President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe in the 22nd African Heads of State Conference on February 21, 2003 in Paris, France.
Credit: Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images

"We believe what we are doing is right, and our processes have not been unfair," the president said royally. He took no questions. Instead, he held forth for an hour: about the economy, which he vowed was turning around; about his land-reform policies, which he described as "just and unstoppable"; and about the West, particularly Britain, Zimbabwe's former colonial master, which Mugabe has called "the serpent." He vowed that his reelection was free, fair, and a representation of the "people's will," and wished for the world to stay out of his affairs. With that, Mugabe stood up and swept from the room.

Whites arrived in what is now Zimbabwe in 1890, chartered by the British colonial land pirate Cecil Rhodes. In search of gold, they found a lush, green haven of rich farmland and rolling hills, and by 1897 had conquered the native Shona and Ndebele people. Thus began the British colony of Rhodesia: a century-long land grab in which a handful of whites controlled much of the valuable land in the country while systematically oppressing millions of blacks.

This ultimately led to war: a brutal seven-year struggle that began in 1973 and ended with the Rhodesians conceding defeat in 1980. African self-rule was established, and Robert Mugabe, who'd led the revolutionary forces, became prime minister. But rather than kicking out the whites, as other postcolonial heads of state had done, Mugabe embraced the settlers he had once described as "vermin," giving them 20 seats in parliament and honoring their title to the farmland they'd inhabited for decades.

It was, many believe today, nothing more than a shrewd move to shore up financial support in the West while making sure Zimbabwe's economy continued to flourish. And it worked. Foreign investment poured in, and whites, encouraged by Mugabe's call to help build a "new prosperity," dedicated themselves to the cause. But the fact remained that they still owned most of the land and controlled most of the country's major industries.

"Clearly, imbalances needed to be corrected," explained Minister of Justice, Legal, and Parliamentary Affairs Patrick Chinamasa one morning over tea at his ministry. Quite simply, letting the whites keep their land had been a mistake, he explained. Now it was time to rectify the problem. Hence "fast track" land reform, the ideologically driven policy of seizing white-owned farmland, which was understood as the righteous undoing of colonial wrongs and, in addition, richly deserved by the whites, who had always been selfish and racist.

"This is a people's revolution," explained Joseph Made, minister of Land, Agriculture, and Rural Resettlement. So far, 5,160 farms have been seized. "Nothing will stop the land-reform program," he said. "It's an idea whose time has come."

Of course, Made had a farm. So did Chinamasa. According to the Zimbabwean non-governmental organization Justice for Agriculture, most of Mugabe's ministers, and some of their relatives, have been given farms or were allowed to purchase them at ridiculously low prices. To meet the "new black farmer," the delegation I'd come with was invited to lunch at a 3,150-acre estate now occupied by Lieutenant General Constantin Chiwenga, commander of the Zimbabwean Army, and his wife, Jocelyn. The farm was still owned on paper by a Roger Staunton, who has left Zimbabwe. In April 2002, the Chiwengas arrived and took over the farm, with the help of men armed with AK-47s.

It was a beautiful place: fully irrigated, and tended by hundreds of farmworkers in coveralls. They were growing roses in greenhouses. The general, dressed in a Stetson and jodhpurs, met us at the gate, joined by Jocelyn, a large, attractive woman wearing an African dress with huge, puffed sleeves.

As we sat on the porch sipping mimosas, Jocelyn explained that she was a "city girl" and knew nothing about farming. "But you see, this is part of the people's struggle, and so we must go to the land," she added. She looked out at her acres of flowers. "I find I'm liking it very much."

The Chiwengas' place had the proper effect. Councilman Barron, who'd spent the afternoon observing the farmworkers, beamed. "These people are just doing it – living large, you know? It's liberating," he said. "Blacks should be so lucky in the United States."