The Bishop and the land grab
I spent several hours with three shell-shocked generations of the Smart family last week who have been violently evicted from their farm in the Rusape district east of Harare by a top cleric, Bishop Trevor Manhanga, Presiding Bishop of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Zimbabwe church.
The handling of the on-going eviction story of the Smart family and their workers by this prominent bishop is fundamental to understanding where we are – and more particularly where the church is – in our dealing with justice and injustice in Zimbabwe today. I encourage this report to be sent to Christians and church leaders both inside and outside Zimbabwe. The church ought to be the moral conscience of the nation, and it needs to act immediately.
The facts of the case – very briefly – as relayed by the Smarts and others are as follows:
The Smart family bought Lesbury and other farms in the Rusape district and developed them over the last 80 years. By the year 2000, they had bought approximately 8,000 hectares of land which they were farming very productively.
Soon after the land invasions began in 2000, they came to an agreement with government, offering 90 percent of their land to government and retaining 700 hectares – of which only 120 hectares is arable. No compensation was paid for the land they gave up, but the government agreed that they could continue cropping on the remaining 120 hectares left to them.
The Tandi people who traditionally reside in the district have a good relationship with the Smarts as neighbours and they have coexisted very successfully.
In 2016, approximately fifteen years after the government agreed that the Smarts could continue farming on their much reduced land area, Bishop Manhanga arrived with an offer letter – but no demarcation map – and said he was taking over 100 hectares of the remaining 700 hectares of Lesbury. [An offer letter is a letter signed by the Minister of Lands offering a certain piece of “acquired” land to a “beneficiary.” This piece of paper gives the offer letter holder carte blanche to do what it takes to force the owners of the property out of their home/s and take –with no compensation- many of their movable assets as well, including tractors, implements, seed, fertilizer, chemicals, diesel, etc.]
The Bishop returned under cover of darkness and, together with the lands officer, painted trees to demarcate what he wanted, but failed to come to the Smarts to tell them what he had demarcated for himself. It appears that he also demarcated the homesteads for himself.
On subsequent visits, Bishop Manhanga told the Smarts that he was sick and tired of white people and threatened the Smarts with jambanja. [A jambanja involves barricading farmers and farm workers into their homes, lighting fires, threats of violence, actual violence, including often vicious beatings and depriving animals of food and water for days on end, or even brutalising them.]
Bishop Manhanga then sent a wooden cabin with his workers to establish a presence on the farm.
The Smarts’ workers were angry that their homes and livelihoods were being threatened by the Bishop and, of their own volition, immediately took the cabin down and sent it back.
An expensive Toyota Land Cruiser
Towards the end of 2016, Bishop Manhanga arrived in a new, very expensive black Toyota Land Cruiser with the number plate “PAOZ 1”. (The Bishop is evidently “number 1” in the Pentecostal Assemblies of Zimbabwe church and was using a church vehicle to carry out his jambanja). He erected a new cabin in front of the Smarts’ homestead gate. It was a weekend and the Smarts’ workers had just been paid. When one of the workers hit the farm assembly siren button, a running battle began with the Smarts’ workers and the Bishop’s workers over re-erection of the cabin.
The police immediately arrested Rob Smart and his son, Darryn, and put them in a jail cell in Rusape police station where they were forced to sleep on the cold concrete. Rob is 71 years old.
Over the next few months it became clear to the Smarts that Bishop Manhanga and Inspector Nyakawedzwa of the Rusape police were working together. The Bishop was referred to as “boss” by the Inspector and from there on the Smarts had to answer charge after charge in the magistrates’ court – none of which they have been convicted of. This harassment by the police has all been instigated by the Bishop.
On one occasion in April 2017, when the Smarts were not present on the farm, the Bishop got into an altercation with the Smarts’ workers and in driving off, Bishop Manhanga smashed into an old lady called Servilia, knocking her over and leaving her bruised on the side of the road.
Inspector Nyakawedzwa came out immediately and tried to arrest Rob Smart on charges of intent to cause grievous bodily harm to Bishop Manhanga. Fortunately the Smarts’ lawyer intervened and the inspector discovered the truth of the situation. However, the Bishop was not arrested for knocking over the old lady or failing to assist her.
Since the Tandi people do not want the Bishop on Lesbury farm, one of their community leaders, Peter Tandi, has taken the Bishop to court, seeking that the acquisition of Lesbury farm be declared unlawful. The case is still before the court and lawyers are confident that no eviction can therefore take place.
On May 31, 2017 however, the messenger of the court arrived on the farm to hand an eviction notice to Rob Smart. Rob had not received a summons and had never been asked to appear in court over this eviction. He contacted his lawyer who told him that the process was flawed as there should be a court case where he could present his arguments if eviction was imminent.
Shortly afterwards, when Rob Smart was not present, police arrived. They broke into the office and ransacked it, even breaking into the safe. When the workers tried to resist, teargas was fired.
The riot squad arrives
After the police left, Rob returned to his house but police officers arrived again in force with 16 riot police, all heavily armed, as well as numerous other policemen and thugs. They ransacked Rob’s and his son Darryn’s houses. Police officers took Rob’s mobile phone so he couldn’t make calls to his lawyer or anyone else, or take photos and video the damage that was being done. His phone still hasn’t been returned to him.
When they came to Darryn’s house, Darryn demanded to see the paperwork that allowed them to evict him, insisting there was no eviction order for him, but police said they didn’t need paperwork.
Darryn’s small sons became hysterical as policemen barged in. They didn’t even manage to take any of their prized Lego or their much loved teddy bears before retreating into the hills on the farm for safety. It was clear to Darryn that the police knew what they were doing on the Bishop’s behest was wrong because some of the officers actually apologised before the Smarts were forced to flee.
From the hills where they were hiding out, the Smarts heard numerous shots fired by police. Some of their workers fled into the hills to join them and told them that the police were also evicting them from their houses. A number of them had been wounded. They said the Smarts must retreat further into the hills as the police were after them. Even old women were hit by police and the thugs.
The police finally left at 8 pm after 10 hours of shocking violence and brutality.
The Smarts managed to sneak back to their homes that night to find their possessions smashed or stolen. They heard that the messenger of court herself had been seen taking the children’s toys and packing them into her car.
The next day Bishop Manhanga sent a thug called Munjati to the farm, together with other thugs who were all armed with guns. A tyre was shot out on one of the Smarts’ vehicles while they were trying to retrieve their possessions before getting off the farm. The thugs also dragged large logs across the road to block entry to the property.
Animals denied food
The Smarts were unable to even feed their animals and when members of the ZNSPCA came out from Harare to the farm, they were forced to leave without gaining access to the animals.
Eventually Veterinarians for Animal Welfare in Zimbabwe (VAWZ) managed to rescue the two horses, but all of the 100 chickens had died and the families’ pet cats could not be found.
Although it’s now mid winter in Zimbabwe and the Rusape area is very cold at night, the Smarts’ workers have been forced to sleep out in the open in the hills because they are too afraid to return to the farm. Food that was sent to the farm for the workers was taken by Bishop Manhanga’s thugs. The school that the Smarts built, which accommodated 250 children, has been closed down and the farmer workers’ children now have no access to education.
The maize contracted under the Government’s “Command Agriculture” scheme and grown by the Smarts cannot be reaped by them. Over 50,000 kgs of tobacco also remain on the farm, as well as all the tools of the farming trade. The Smarts are unable to even set foot back on the farm for fear of being shot by the Bishop’s men.
The farm supports a very large number of people as the workers look after not only their own families but also their extended families since more than 95 percent of the population is unemployed. The workers need to be paid – and they know the Bishop will not do so.
So why is this different from the thousands of other evictions that have taken place since 2000 when the farm invasions began? Why is it a litmus test for Zimbabwe as a whole?
The difference in this case is that it is a standing and very influential bishop who is taking the property. He is a former President of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe – the church body of which most other churches are members.
The church should be the moral compass
Individual churches – and the church as a whole – should be the moral conscience of a nation. Accordingly, they have to decide whether the conduct of the Bishop is in keeping with Christian values and God’s commandments.
The church cannot continue to stand on the side lines when one of its own leaders is now inextricably involved in the very activity of greed and lawlessness that has created so much poverty and heartache in Zimbabwe.
If the church, by its silence, decides that the Bishop has not acted wrongly, it opens the door for a continuation of this kind of barbarity.
I would suggest that the church has to ask three questions because Zimbabweans require answers:
1. Is it acceptable for people to take homes and livelihoods because the government says it can? In this case we also need to ask: has the Bishop got other homes? To this the answer is clearly yes. He has at least two homes and a cottage in and around the city of Mutare, as well as a small farm and a home in Harare in the upmarket suburb of Highlands. He may have more. Why is acceptable for him to take other people’s homes, particularly those of people with no other homes, and leave people without jobs or incomes? Does the church believe this to be right?
2. Has the Bishop acted lawfully? It seems clear to me that he hasn’t – even under Zimbabwe law. With the connivance of the police, it appears he has taken the law into his own hands and evicted hundreds of people without eviction orders and a proper court process, in a manner that is violent and wrong. The church needs to pronounce on whether it believes Bishop Manhanga has acted lawfully.
3. Even if the church believes the Bishop has followed Zimbabwean law, does the church believe that Zimbabwean law is in conformity with God’s law? Is eviction on the basis of race acceptable? Is the taking of property without paying for it something the church in Zimbabwe believes is right? Does God’s law not trump Zimbabwean law when it says “thou shalt not covet” (tenth commandment) and “thou shalt not steal” (eighth commandment)? The Bishop has demonstrably coveted what is not his – and then stolen it.
Interestingly, many individuals in Zimbabwe have already castigated Bishop Manhanga’s actions on Facebook, for example: “Bishop Manhanga, please save us this disgrace. You have sacrificed your integrity on the altar of greed” – Lloyd Nyarota.
The church has a duty to answer these questions. It cannot remain silent on these burning issues indefinitely.
Ben Freeth is Executive Director of the Mike Campbell Foundation, Zimbabwe