The police first came early one morning five years ago, catching villagers by surprise as they worked in their fields. As hundreds of anti-riot police officers jumped down from their vehicles, their commander issued the villagers an order.
“He said that mother and daughter Grace Mugabe wanted this place,” recalled a village leader, Denboy Chaparadza. “So you better move away.”
The villagers understood right away: Grace Mugabe, the wife of Robert Mugabe, who was ousted from power in November after 37 years as Zimbabwe’s leader, and their daughter, Bona, coveted the villagers’ land. The Mugabes already owned property and businesses in Mazowe, about 25 miles north of Harare, the capital, and they were eager to expand.
Before the villagers could object, the police, armed with sticks and iron bars, demolished their modest houses. “Every house,” Mr. Chaparadza said. “They left us out in the open. We felt betrayed.”
Despite the destruction, most villagers refused to leave, and over the coming years, they would continue to resist in the face of growing pressure, including beatings by the police. In 2014 and 2015, the police returned, tearing down homes under construction and destroying their crops of corn, nuts and beans.
Volunteer lawyers helped delay the villagers’ eviction in the courts even as the police intensified their campaign on the ground. Starting last March, the police began coming nearly every day to harass the residents.
One reason the 146 families who lived in Mazowe felt betrayed by their leader was that they themselves had seized the land from a white farmer in 2000, under Mr. Mugabe’s fast-track land reform program. Now, they risked losing everything to his wife and daughter: 3,100 acres of prime land for farming and cattle ranching that abuts a lake and gold mines.
As Zimbabwe embarks on its post-Mugabe era, the unresolved issue of land ownership remains at the heart of the nation’s future, just as it was at the time of independence, in 1980.
In the talks leading to independence from white-minority rule, Mr. Mugabe was pressured into an agreement that left land ownership unsettled. In what was and remains an agricultural economy, the nation’s most productive farmland was in the hands of a few thousand white settlers.
Resolving the land issue, including compensating white farmers whose properties were later seized, is critical to repairing relations with Western nations and international lenders, which have been virtually frozen for nearly a generation. The new government desperately needs Western assistance to revive the nation’s moribund economy.
Determining who owns the land is a necessary step to development and democratization in Zimbabwe. Nearly all Zimbabweans who benefited from Mr. Mugabe’s land reform policy lack titles, or legal ownership of their property — leaving them at the mercy of the politically powerful.
In his inauguration speech, President Emmerson Mnangagwa — who, with his military allies, removed Mr. Mugabe, 93, from power — said that “repossessing our land cannot be challenged or reversed.”
But Mr. Mnangagwa said that he was “committed to compensating those farmers from whom land was taken.” In addition, he said that “complex issues of land tenure will have to be addressed” so as “to ensure finality and closure to the ownership and management of this key resource.”
Government officials highlighted the case of a white Zimbabwean, Rob Smart, who was allowed to return to his farm in December. But Mr. Smart had lost his farm only six months earlier amid factional fighting inside the ruling party and regained it after Mr. Mnangagwa’s side emerged victorious, not through any policy change.
So far, the government has yet to take any concrete steps toward compensation or even to meet with representatives of the thousands of former landowners, said Ben Freeth, a leader of white Zimbabweans whose farms were seized.
Mr. Mnangagwa was indicating his support for the tentative steps taken by the Zimbabwean government in the past few years. In order to qualify for badly needed loans from international creditors like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, government officials had begun mapping the 6,000 farms that were seized after the fast-track program started in the late 1990s. The government even held workshops on the compensation of white farmers.
Government and Western officials, however, had remained skeptical that any final decision could be taken as long as Mr. Mugabe held power.
It remains unclear whether Mr. Mnangagwa will follow through on his recent promises. As Mr. Mugabe’s longtime right-hand man, the new president is believed to have overseen the former leader’s often violent land policy.
Land also remains a tool of political control, one that Mr. Mnangagwa and other leaders of the governing ZANU-PF party have never shown a willingness to relinquish.
“The rhetoric was encouraging, but we wait to see the practice,” Moses Donsa Nkomo, a lawyer with Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, who represented the villagers in Mazowe, said of Mr. Mnangagwa’s pledge. “I’m a bit skeptical. That is the system that has kept them in power until now.”
In recent years, as fighting over succession intensified inside ZANU-PF, land was used to punish and to keep people in line.
High-ranking officials expelled from the party had their land seized, or suffered repeated incursions into their properties by party youths. The threat of losing their farms led some officials to stay in ZANU-PF, instead of decamping to new opposition parties.
“The land reform program was correct, but it was not implemented correctly,” said Temba P. Mliswa, who was expelled from ZANU-PF in 2014 and is now an independent lawmaker.
Mr. Mliswa — who managed to keep his 2,000-acre farm despite party youths who invaded and destroyed his property — said the ruling party uses land to “control you.” In addition, he and many other critics have pointed out that many senior politicians and the politically connected have more than one farm, in violation of Mr. Mugabe’s land policy.