The feats of Africa’s greatest Olympian echo daily as teachers in Zimbabwe’s creaking classrooms call the register. Kirsty Coventry’s electrifying swims in Athens and Beijing inspired mothers to name their babies in her honour.
Her medal hauls in 2004 (a gold, silver and bronze) and 2008 (a gold and three silvers) gave Zimbabwe fleeting international recognition for something other than its bellicose dictator. Even Robert Mugabe, who by then had turned viciously on his white citizens, was moved to label Ms Coventry “our golden girl” as he rewarded her with bundles of cash.
Few favoured by Mugabe, who died last year, have fared as well as Ms Coventry, 37, under the brutal regime that replaced him. She retired from sport in 2016 and Mugabe’s successor elevated her to sports minister, the only white face in cabinet.
Mothers named their children in honour the swimming champion, with names such as Kirsty, Goldmedal and Backstroke — the discipline in which she once held a world recordALAMY
Yet, President Mnangagwa’s latest gesture to Ms Coventry — a lease on a prized farm seized at the height of Mugabe’s catastrophic land grab — has cast a shadow over her reputation. Critics have condemned her decision to sign an offer letter from the minister of lands for a property as effectively the reward for her silence and decision to remain in a crooked and vicious government.
The owner of Cockington Estate — part of which has been leased to Ms Coventry and her husband — died last year without ever being compensated. Bob Cary, whose widow Shirley lives in Harare in reduced circumstances, was respected for his vast operation, which included flowers and tobacco for export and a herd of prized Charolais cattle.
Her failure to condemn, or resign, in the wake of state-sponsored atrocities, particularly those targeting women and youths, have dismayed Zimbabwe’s dwindling, tight-knit white community.
Ben Freeth, 50, whose homestead was burnt down by raiders in 2009, described Ms Coventry’s acceptance of Cockington land, near Darwendale, as “saddening and unprincipled”.
President Mugabe celebrated the achievements of Zimbabwe’s “golden girl” on her return from AthensGETTY IMAGES
The Carys and Freeths were among more than 4,000 white landowners targeted in a policy that unleashed economic devastation that has only worsened. A 10 per cent contraction is predicted for the economy this year; inflation is above 900 per cent and Zimbabwe was blocked from receiving emergency pandemic financing from the IMF over past allegations of corruption.
The cohort of children named after Ms Coventry’s triumphs, the Kirstys, Goldmedals and occasional Backstroke (the discipline in which she once held the world record), are now teenagers and likely to be among the eight million Zimbabweans — half the population — on the brink of starvation.
Mr Freeth, who is still fighting for the right to return to his farm, said that Ms Coventry appeared to be “accepting a reward from Zanu [the ruling party]for her loyalty and her silence”.
He added: “By moving on to a stolen farm she has become complicit in an immoral, feudal system that has caused so much suffering to so many, including people she knows.”
The allocation of land to Ms Coventry, who also sits on the International Olympic Committee, and her husband, Tyrone Seward, might have never been made public had it not been challenged in court. Robert Zhuwao, a nephew of the late president, was awarded the farm in 2004. The high court ruled that Mr Zhuwao’s lease had been revoked last year.
When Mr Seward was approached by The Times to respond to criticism of their move he wrote “There is no story here, just a PR stunt to discredit Kirsty.”
In an interview last year, Ms Coventry denied that she was a token white chosen by Mr Mnangagwa to placate the minority population.
Coventry carrying the flag at the opening ceremony of Rio 2016. She retired from the sport that yearCAMERON SPENCER/GETTY IMAGES
She said: “I have stopped listening to those inputs. As long as we can achieve something, move forward and it is positive, that’s all I really care about.
“I am independent and I am Zimbabwean, and being Zimbabwean to me means you don’t have to belong to a party, you just have to want to do better for your country.”
The young couple are not alone in making a quiet move back to central Zimbabwe’s agricultural heartland, which has been largely unworked by the beneficiaries of the Mugabe seizures. Hundreds of white farmers, who are barely old enough to remember when their families were turfed off their properties, are cautiously leasing from subsistence growers who have never had the cash or the know-how to develop them. It is a development that divides opinion.
A friend who has distanced themselves from Ms Coventry since she moved into government said her acceptance of contentious land, like many other ministers before her, would mark her downfall.
President Mnangagwa with Ms Coventry as she is sworn in as sports minister. It has now emerged that she and her husband have been given a lease on a prized farm seized at the height of Mugabe’s catastrophic land grabTSVANGIRAYI MUKWAZHI/AP
“Kirsty was an inspirational, iconic figure but she has ruined her legacy in a few short years. She has now trapped herself in this corrupt and cruel regime. If she wants to keep her farm she will have to stay loyal. Farms are taken away as easily as they are given. We cannot take her gold medals away from her — those were thoroughly deserved — but she has lost the special place millions of Zimbabweans had for her in their hearts.”