CHEGUTU, Zimbabwe: Edna Madzongwe, president of the Senate and a powerful member of Zimbabwe’s governing party, began showing up uninvited at the Etheredges’ farm here last year, at times still dressed up after a day in Parliament.
And she made her intentions clear, the Etheredges say: she wanted their farm and intended to get it through the government’s land redistribution program.
The farm is a beautiful spread, with three roomy farm houses and a lush, 55,000-tree orange orchard that generates $4 million a year in exports. The Etheredges, outraged by what they saw as her attempt to steal the farm, secretly taped their exchanges with her.
“Are you really serious to tell me that I cannot take up residence because of what it does to you?” she asked Richard Etheredge, 72, whose father bought the farm in 1947. “Government takes what it wants.”
He dryly replied, “That we don’t deny,” according to a transcript of the tapes.
Etheredge this year became one of dozens of white farmers to challenge the government’s right to confiscate their land, and they sought relief in an unusual place: a tribunal of African judges established by the 15 nations of the Southern African Development Community regional trade bloc.
The case is rooted in one of the most fraught issues facing not just Zimbabwe, but other nations in the region, especially South Africa: the unjust division of land between whites and blacks that is a legacy of colonialism and white minority rule.
But the tribunal’s recent ruling, in favor of the white farmers, is also a milestone of particular relevance to Zimbabwe. It suggests that a growing number of influential Africans — among them religious leaders and now jurists — are confronting Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s 84-year-old liberation hero and president, for his government’s violations of human rights and the rule of law, even as most regional heads of state continue to resist taking harsher steps to isolate his government.
Zimbabwe’s handling of the land issue has had disastrous consequences. Since 2000, when Mugabe began encouraging the violent invasion of the country’s large, white-owned commercial farms — once the country’s largest employers — food production has collapsed, hunger has afflicted millions and the economy has never recovered.
Mugabe presents this redistribution as a triumph over greedy whites. But it set off a scramble for the best farms among the country’s ruling elite, who often had little knowledge or interest in farming, and became a potent source of patronage for Mugabe. His own relatives, as well as generals, judges, ministers and members of Parliament, were beneficiaries, farmer and human rights groups say.
By this year, the number of white-owned commercial farms dwindled to about 300 from 4,500. Even many of the remaining ones came under assault in this year’s bloodstained election season.
Among those singled out were farms here in Chegutu, where some owners had dared to take their cases to the SADC tribunal, challenging Mugabe before judges he could not entice with gifts of land.
In March, the tribunal ordered the Zimbabwean authorities not to evict any farmers seeking legal protection, pending resolution of the case. But as with other international efforts to influence Mugabe and his allies, Zimbabwean authorities apparently decided to ignore the tribunal’s order.
On June 17 — just 10 days before the discredited presidential runoff between Mugabe and his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai — dozens of youths led by a man named Gilbert Moyo surrounded Etheredge’s son, Peter, 38, at the main gate of the farm, family members said.
“Moyo told me he’d been sent by Edna,” Peter recalled, referring to Madzongwe, the Senate president. Peter said Moyo threatened to kill him if the Etheredge clan did not clear off the farm immediately.
Peter, his twin, James, and their families fled.
Madzongwe denied hiring Moyo and his gang. “If a farm is acquired, there are rules,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “I go by the book.”
But Jason Lawrence Cox, a local farmer, swore in an affidavit that he saw her on June 21 drive past piles of the Etheredges’ belongings, dumped at the side of the road, and onto their farm.
The gang had looted the three family homes on the farm of all but the large mounted heads of an eland and a kudu, according to photos taken before and after the invasion. They used a jackhammer to break through the foot-thick wall of the walk-in safe. The haul from the homes and the farm included 1,760 pounds of ivory, 14 handmade guns, 14 refrigerators and freezers, 5 stoves, 3 tractors, a pickup truck and 400 tons of oranges, the family said.
Eleven days later, a far more violent farm invasion occurred at the home of Mike and Angela Campbell, also here in Chegutu. Campbell, 76, was the first farmer to take on Mugabe before the tribunal.
A gang came that Sunday afternoon, pouring out of a pickup truck and a bus, Campbell said. Her son-in-law, Ben Freeth, 38, said that he was bludgeoned with rifle butts and that his skull and ribs were fractured. Mike Campbell was also severely beaten.
Campbell, 66, said she was dragged by her hair, after her arm was broken in multiple places, and dumped next to her husband. The doctor who treated them in the capital, Harare, signed affidavits confirming the severity of their injuries.
“Mike was so battered, I hardly recognized him,” Campbell said. “I didn’t know he was alive until he groaned.” The three of them were loaded into the Campbells’ truck and driven to a nighttime vigil of youth loyal to the governing party at Moyo’s base camp, she said.
It was cold, and men poured freezing water over them. Campbell drifted in and out of consciousness. By the flickering light of bonfires, the youths denounced the Campbells as white pigs, Campbell said, and ordered her to sing revolutionary songs. She remembers singing a children’s song instead, which enraged one of her intoxicated tormentors. He charged at her, she said, trying to thrust a burning stick into her mouth.
Later that night, the Campbells and Freeth were again stuffed into the back of the Campbells’ truck. Before they were dumped, Campbell said, the kidnappers insisted that she sign a paper promising not to press the tribunal case.
Within days — just as the international outcry mounted over the state-sponsored beatings of thousands of opposition supporters — photographs of the grotesquely battered faces of the Campbells and Freeth circulated on the Internet.
By July 4, the police informed the farmers here who were part of the tribunal case that they could go back to their land. Peter Etheredge speculated that the authorities might have relented because the photographs were spreading online just as Mugabe was meeting with Africa’s leaders about his country’s political crisis.
Read the entire International Herald Tribune article, by Celia Dugger, here.