Guy Watson-Smith was a successful tobacco farmer in Beatrice when one day in 2001 gun-toting goons he claims were sent by the late Rtd General Solomon Mujuru arrived and gave him two hours to leave.
Last week, Watson-Smith, now living in France, watched in shock as Mujuru’s badly-burnt remains were removed from the 14-roomed farmhouse at Almein Farm which he once called home.
While he is still bitter about the way he was forced off the farm, Watson-Smith says he found his conversations with the liberation war hero “enjoyable”.
More controversially, the farmer tells the Voice of America Studio 7’s Violet Gonda that it is “improbable” that Mujuru’s death could have been an accident:
GUY WATSON-SMITH: It’s a big sprawling 14 room farmhouse. It’s all on one level and every room is peppered with doors and windows. No windows had burglar bars – they were all big double windows. The main bedroom where I understand he may have finally been found has three exit doors just from that one bedroom alone, plus four double windows. So it seemed to me improbable that anybody could be trapped in such an open home.
Asbestos as everybody knows is fireproof and the roof was made of asbestos sheeting. The walls of the whole house were made of fired brick and cement so they were completely fire proof. The ceiling and roofing timbers would have been able to be burnt but the fire couldn’t spread quickly through those ceilings and roofing timbers without the walls and the roof burning and the walls and roof could not burn. So it was a pretty safe house from the point of fire.
VIOLET GONDA: It’s reported his body was burnt to ashes and questions are being asked about how this could have happened, especially to that extent, without people coming to his aid. Can you tell us about the surrounding area? Was the house within view?
SMITH: Assuming that the lay-out was similar to when we were there and no major changes had been made, then the front gate to the property is 40 metres from the house. There were a lot of buildings around. There were three other houses, presumably those houses remained occupied and just a couple of 100 yards back, there was an entire village where the farm personnel lived – a whole village of some 80 to 100 houses. I find it implausible that there could have been a major fire in the main house and nobody saw it. That seems very implausible. There were many people around.
GONDA: Can you tell us a bit about the eviction in 2001. I understand you were given two hours to vacate the property?
SMITH: Yes. We were visited by three people, one of whom I already knew. His name was Cde Zhou and he worked for General Mujuru. After the war of liberation he became a Colonel in the 5TH Brigade - implicated I believe in some atrocities in Matabeleland. Then he worked for Mujuru in Mashonaland East during the 1990s and early 2000.
They arrived in mid-morning, they were clearly armed and they told my wife and myself to leave the farm. I said let’s sit down and have a cup of tea to talk about this and Cde Zhou said to me: ‘Look, you are not listening to me. We said you go and you go now we don’t want to happen here as happened to Mr (Alan) Dunn.” Dunn was our great friend and neighbour who had recently been murdered.
So we took the threats pretty seriously – we took some clothes and some photographs and we left. We never went back into that house again.
The next three months we spent in Harare trying to negotiate our way back to the farm. During that period, Mujuru pretended to me that he was not behind the eviction and that it was somebody else and that he might be able to help me. So I established a relationship with him for the next three months based on trickery on his part.
He persuaded me to continue farming, to continue fertilizing crops, to irrigate the tobacco and get the necessary inputs on to the farm. I continued farming through my managers without being allowed to the farm myself but encouraged to do so by Mujuru, never suspecting that he was behind it. When it became clear that he was behind it, and I was issued very serious threats to my life and to my family, we left the country quickly on legal advise.
GONDA: How big was your farm and were you, later on, able to reclaim some of your property?
SMITH: No. The farm was 1,300 hectares and we were not able to take anything off the farm. We got a court order to enable us to move our movable assets – tractors, vehicles, irrigation equipment, cattle, game, stocks of valuable fertilizers, chemicals, fuel and so forth.
In light of the court case in our favour, instructing us to move our movable assets from the farm, we sent agents to the farm with trucks accompanied by the Sheriff of the High Court. They were driven off the farm by Cde Zhou in a very violent way.
The Sheriff’s car was actually manhandled. It was picked up, turned around and faced in the direction from which it had come. The drivers of the trucks and the Sheriff were all told that if they came back they would be killed. So they never came back.
We never got any of our assets back. Nothing. None of the cattle – 460 head of pedigree breeding stock. Six hundred head of game – everything from giraffe to eland, sables, all commercial game herds. None of that came off that farm. Neither any of our vehicles or equipment and not to mention the crop in the ground. We had 85 hectares of irrigated tobacco, which was at reaping stage. The investment in that 85 hectare crop was 95% done. We didn’t get anything off Violet.
GONDA: How much did you lose?
SMITH: When I first went to court about it and did the sums, I estimated the movable assets – not the farm, not the buildings, dams and so forth which are fixed improvements – the movable assets which we could have taken off in trucks I estimated that to be US$2,5million at the time. But for the court we had professional valuation by the premier agricultural valuation company in the country – then known as Redfern Mallet. They valued those movable assets at US$1,7million. So that was the figure that was accepted legally.
GONDA: So what are you going to do now as general Mujuru is no longer there?
SMITH: We are not actively trying to get the farm back at this stage. It has gone beyond that point with 4,000 farms having been acquired. We have been trying to get compensation from General Mujuru personally for the movable assets, which he stole from us – which we were forced to leave behind. That US$1,7million we have been suing him in the civil court for that. Now that he has died I need to take legal advice. Do we continue with the court action against his estate? I am not sure what the legal position is going to be now.
As far as the land goes, that’s a different issue which is being dealt with by the Commercial Farmers’ Union in negotiations with the government and donor agencies, and foreign governments. The land is a political issue but the movable assets issue was between me and General Mujuru.
GONDA: Many are mourning the death of General Mujuru who was a decorated liberation hero and many say he was a people person. In your dealings with him, what sort of a person was he like?
SMITH: I actually enjoyed talking to him. He was a very quiet man. A big guy but quiet, clearly intelligent. He had a huge amount of experience and he was happy to talk – he was quite a story teller in a quiet way. I met him many times, spoke with him and listened to him with a lot of interest. So he was an impressive guy. Yes he was also a leader of the ZANLA forces in the war of liberation and responsible for bringing Mugabe to power. He was seriously an important liberation hero and I don’t take that away from him.
Trouble is after independence he became a very serious businessman and he had the reputation – I can’t vouch for it – but he had the reputation of being the biggest businessman and the richest person in the country. Diamonds, farming and goodness knows what else. I think there was an enormous amount of wealth there. So there were two sides to his personality. He was a liberation hero and a very, very, very shrewd rich businessman.
GONDA: What do you think could have happed to him? What’s your reaction to his death?
SMITH: I just cannot imagine the circumstances for a natural death by being trapped in a fire it’s hard to believe because I know the house so well. Anyone can walk out of any of those doors. They don’t appear to have been barred, there were no burglar bars on those windows. So I suspect that something happened to him and the house and he were burnt to destroy evidence. Probably that evidence will never come out but it seems to me that there is some funny business going on there.
My immediate reaction was one of surprise. He was one of the two main contenders – sort of main presidential challengers – him and Emmerson Mnangagwa. So it really came as a surprise and a shock. And my first reaction is if it generates publicity, I hope it is good publicity in the sense that I hope it increases awareness of people around the world and in the corridors that matter that there are huge injustices to be addressed in Zimbabwe particularly with regard to law and order and property rights. With those two elements in place, I feel that Zimbabwe can flourish again and we can all go home. So that is my immediate reaction. I hope it leads to some good.