By Everson Mushava
A few metres from former first lady Grace Mugabe’s sprawling soya bean crop in Mazowe, about 40km north of Harare, a group of men are opening up mother earth using pickaxes, hoes and shovels scouting for gold in the resource-rich area.
Just a few hundred metres to the east, under the foot of the mountain that spreads to Manzou farm, another group of men have uprooted citrus trees in the same Smithfield farm panning for gold.
The other miners have abandoned their claim along the perimeter wall of Grace’s orphanage due to water-logging.
Trucks ferrying the gold ore for refining are coming in and out of the farm that has become the latest battleground between Grace and the panners.
The mud-soaked artisanal miners move freely up and down inside the once high-security area, often without shirts and drenched in sweat like equatorial rain forest hunters after braving a huge storm to hunt for chimpanzee.
At the mine site, it is business as usual.
Some men are draining water from the open pits using huge water pumps; others use tins to bring out gold ore from the pits, while others lie under trees taking a rest after the punishing work.
The few who were fully dressed were clad in President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s election campaign t-shirts, listening to Jah Prayzah’s song Kutonga Kwaro.
The music, piercing through the remaining lemon trees, was coming from small solar-powered radios perched on tree branches across the mine site to provide entertainment to the panners.
They were briefly raided by the police after Grace reported them for allegedly invading her farm, destroying the citrus trees and underground irrigation infrastructure.
This, however, did not deter them, and they are back in larger numbers, vowing to stay put until Mnangagwa orders them out.
At the first site, the panners claimed to be Zanu PF supporters from across the country, particularly from Shurugwi, who alleged they were mining with Mnangagwa’s blessings and could only leave the place if ordered to do so by the president.
“This is the indigenisation policy that former president Robert Mugabe introduced,” said Wastemore Kanengoni, who claimed to be the owner of the mining claim.
“We are indigenous people and should be allowed to mine.”
“We are Zanu PF supporters and we are here because of President Mnangagwa. If he comes and tells us to leave, we will happily leave today.”
He said the former first lady was not the owner of Smithfield, but Iron Mask Estate and could not evict them from the mine they were given by their late relative, Elias Kanengoni, who was one of Mugabe’s top spies.
Over 60 families, Kanengoni said, were being sustained by the mine.
“We are here to mine and nothing else. We will not touch anything, even that soya bean crop,” he said.
Kanengoni said they had been mining for the past two months and had been getting rich pickings from the mine.
“We came here after the new dispensation,” he said.
“President Mnangagwa has said Zimbabwe is open for business and this is what it means.
“It is not business from foreign whites only; we also have the right to mine and enjoy our riches.”
Another artisanal miner, Chamunorwa Kanengoni, said Grace had been to the farm and had raised concern over the damage caused on her bean crop.
He said the panners did not have problems with Grace, but one Mubambi, who came with Russians in 2013 to take over the mine.
“We can only leave if President Mnangagwa asks us to,” Chamunorwa said.
“In fact, what we can do now is to ask Amai Grace and Mnangagwa to give us equipment so that we can mine efficiently.”
But the panners are very vigilant and suspicious of anyone who visits them.
They swamped around a group of journalists like bees to demand the reason behind their visit and their fears could be understood for people who had been unemployed and had found a new lease of life.
One of the panners said they were getting over a kilogramme of gold per day and would share equally with the owner of the mine.
“We have over 10 groups and each group can get as much as 100 grammes a day,” said one of the panners, who said he was from Zvishavane.
“We share the proceeds equally with the owner of the claim.”
Kanengoni was brandishing a 2012 prospecting licence while Grace has a special mining grant obtained in 2016.
At the other site, most of the panners had fled the scene before the group of journalists arrived and the few remaining were busy calling their superiors, believed to be Shephard Nyazvigo, who is locked in an ownership wrangle with Grace, asking them to come and talk to the reporters.
Nyazvigo and Grace clashed two weeks ago when the former first lady visited the site ordering his workers off “her farm”.
Grace claimed she has lost 31 laptops at her orphanage to thieves whom she suspected were the panners.
The panners challenged Grace, broke into song and dance, telling her off saying she no longer had the powers to evict them. They were menacing and daring.
Some of the miners are now suing Grace for accusing them of stealing from her and Nyazvigo claims to be the rightful owner of the farm.
Home Affairs minister Obert Mpofu last week labelled Grace a liar for claiming there were panners on her farm, saying what was going on was a land ownership wrangle.
But Grace’s lawyer, Walter Chivore, said Nyazvigo had no claim over the mine because he applied to withdraw the court order he was brandishing after it was challenged by Gushungo Holdings.
He said Nyazvigo’s court order had been given in default and Gushungo Holdings later challenged it indicating they had not been served with the papers.
“The record at the High Court consists of the answering affidavit and opposing affidavit and materially in response to the applicant, Gushungo Holdings is arguing that it has a special grant on the six-hectare property, while the applicants argued they had a certificate of inspection,” Chivore said.
He said Grace’s permit gave her rights to the property and minerals underground.
“On March 26, the applicants filed a notice of withdrawal against Gushungo Holdings,” Chivore said.
“Essentially, it means if they withdrew the charge against the respondent, the court order they were using is now invalid. Those are the legal issues we are looking at.”
Grace is accused of grabbing the Mazowe farms where she built an orphanage and an elite girls’ school.