In Chilonga, the spectre of eviction hangs over the community. Since news of the displacement, residents have oscillated between states of anger and confusion. With the COVID-19 pandemic, they had to balance weathering a public health crisis with the possibility that they might lose their homes. Schools in the area have recently reopened, but it's unclear for how long and if proper safety protocols are being followed. “You can’t plan your life properly if you are being threatened with eviction,” said Chikutu. “It’s difficult.”
Like reparations but in reverse, these announcements further complicated the meaning of ownership and inheritance, while completely side-stepping the legacy of colonialism, and the inherited privileges of ownership by right of conquest.
Like most ethnic groups across Africa, the roots of the Shangaan people extend far beyond the borders imposed during colonial rule. Their movements, shaped by the upheaval of the Bantu migration, the chaos and order of King Shaka Zulu’s expansive reign, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and contemporary resettlement, resulted in a little over 100,000 Shangaan located in Southeast Zimbabwe, with even larger populations in neighboring South Africa and Mozambique. Their lives have been largely molded by the geography and politics of the countries they live in, often against the grain of the dominant groups. In Zimbabwe, theirs is a history of constant movement, and one that has continued to this day as they face off against Dendairy and the Zimababwean government. “We are all so confused about what the government is doing,” Chikutu said about the months-long battle his community has waged with lawmakers, suspected intelligence officers, and the owners of Dendairy. “In our culture, whenever someone is entering into someone’s home they say, Ngatisvikewo [let us arrive]. That’s what we know in our culture. You ask and then wait for a response. Because what if it’s a thief?”The displacement of the Shangaan people also echoes the still-present violence of the colonial era. The Land Apportionment Act, passed by the Southern Rhodesian legislature in 1930 and accepted by the imperial British government the following year, made it illegal for Black Africans to own land. They were only allowed within the boundaries of “native reserves” created to corral Black people into small, easily surveilled, areas with the least fertile land. At some point between the passing of the act and 1950, about 108 reserves existed across the country. “We are in this country because we represent a higher civilization, because we are better men. It is our only excuse for having taken the land,” wrote N.H. Wilson, a member of the Southern Rhodesia Native Affairs Department, in 1925. Wilson, the grandson of painter George Housman Thomas, who illustrated Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was in charge of the placement of Black citizens inside of the reserves.
“We all still have scars of having land taken from us in the past.”
Going into the negotiations, Margaret Thatcher, then the recently-elected prime minister, did not want white farmers to lose their land rights; her representatives demanded that the newly elected indigenous government wait 10 years before reclaiming stolen land. While the Black leaders agreed to the terms set under duress, by the late 80s, policies would see dispossessed Black Zimbabweans once again land owners. One of the ultimatums laid out during the Lancaster talks was that “only under-utilized land, which was required for resettlement or other public purposes could be acquired compulsorily.” So the indigenous government created an initiative known as “willing seller, willing buyer,” where white farmers would sell land to Black farmers for a fair price. Few did so, and those that toyed with the idea would only do so for sums of money that were largely inaccessible.
For the white farmers, they armed themselves to guard their property, and for Black Zimbabweans, taking up arms became an extension of the war for independence.
One of the long-standing arguments from white farmers and Western leaders has been that the return of land to Black people in Zimbabwe is what destroyed the economy irrevocably; this, according to Mhoze Chikowero, a professor of African history at the University of California Santa Barbara, is an apocryphal point that lacks both context and accountability. Instead, Chikowero said, Zimbabwe was never allowed to find its footing following independence from white colonial rule, and the sanctions imposed by American and European leaders only further crippled a country still recovering. “Independence is not an event, it is a process and I look at that as a process of self-rehumanization that we were engaged in as Zimbabweans, in a situation that was still very much constrained by the structures of the inherited Rhodesian political landscape. Rhodesia was never a bread basket for Black people. It was a white man’s land.”
“When we said land is the economy and the economy is land we were making clear that without land, your freedom is either hollow or absent.”
Chikowero, who has written extensively on colonialism, self-liberation, and propaganda, also pointed at the little-discussed financial blow imposed upon the new state in 1980. “Zimbabwe inherited colonial debt to the tune of about $700 million at independence. Rhodesia did not leave us any money. It left us in a deep hole, and how did Rhodesia accrue that $700 million loan? By borrowing from its Western friends to buy weapons to fight us,” he said. “Those helicopters, those things that bombed us, those guns and chemicals that they used against us when we were fighting for independence—that’s the money that we the victims of that carnage inherited and are paying off.”
“Independence is not an event, it is a process.”
When I was young, growing up in Zimbabwe, I remember the fast moving green and brown shapes I saw from the car window as my family drove from the capital of Harare to the district of Mazoe. The shifting scenery always felt like a familiar, well loved movie; you knew what was coming, but with every watch you saw something different. Mazoe was where our family plot was, purchased by my father shortly after the war’s end. The scenery was bucolic with lush green fields stretching for miles, and irrigation sprinklers working in tandem with the tilled soil and the warming sun to offer a healthy yield of maize, sorghum, tobacco, or any other type of cash crop. Some farms had a main house where the landowner lived. By the time my family and I would make these drives in the early 2000s, chances were high that a Black family lived there. Less than two decades earlier, that would not have been the case, and especially in Mazoe, with its proximity to reliable water sources by way of the Mazoe river and its rich red soil.In 2019, the region of Mazoe was in the news following an announcement that white farmers who had previously claimed that land as their own would have it returned as an act of good faith to Western governments. This, the government thought, would signal to the aid-giving world that Zimbabwe, under purported new leadership, was now ready to right an alleged wrong. When the decision for financial restitution to white farmers was announced the following year, and the larger land returns months after that, the question of who reparations were for, and who owned the land of Zimbabwe itself, became tortuous.
“Land is the major preoccupation of Black writers, and it’s a topic that is both intuitive and inherited.”
In times of crisis in Zimbabwe, unregistered cars are usually used by allies of the government, acting as unrestricted tentacles of the governing body. The plight of the Shangaan has galvanized politicians from different political parties to lobby for the community, including members from the warring ZANU-PF and MDC coalitions. While their reasons are less than altruistic, it has been apparent that the current conversation about land is one both sides of the aisle find particularly vital to their political organizing. Coetzee has not publicly addressed the Shangaan people, but according to Chikutu they crossed paths in 2020 when he came to survey the land. “He once came last year some time in September to an area known as Chipinda Bridge, and we went there to kick him out,” said Chikutu. “He was digging meter deep holes and we asked him, ‘Well what do you think you are doing?’ And he said he was sent by his excellency. And we asked him how can his excellency send you here without any kind of DA or government representative. And we told him to go back.” As it stands, the land battle is currently being fought between a Black minority group and its government, while Dendairy has managed to largely stay out of the spotlight. Coetzee and Dendairy representatives have not replied to multiple requests for comment from VICE World News.
When you have something that does not belong to you, you should give it back. But the simplicity is complicated by the fraught conversations of colonial legacies, their generational impact both for those who lost and those who gained, and ultimately the question of who is really to blame.
At its most basic level, the land reclamation question answers itself. When you have something that does not belong to you, you should give it back. But the simplicity is complicated by the fraught conversations of colonial legacies, their generational impact both for those who lost and those who gained, and ultimately the question of who is really to blame.“The people are prepared to die for this,” said Chikutu somberly. “People went to war because they wanted to regain our land. No one wants to leave their land and we are owed a debt.”Follow Tarisai on Twitter.
“The people are prepared to die for this.”