White Zim farmers in WA speak out following Mugabe death

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SBS News

For some Zimbabweans living in Australia, the death of their former president means he will never be held accountable for his crimes. But others say he has been made a scapegoat for deeper issues in the country.

Born and raised in a small town west of Zimbabwe’s capital Harare in 1960, Terry Alderdice always wanted a farming job.

After spending 17 years learning how to grow a tobacco crop, he leased a block of land in Zimbabwe’s Marondera district.

Alderdice and his wife had three daughters and grew the farm into a profitable business.

But then, he tells SBS News, it all went “pear-shaped”.

In early 2000, then Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe suffered a major defeat when the country voted against constitutional reform that would have expanded his executive powers.

Public support for Mugabe and his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF) appeared to be wavering.

He responded by pledging to fast-track the decades-old promise of land reform, by seizing land owned by white farmers and redistributing it back to the black majority.

Alderdice was among the estimated thousands of white farmers removed from the land by Mugabe’s men.

“There were people coming on to the farm and saying ‘we are taking this farm, we want you off in 30 days’,” Alderdice says.

“I didn’t believe them, I thought it was just a political gimmick for the ruling party to stay in power.”

But the pressure on him and his family to leave only grew.

“We had gangs of up to 30-40 people surrounding the homestead at night, lighting fires, throwing rocks,” he says.

“I sent my wife and kids into town, and would spend up to eight hours negotiating with a mob outside.”

Alderdice says he tried to stay but began to fear for his life.

“They coerced a lot of the local population through intimidation and bribery, told them just to come on to the farms and take what was there. They didn’t just want the land, they wanted the farmhouses and infrastructure.”

Alderdice and his family crossed the Zambezi River into Zambia where they lived for eight years before moving to Western Australia.

“At the age of 50, I came to Australia and started again. We’re very privileged to be here.”

Alderdice was not alone.

The number of Zimbabweans migrating to Australia tripled to more than 30,000 between 2001 and 2011, driven by white farmers looking to move primarily to join farming communities in WA and Queensland.

Now an agronomist in WA’s wheat belt, David Stead spent three profitable years growing flowers for export on farmland near Harare.

“On my wife’s birthday in 2004 we were thrown off at gunpoint and threatened with our lives. We moved into Harare with what we were told we were allowed to take off the farm,” he says.

Stead and his family escaped, but the workers at his farm were hospitalised after a brutal mob attack, he says.

“Back then, you had to have political contacts to [be left alone]. I had meetings with the then minister for agriculture, I even met with Mugabe’s sister because she was very influential in the province when we were farming.”

“But it all came to no end. Our lawyer said ‘look, you’re young, it’s not too late to start over. Get out of the country now before its too late’.”

In addition to the Zimbabweans of European ancestry who arrived in the early 2000s, Zimbabweans of indigenous Shona and Ndebele heritage have also grown the diaspora in Australia.

Tinashe Jakwa grew up in Masvingo Province in south-eastern Zimbabwe, before her parents decided to relocate to Australia.

Jakwa is now completing her PhD in international relations and political science in WA and says there are mixed views about Mugabe’s legacy among the expat community.

“There is a belief that his positive contributions should be recognised: gaining independence from British rule, his reforms in education and health care,” she says.

“And he stood up for Zimbabwe and the interests of African countries.”

“At the same time, there’s also the recognition by many that he did oversee many human rights violations and abuses of power during his time as president and prime minister.”

“In order to accurately assess the impact he’s had on the country, one can’t talk about one without acknowledging the other.”

A state funeral for Mugabe was held in Zimbabwe this weekend, with many of the 60,000 Harare stadium seats left empty.

His championing of pan-African ideals and increasing literacy rates are seen as a positive legacy among some Zimbabweans in WA.

But electricity outages, food shortages and currency inflation remain ongoing issues in the country. Mr Mugabe sought treatment and ultimately died in a hospital in Singapore.

For better or worse, Ms Jakwa says it’s too simplistic to blame a developing nation’s troubles on one man alone.

“I don’t think the challenges facing Zimbabwe are simply due to poor leadership. I think the issues are much more multi-faceted and speak to the type of institutions that are in place that need to change,” she says.

“The focus on Mugabe being the cause of the crises facing Zimbabwe is expedient. It’s easier than thinking about solutions for issues facing the country.”

But for others, moving on from Mugabe means the impact of his rule will never be properly understood.

“I feel sadness and bewilderment that one man and his party could destroy a country like they have. And that the rest of the world would allow it,” Alderdice says.

“Even now, people are still not calling him out for what he was. He never faced the music for his actions.”