doubt that the only thing to do was to go. We were given permission to collect the clothes we needed, and two hours to leave.

I had no idea where the order had come from.

Sherry and her girls were still living with us although she thankfully had left early with chores to do in Harare that morning. However she was effectively evicted too, and had to find somewhere else to live. She had not been able to live at her home in the 16 months since Alan’s murder, or to move her assets, but that is another story.

The next months were a blur of confused messages, hopes raised and then dashed. We lived with my father in law in Harare and I continued with my duties as CFU chairman of the province which took me out on meaningful business most days into the farming areas, but I spent an equal amount of time negotiating with authorities to be allowed to return to my farm with the family. The governor and the provincial administrator were unhelpful and normally refused to see me, the ministers were polite and made empty promises that they would ‘look into’ our case. The most helpful person who was always available when I requested a meeting was the highest person in the ZANU PF hierarchy of the province, and widely regarded as the third most powerful person in the country – none other than General Mujuru. He always left me hopeful that there was some light at the end of the tunnel for us, and encouraged me to continue through my managers to plant a full crop of tobacco, to invest in the soil. Between September and December we planted 85 hectares of tobacco under irrigation, short of our normal 140 hectares, but a substantial crop none the less.

It is in hindsight quite amazing how slowly one understands what one does not wish to understand.

My parents were on the farm until mid November, my Father neither able to walk nor speak due to brain surgery, and my Mother attempting to cope alone. The General allowed them to move with their personal belongings into Harare, but still I could not go there to help them. My sister flew from Cape Town and in a day moved them and everything they owned off the farm and out of their home for ever.

I was expressly forbidden to go to the farm for any reason. On 21st November I was told by the General that I should go there to meet Zhou, so my wife and I left Harare – she was very keen to visit our home and the pets while I discussed I was not sure what, with Comrade Zhou. We were part way there when my mobile phone rang, and it was him to say that I should not approach the farm under any circumstances. I told him that the General had authorized it, and he was plain and clear. “If you go to Alamein Farm you will be shot.” We returned to Harare.

I still had no idea who was behind my banishment from the farm, who was instrumental behind the scenes. And the most helpful person to me – the only person in authority who would still speak to me was the General.

The horrible penny drops.

On the morning of 5th December, two and a half months after leaving home, I received a call from the General: “Meet me at Zitac” (the tobacco auction floors on the outskirts of town) “I am waiting for you.”

I immediately drove there, and he climbed into my car with me and said we would go to the farm together. In the fifty minutes it took us to get there he explained to me that he had family close to Alamein in the Mondoro Communal Land, his step mother and half brothers and sisters still lived there and he had driven through my farm many times over the years. I began to fear that perhaps my efforts to irrigate the arid kalahari sands we farmed on had been too successful! Perhaps the sight of fat cattle knee deep in irrigated pastures, and lush dark green tobacco crops as far as the eye could see had been too much to resist. I began to understand, slowly and reluctantly during that 50 minutes, that I had been duped. I began to understand why it was that my farm had been left alone while other seemingly less valuable properties all around had been occupied and vandalized in the last year and a half, and their owners harassed, barricaded or worse by ‘war vets’ and their followers during the previous two years. I had not shared their disruptions despite my high profile and vigorous activities on behalf of farmers in the province.

The crashing realization of what was happening was confirmed when he told me what was required of me when we got to the farm. I should address the labour force who would be gathered and waiting for us, to tell them that they “must work as well and as hard as before, but from now on they will be under different management.”

Still the General would not admit that he was taking the farm. Zhou was to be the next manager, and my managers were to remain to work under him. One later declined, while the other stayed on. Zhou and one of the two who had forced us to leave the farm back on 9/18 (the big man) were there to meet us, and I addressed the labour and their families who had all been gathered, as I was instructed to do. Oh! The sadness! I had known many of these people all of my life, had known their parents, their ups and downs, and we had created wonderful things together – yet I knew then that this was goodbye for ever. I saw tears in the eyes of some of them but could not approach them for a personal word or handshake or hug because if I spotlighted them they would likely become victims. I was not allowed to go to my house to see our dogs or say goodbye, but was escorted the 17 Km to Beatrice village and onto the road back to Harare by Zhou and his team, now with the General in their car rather than in mine. My job was done. I have not seen my farm or home again.

I did still have the presence of mind to extract one agreement from the General and Zhou while I was there. That we be allowed to collect our personal belongings, photographs and furniture. My wife was given permission the next day to go to the farm and pack up our house. I was not allowed to go with her or help her. Again I was threatened by Comrade Zhou in his now familiar unsubtle way that if I went I would be shot and the removals truck would be burned.

Goodbye Alamein.

On the 6th of December, the very next day, Vicky went to the farm with our two teenagers Adam and Alice and their cousin Oliver. After an hour alone with their tears in her beloved garden, the four of them with the kind help of two neighbour’s wives and close friends, began to pack. Another neighbour came over during the morning and shot the horse and our faithful old dog Lady. She was too old to get used to another home but dear Sherry took Romeo, our three year old bull mastiff and her faithful friend of the last 16 months.

It took all of Thursday and Friday, and the removals truck finally got away on Saturday at lunch time. But not without drama!

Zhou and his team were in evidence throughout the packing up – a brooding and threatening presence. On the final morning our sixteen year old son Adam and his cousin spent many hours catching and boxing our collection of exotic birds and wildfowl. He loaded them all carefully for transportation to their new home with a fellow collector, on the back of my farm pickup truck. He was then informed by Zhou that the pickups could not leave as they were a part of the farm, and Adam had no option but to release all the birds back onto their ponds and into their aviaries.

In the final hours Vicky wanted to pack the gun cabinet containing seven rifles. She was prevented from doing so, and informed that the keys had to remain with Zhou. She called me on the phone and both she and I separately phoned the member in charge of the local police station, who agreed that as the firearms were licensed in our name, a police vehicle would come and collect them for safe keeping. The police never arrived in spite of numerous subsequent calls. In the end, Vicky had no option but to flee with the keys of the weapons cabinet, and the removals vehicles driving in front of her, when she realized that Zhou had gone to the nearby store to get some lunch. The result was that not everything was packed on the trucks – some deep freezes and other bigger items were left behind. She dropped the keys at the police station on the way through Beatrice where I was waiting for her.

Realisation: The full extent of the theft .

I continued to speak to the General as I wanted his permission to move my assets from the farm. Land acquisition was one thing and it seemed that our government was supporting the seizure of land by the ruling party elite, but I had not heard that they were entitled to my tractors and generators, vehicles and equipment, fertiliser and chemicals, fuels and livestock. Apart from the valuable and sophisticated equipment I had my 460 head of prime beef and 600 head of wild game still on the farm. That was surely mine. And what was to happen with the crop in the ground, now three quarters grown on my inputs?

It was known throughout the district by now that if Watson-Smith came to Beatrice he was fair game. He would be shot, and if he tried to have assets removed from the farm the trucks would be burned. It had been announced at a mass meeting of the labour force held on Alamein by none other than the General soon after Vicky had left with our furniture. I never had any doubt that it was not an idle threat.

The legal system without teeth.

My last resort was the High Court of Zimbabwe.

I did not know it then but my family and I had only two weeks left in Zimbabwe.

My first priority was to pay all of my labour what they were due – termination pay and benefits, leave pay and long service gratuities. We spent many days calculating it all, with the help of the Agricultural Labour Bureau and the Ministry of Labour, and obtained their seal of approval that all was correct and in fact substantially more than that required by law. Finally on 19th December, as I could not do it myself, I hired a security company to take the cash to the farm, pre-counted and individually bagged, to pay the labour force. I sent a duplicate of all the calculations to General Mujuru, and left another with my lawyers.

Simultaneously I prepared with my lawyer and advocate to appeal to the High Court for the return of my moveable assets. Affidavits were prepared and I decided to cite four respondents in my urgent application: General Mujuru as the occupier of my farm and therefore the person directly in control of them, and his enforcer Comrade Zhou, as well as the two most senior government personnel involved in the land seizures nationwide, Joseph Made the Minister of Agriculture, and Ignatius Chombo another hard-line Minister in Mugabe’s cabinet in charge of Local Housing, but more importantly the Chairman of the National Land Task Force.

Fears began to be expressed for my safety and that of my family by friends and professional and respected contacts. No individual farmer had taken government ministers and generals to court in this way before, and this is a very powerful trio. Zhou was an add-on (evil and dangerous but not important).

A further curious thing happened that was chilling in the circumstances. During this period I took a phone call from the General personally. He told me that it had come to his attention, through contacts that he would not name, that I had been to Greece to “buy vehicles for the MDC”. Did I know that there was a law against foreign funding of political parties and why was I doing it? Of course the logic of the setup was impeccable – I had just been to Greece on holiday in August, and my passport had the stamps to prove it. It is a well known tactic of our government to arrest people before weekends or public holidays to make it almost impossible for the accused person to access a lawyer or a judge for bail purposes for a good few days. Many opposition activists, journalists and farmers have fallen prey to this nasty trick, and spent long weekends and more undergoing torture and interrogation. I imagined, quite possibly correctly, that I was to be arrested just before the long Christmas / New Year break on trumped up charges and held until after New Year at least! The charges of course were entirely ludicrous but how was I going to prove that over the festive season?

I took advice widely, quietly and quickly and decided that it would be safer to leave the country before filing the court application. We slipped out early on the morning of the 21st December. Once away I phoned my lawyer and the urgent application was filed in the High Court later the same day. My plan was to stay away for a few weeks to let the dust settle.

Our case was heard on 28th December in the High Court of Zimbabwe and the ruling was in our favour. The Judge instructed the Sheriff of the High Court to proceed to the farm with my agents to remove the moveable assets. I had appointed four agents, one to remove the cattle, one the game, one the equipment, fertilizers, chemicals, fuel and vehicles, and the fourth a specialist, to remove the huge Modro Bulk Tobacco Curers (nine of them requiring a low-loader each). I had organized all aspects of storage facilities and/or auction before I left the country.

A day or two after New Year the sheriff went to the farm with his court order, an escort of police from Beatrice police station, the first two low-loaders, and a couple of my agents to begin their work. They were greeted by Comrade Zhou in a frenzied reception of his arranging, and were literally driven from the farm in fear of their lives. The Sheriff’s vehicle was manhandled into facing back the way it had come, with threats of burning of all the vehicles. The convoy retreated as fast as they could never to return and the police did nothing to assist the sheriff and the course of justice either then or at any time since. The inspector in charge (Tarugwisa) was well known as a loyal ZANU PF functionary, and the entire police force and system of justice in the country had anyway been perverted in the preceding two years. This episode was simply further evidence of it.

The High Court, the sheriff and the police therefore proved powerless against a small mob of venom-spitting and threatening individuals. The authority behind this seemingly insignificant group of paid thugs is clearly above the law of the land, a fact that has been proved so many times that I am sure it was naïve to have expected the order to have been executed, but what else can one do? Where else is there to turn to?


The power and the fury of General Mujuru and his man on the ground Comrade Zhou began to be seen and felt.

On January 9th 2002 a truck load of approximately 70 individuals from the farm organized, terrorised and led by Zhou’s men traveled into the centre of Harare. One block from Parliament in the very heart of Harare the police watched or turned away as the mob rushed up the seven flights of stairs to the offices of my legal representatives – a major city law firm. They pushed half a dozen of the partners around but found my lawyer, assaulted him and threatened his family. The excuse for the attack was that I had underpaid them and that he represented me and should therefore pay some silly figure amounting to millions to my ‘cheated’ labour force. It was the gathering of a crowd of press photographers that caused the mob to return to their truck and home, and perhaps prevented further assault and even perhaps the abduction of my lawyer. The police were not interested in intervening and did not.

It was an orchestrated attack, and there is evidence that many of the participants were both unwilling and confused by the whole adventure. However the effect was shattering. Lawyers were proved not to be able to represent their clients in safety, and my lawyer has since emigrated to Canada. I had serious concern that I personally would become “unrepresentable” because of the danger that I posed to any lawyer or firm representing me. It remains a grave concern today.

The effect on my own family has been equally shattering. Although Vicky and I planned to stay away for a while, the intention was to fly our two children back to Zimbabwe to school and we had bought them tickets for Saturday the 12th January, to start school on the following Monday. Adam was to enter his final year of school, to write “A” Levels and Alice was to write her “O” Levels at the end of the year. A critical year for them both. We had asked a close friend to act in our absence as their guardian, to collect them from the airport, get them to school on Monday, and look after all their needs until we could return – hopefully soon.

The news of the attack on our lawyer and his colleagues sent shock waves through the country, and the next morning no fewer than three of our closest friends advised us not to send the children back. “If they can get at your lawyer in a city law firm, they can get at your children in their schools” was the message. The friend who had agreed to be responsible for our children phoned to say she was terribly worried and felt she could not accept the weight of responsibility. She was absolutely correct – they all were and on that day we were forced to change our plans and our lives for ever. We had absolutely no choice!

Our children have started again in a new and strange system and country and have adapted and performed like absolute heroes. Quite fantastic.

Vicky and I have with enormous help and encouragement from loving friends and family started a new career and our lives are once again more or less on track.

We desperately miss our former life and our many friends, but we try to spend a lot more time looking forwards than backwards.

Alamein Farm today.

The General and his men reaped the 85 hectares of tobacco I had planted. In addition to our state of the art equipment, 10 000 liters of diesel and a few hundred tons of coal were already on the farm when he took it over, as was all the fertilizer and the chemicals he would need to bring the crop to market. So his investment was negligible, but he sold the crop across the auction floors to his own account anyway. I believe he owes me that money.

I do not know where all my equipment or livestock are today, but I am informed that some farming continues, albeit on a much reduced scale. Very few of the 300 families that lived in our village remain on the farm, and for many months after our departure it was Zhou’s policy that any person who fled, as some did, had his house burned down. The intended message was clear – “if you go you don’t come back.” One needs an understanding of the atmosphere of intimidation and fear, the unemployment at 70%, and inflation at 300%, to grasp properly the psychological effect of this sort of campaign on simple and vulnerable folk without any security in their lives. It is a true and living reign of terror – it is the only way it can be described.

General Mujuru lives with his wife in my parents’ house. His wife is the powerful inner circle Cabinet Minister Joyce Mujuru, her portfolio being “water development” although I forget the exact title. She like her husband is a ‘war hero’ and she fought under the ‘nom de guerre’ Tauraii Rhopa Nhongo, Nhongo being her husband’s name at the time and Tauraii Rhopa translating approximately as “spill blood”. Their son lives in our house now. Another irony of which there are so many is that their younger daughter is at the private school our Alice was forced to leave, and amongst the things that she had to cope with in her forced uprooting into a foreign country and school system was the thought that this strange girl would be sleeping in her beloved bedroom, the only one she had ever known. We assured her that it was most unlikely that the girl would have Alice’s bedroom, and anyway, it really wouldn’t be her bedroom without all her personal things in it, so it wouldn’t matter. But we quietly wept for her.

Where to now?

My family has invested everything we have produced for two generations into what remained behind at Alamein.

General Mujuru must believe he has a future after Mugabe – he is not yet 60 years old.

I wrote to him recently and suggested that if he were to pay for what he has taken from my family I would return my title deeds to him, and the farm and the assets he took would become his. I would do it with sadness because the farm was never for sale, however today’s reality is not an easy one for us, and life must go on. I asked him to respond by the middle of July 2003 to my offer, and I have not had any response, somewhat predictably.

I must advance my claim now not only for the ultimate benefit of my own family but because the injustice that I have tried to portray accurately and as it happened is not entirely uncommon, although most farmers who have been stripped of their land, homes and livelihoods have at least been able to salvage most of their moveable assets. Many are still caught up in a terrible position somewhere between fear and expediency in that they are still there trying to salvage something of their life’s work from within the country. They therefore can not afford to or risk raising their voices! But they are there.

For my part however, my family had a farm, a business and a home. We bought it with the help of loans (now paid off) from the Government Agricultural Finance Corporation, post independence. Post Mugabe coming to power! We worked very long and hard, produced huge surpluses of food and exports, and paid our taxes. We were good employers of many people who lived in clean and healthy villages, with schools, clinics and food to eat.

All of that has been stolen “in broad daylight” and it is inconceivable to me that the perpetrator will get away with it in the 21st century. Can he?

Land redistribution. A final word.

It is a terrible tragedy that the guise of equitable land reform still provides Mugabe with cover to hide behind for his evil maneuvering, when the reality as I have seen it and described it is so very far removed from anything just or equitable.

On my farm in Bearice there were “300 farmers” (and one “white” farm owner it is true). None of those 300 farmers have received any land in the so-called redistribution process, not to mention support in the pursuit of production – tillage and fertilizer and other assistance has been loudly promised by the government.

Instead the land has been allowed as “payoff” to party faithful and very few of them are farmers. This sort of corruption is the greatest scourge, and yet it is accepted by many African governments as the norm, and praised and rewarded with high and prestigious positions and recognition, with speaking engagements and standing ovations for Mugabe the architect of the evil. And even more surprising, his behavior is still at least tolerated in the West.

This small story is only one, and there are many others yet to be told.

Guy and Vicky Watson-Smith – 2004


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