'We have been waiting too long for land that is rightfully ours'

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The Independent Online

Febiano Muvonzi, one of the thousands of Zimbabweans who each day invade more white-owned farms, does it in honour of his grandfather. "He came back from fighting for the British during the Second World War and was given £200. A white soldier my grandfather fought alongside, Tom Houston, also came and was given a horse.

"The white man was told to ride the horse as far as he could until he was tired and put a peg in the ground. Each day, he rode about 20km, along four sides of a square. That is how Houston got his land, and all the black people living in that square were moved to places with stony ground called native reserves," Mr Muvonzi said.

It is memories of family pain, like that of 38-year-old Mr Muvonzi, that lies at the root of the country's crisis. It informs every Zimbabwean's view - black or white - that, whatever President Robert Mugabe's sins, Britain has a moral obligation to redress the injustices it wrought upon its former colony, Rhodesia.

Mutyambizi Muvonzi, his grandfather, bought 30 head of cattle with his £200 and farmed a smallholding until his death. But Mr Houston's grandchildren - beneficiaries of a post-war settlement scheme that nearly doubled the number of white-run farms between 1945 and 1955 - are wealthy people now, Mr Muvonzi said.

"I am taking part in the land invasions, which we call repossessions, for the sake of my people," said Mr Muvonzi who as a teenager fought in the liberation war and now runs a car spares workshop in Mbare, a township in the south of the capital, Harare.

Most days, he can be found with hundreds of others at a bus station in the centre of the city where transport is laid on for anyone who wants to go and occupy farmland. Food is provided at the invasion sites by the National Veterans' Association, through a grant it received in February from the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF).

The government's critics claim that people such as Mr Muvonzi are mere pawns in President Mugabe's desperate campaign to secure a majority for the ruling party in parliamentary elections expected in May. But for Mr Muvonzi, farm occupations are a crusade.

"I have taken part in six repossessions since February and I have pegged out two farms for myself on land we occupied... I will give one of the farms to my friends. It does not matter what the constitution says or what the courts decide. We have waited too long for the land which is rightfully ours," he said.

A father of two children, he is among Zimbabweans who have done relatively well since the end of white rule in 1980. His business at Mbare was set up with his demobilisation money and he receives a war pension of Z$3,000 (£60) a month.

Among the six employees of Maxtim Motor Spares, Tabinga Wivelos, 54, agrees that the present land distribution - 70 per cent of the best farmland is controlled by commercial farmers - is inequitable. "Tony Blair should give us money to buy farmland. We have waited too long and now the occupiers' methods are the only ones which are going to work."

Britain, which at the end of white rule offered compensation to commercial farmers wishing to leave, parted with £44m before ending the payments on the basis that the poor were not benefiting. Indeed, according to a list obtained recently by the only active opposition MP, Margaret Dongo, 270 out of 400 farms bought under the scheme were handed to the Zanu-PF élite.

In 1998, an international conference of donors, including Britain, pledged money for a new scheme that would give trained black farmers grants to purchase land directly from commercial farmers. However, it has never been implemented.

Such minutiae do not impress Mr Muvonzi. He and others have occupied nearly 1,000 farms since February and have a permanent presence on more than 500. "There are rotten apples in the ruling party, and we are angry at them. We have occupied eight ministers' farms. But I still believe that only Mugabe can rule us," he said.

"This [Morgan] Tsvangirai who leads the so-called opposition is just a puppet for the whites. Mugabe supports us 120 per cent. We went into the bush to win this land and we are disciplined soldiers who have waited for 20 years to get our land. But now we have had enough.

"We saw, after the liberation war, that the whites only gave up their stony land and kept the fertile areas, so we cannot trust the so-called proper channels organised by people who call us 'kaffirs'."

Yet among Mr Muvonzi and the carpenters in neighbouring workshops, there was a strong desire to keep Zimbabwe's whites in the country. "They are talented people and many of them were born here. We need them to stay - at least those who, in their hearts, understand us," Mr Muvonzi said.

"Besides," he added jokingly, "I am a friend of Britain, thanks to my grandfather. When he was fighting in South West Africa [Namibia] he captured 200 German soldiers all on his own. They surrendered after they heard his gunshot as he aimed for a leopard in a tree. He got the leopard and the Germans. All I want is my forefathers' land."