The motorcade arrived shortly after noon, and it was an army commander who curtly told Eva Matthews that she and her husband had only hours to leave their farm. While he spoke, Matthews later recalled, she noticed a provincial government official giving Zimbabwe's first lady a tour of her 2,500-acre wooded estate.
When a clot of farmworkers gathered around President Robert Mugabe's wife, Grace, she announced: "I am taking over this farm."
The seizure of Iron Mask Estates here two months ago illustrates what many Zimbabweans say is the most cynical element of the government's two-year-old effort to seize land from the country's white farmers. Mugabe has repeatedly characterized his government's land grab as the long overdue remedy for a colonial injustice, redistributing perhaps the country's most precious resource -- its rich, fertile land -- from a prosperous minority to poor, landless peasants.
Grace Mugabe is, of course, neither poor nor landless. Yet she and hundreds of the president's relatives and supporters, as well as senior government officials and their families, have been given commercial farms seized from white owners, according to civic groups and government records.
Of the first 600 farms seized after voters rejected constitutional proposals to strengthen Mugabe's authority in February 2000, nearly 200 went to Zimbabweans with connections to his ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). The list, according to Justice for Agriculture, a farmers' advocacy group here, includes Vice President Joseph Msika, government ministers, their siblings and adult children.
"This is not land reform," said John Worvick, a spokesman for Justice for Agriculture. "This is cronyism, pure and simple. The process is completely corrupt, and it's only transferring the ownership of the land from one group of elites to another."
Mugabe's government accelerated land reform efforts in August, and government officials say that within a few weeks, they will have evicted nearly 2,900 of the country's 3,500 white farmers. Relief agencies, foreign diplomats and supporters of the country's main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), say the campaign is a ploy by the 78-year-old Mugabe to fend off the first real threat to his autocratic rule since he took office following Zimbabwe's independence from Britain in 1980.
Few dispute the need for land reform. Though whites accounted for less than 1 percent of Zimbabwe's population, they owned 70 percent of its arable farmland before government-sanctioned mobs led by veterans of the country's independence war began chasing them from their land more than two years ago. More than a dozen white farmers have been killed during the campaign, and an estimated 150,000 black farm workers have lost their jobs and homes.
Government spokesmen deny allegations of cronyism and say that their efforts are partly designed to build a black commercial farming class to replace the whites who dominated the sector. Edward Matutse, a government spokesman, said that can only be done by providing farms to black Zimbabweans with the resources to run large estates and support the black peasants who work on them.
"The one thing all black Zimbabweans have in common is that we are all landless," Matutse said. "The whites and the Western media want to say that it is only the president's relatives who are benefiting from the land reform program, and this is a lie. How many relatives do you think our president has?"
The evictions have come as southern Africa is grappling with its worst food shortage in decades, and critics say Mugabe's land grab has combined with drought to worsen the situation by replacing Zimbabwe's most productive farmers with inexperienced ones. Nearly half of Zimbabwe's 11.4 million people are at risk of starvation, and critics contend that Mugabe is using international food aid the same way he is using the land: as a blunt political instrument to punish supporters of the MDC, which in March nearly unseated Mugabe in presidential elections that were preceded by heavy repression of the opposition.
Food donations are being funneled to ZANU-PF strongholds and away from the capital, Harare, and other urban centers, which overwhelmingly supported the MDC and its presidential candidate, trade union leader Morgan Tsvangirai, according to many Zimbabweans.
"It is clear to everyone in the city that Mugabe is trying to starve dissent -- literally," said Moses Bangwayo, 26, a university student and MDC supporter. "There is no food in Harare. Why? The man wants to punish us, and he uses food and land to do it. This has nothing to do with the liberation of black Zimbabweans. It has everything to do with one old man who has run out of ideas, run out of support and run out of time, trying to hold on to power at any cost to his country."
Grace Mugabe's seizure of the Matthewses' farm about 30 miles north of Harare underscores the government's cynicism to many here. Known for her profligate shopping sprees at upscale shops in London, she is a former secretary to Mugabe who married the president following the death of his first wife in 1990. She campaigned with her husband this year and often led rallies in deriding Tsvangirai as a puppet of the British and whites who want to see a return of the colonial arrangement. "Morgan Tsvangirai," she would repeat mockingly in campaign speeches, "is a tea boy."
In seizing the Matthewses' Iron Mask Estates, she got one of the most coveted farms in Zimbabwe, a lush and hilly property with majestic vistas and an elegant, colonial-era house with 29 rooms.
"It is a beautiful place," Eva Matthews said of the wheat farm she owned for nearly 35 years and where she raised three children. "The garden was quite special, though my husband and I didn't quite keep on top of it the way we should have as we got up in our years."
Matthews said the government first notified her in May of its plans to seize the property. "They said we had three months," she said.
But government officials showed up weeks before the August deadline, and a senior army commander told her that she and her husband would have to vacate the property in less than a day.
"He said to us: 'Why aren't you out of this house yet?' " she recalled. "I could look down the hill and see the district administrator showing [Grace Mugabe] around the place."
Matthews and her husband auctioned off 135 head of cattle for about $50,000, using half for severance packages for their remaining 15 workers. The couple moved first to Harare and then in with a daughter in Cape Town, South Africa.
"We lost everything," she said.
For many white Zimbabweans, the evictions signal the end of an era that began when this country was the white-ruled British colony of Rhodesia. Whites who remained here after independence are packing up and moving away -- to South Africa, Australia, Britain and elsewhere.
"The Rhodies are disappearing," said one of the Matthewses' neighbors, who did not want his name used because he feared retribution from the government. "Part of it is due to our own arrogance, I suppose. We should have cooperated more with the government and with the blacks who did not have as much. But I think we contributed something to this country."
Said Matthews: "It's all very sad." Then she paused. "But it's more than that, really. It's -- it's -- wrong."