The rolling, rich land of Mazowe, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of the capital, Harare, used to be owned exclusively by white farmers. But when Mugabe implemented his land seizures, he and his wife took several of the choice farms in this area.
At sunset, workers trudged home after a day of harvesting maize seed.
“We never met him (Mugabe) but he took good care of us,” said Monica Tamanikwa, walking with her three year-old daughter. She said workers on Mugabe’s farms were always paid on time and at times in cash, unlike workers at other properties. “If we run out of food, we just go to the farm to ask and we get it.”
Shaking her head in disbelief, she said: “I still can’t believe he is dead.”
Mugabe, an ex-guerrilla chief who took power in 1980 and ruled for decades, taking the country from prosperity to economic decline, died on Friday at a hospital in Singapore at the age of 95. His body is expected to arrive back in Zimbabwe on Wednesday and will then lie in state in the capital before burial on Sunday. The place of the burial has not been officially announced.
As Mugabe’s death is met with mixed feelings in Zimbabwe and across the globe, at the farm compound, the workers express anxiety.
In a country with high unemployment – largely blamed on economic mismanagement by Mugabe and his successor – the farmworkers are worried about their future.
Many are pinning their hopes on Mugabe’s wife, Grace, “to run the farm and have a good heart like the old man,” said Eremiah Muyepa, a farmworker.
“I have been managing to send my children to school because we are always paid on time. We don’t know whether Amai (Mrs.) Mugabe will continue, or maybe she will just abandon us,” said the 30-year-old father of three.
Grace Mugabe has been out of the limelight since her husband lost power in November 2017. Her aspirations to succeed her husband are blamed for his ouster, when former ally Emmerson Mnangagwa and generals moved against him.
A former secretary in Mugabe’s office, she rose to prominence after news broke that she had a child with Mugabe while his first wife, Sally, was ailing.
Mugabe subsequently said his first wife, who died from kidney failure in 1992, knew and approved of his liaison with Grace since she could provide the president with children. Grace, more than 40 years younger than Mugabe, had three children with the president.
After a Catholic wedding in 1996, Grace Mugabe made headlines for shopping sprees in Europe and Asia, a fiery temper and the acquisition of huge tracts of land under Mugabe’s controversial land reform program.
Like her husband, Grace had a knack for giving speeches marked by inflammatory language and declaring that Mugabe would “rule from the grave.” She specifically targeted Mugabe’s then deputy, Mnangagwa.
“I am a wife of the president. Who is Mnangagwa on this earth? Who is he? … What do I get from him?” she barked at a political rally, denying reports that she had poisoned Mnangagwa with ice cream from her dairy weeks before Mnangagwa was fired as vice president and fled the country.
Mnangagwa returned to Zimbabwe to become president with the help of the military, which forced Mugabe to resign.
In a country where the government enjoys vast powers over farm ownership, Grace Mugabe will need Mnangagwa’s magnanimity to keep the land. Some say Mugabe’s legacy may fail to protect her.
“In politics, unlike in religion, the dead do not protect the living,” said Alexander Rusero, a Harare-based political analyst.
“It will be about what she says, what she does in the post-Mugabe era. For as long as her actions and moves do not upset or threaten power, she will absolutely be safe,” said Rusero. “So far she has managed to keep a low profile, which I good for her.”
The family’s wealth is not publicly known and Mugabe in the past denied stashing money outside the country. They own more than a dozen farms, mainly taken from white farmers.
On one of the farms, the family established a dairy which produces milk, yogurt and chocolate. On Monday, workers in the sales office basked in the sun because of lack of customers. Hundreds of dairy cows graze in the pastures about a kilometer (mile) away.
Some workers said they hope Mugabe’s widow will improve their living conditions – if she holds on to the property.
“I hope Mai (Mrs.) Mugabe increases salaries and improves these houses,” said farm laborer Fungai Nyamurenje, pointing to her mud and grass hut. “Look, this is my bedroom, it is falling apart.”