HE COULDN’T say he hadn’t been warned. In 2000, just as Robert Mugabe’s land reforms gathered pace, 20 or 30 young black “war veterans” appeared at Mike Campbell’s farm, Mount Carmel, near Chegutu, 60 miles south-west of Harare. They seemed set on staying. According to a government requisition order of 1999, this land belonged to them and to the poor blacks of Zimbabwe.
Mr Campbell offered them a shed to sleep in; he didn’t want them chopping down his trees to build their huts. From that point, hoodlums from Mugabe’s Zanu-PF Party kept turning up. Over the years, everything went. They stole the irrigation pumps and tractors he’d used to turn his 3,000 acres of veld into mango and citrus groves so lush that he had become the leading grower in Zimbabwe, selling his fruit to Marks & Spencer in England. They rustled his cattle, a special Sussex/Mashona herd of small, hardy beasts. They even stole the copper telephone wires on which the bright blue bee-eaters would sit and flash, and set fires round his stone-and-thatch farmhouse which he couldn’t put out, except with the garden hose he used to water his roses.
Within the first year they burned down his pride and joy, the Biri River Safari Lodge. This was his boyhood dream of a place: giraffe, impala, warthogs, game birds, and so many white-tailed wildebeest that even his German sea-captain ancestor, who had started farming and breeding wildebeest near the Cape in 1713, might have envied him. But systematically the invaders killed them. That was the worst until, in June 2008, the thugs broke into his house, abducted him and beat him up so badly, together with his wife, that his brain was damaged. A year later, he was forced out at gunpoint; 15 months later the farmhouse burned down. One of those uncontrollable veld fires, said the police.
All that time he fought to hold on. At one stage he sent the china and silver away for safety, as well as his favourite military chest; but then he thought it better to let the workers and servants see stuff coming into the house, and planting and buying going on. The land, after all, was his. He had first seen it as a soldier, up from South Africa to help defend Ian Smith’s Rhodesia against Mugabe’s guerrillas, and liked it so much that he had given up his businesses at home to settle there. He bought it fair and square on the open market in 1975—though it had to be stocked with guns like an armoury during those war years—and got a huge loan from the Land Bank to do so, which took him 24 years to repay. Mugabe came to power in 1980, but in 1999 the government declared “no interest” in his land, and he got title. He wasn’t moving.
Several of his white neighbours thought he was being too difficult, preferring to keep quiet, even giving to the Zanu-PF donation-gatherers when they called round. If they came to Mount Carmel Mr Campbell would tell them, straight, that the country was a disaster with no diesel or electricity, tea or sugar; so he wasn’t paying a cent to them. And when Nathan Shamuyarira, Mugabe’s minister of information, turned up with his retinue to say that the farm now belonged to him personally, or a relative of the minister appeared in his Toyota Prado taking pictures of “our” orchards, Mr Campbell told him he would have to kill him first.
Leaving the dogs
In his opinion, blacks couldn’t run large farms. They just divided the land into plots and picked at them, subsistence farming. Fifty of them had taken over the spread next door, trying to grow cotton, but their efforts were pathetic. If they wanted to eat, blacks needed white farmers. Or they needed jobs like the ones he could give them, a square deal. They would just be driven to stealing otherwise. He hadn’t supported apartheid in his youth, but in the army and in Rhodesia, he said, he had changed his mind. And his workers, 500 of them counting wives and children, didn’t dislike him for it; when the invaders attacked Mount Carmel they defended it, and when he came back after his beating—pretty unsteady on his legs—some of them hugged him. “We love these guys,” he said.
He kept on seeking legal redress, of course. As the government notices of intent kept coming, he applied for a protection order. In 2005, though, an amendment to the Zimbabwean constitution allowed the seizure of white land without court review or compensation. He went higher then, and in 2007 sued Mr Mugabe before the tribunal of the Southern African Development Community. Though 77 other white farmers eventually joined him, he was the first and foremost: Mike Campbell v Republic of Zimbabwe. And, astonishingly, he won—though the tribunal said it would have ruled differently if his land had really been given to poor blacks, rather than the president’s cronies.
Not that his victory made much difference. The thugs moved in, and in September 2009 the farm was burned, notwithstanding. Mr Campbell had left most of his things there, as well as the dogs, the cats, the hens and the old brown horse, in the firm belief that he would return. Instead, he ended his days in poverty in Harare. The last mango crop was sold for the minister’s profit, or rotted to purplish pulp in the pack sheds. Nature crept back, like the veld grass, to restate her original claim.