In a classic case of greed and lack of foresight, a once thriving winery just outside the Midlands city of Gweru now hosts a derelict 5 000-seater conference centre no one wants to use and the nearly 4 000 cases of export quality wine that the farm used to produce are now just part of the untold story of the sad effects of the land-grab that characterised Zimbabwe’s gruesome turn into the new millennium.
The Bertram Estate, one of the three wine estates (Worringham Vineyard, Green Valley Vineyards and Bertrams Vineyards) once owned by African Distillers was invaded by ruling Zanu PF party apparatchiks in 2009 to build a conference centre that would be host the 2013 Zanu PF annual people’s conference.
Just outside Gweru, the 40 ha estate used to grow vines on deep red loam soil and produced top-of-the-range wines that included sauvignon, colombard, chenin blanc, pinotage, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, crouchen and muscat d’alexandrie.
A vineyard area of 50 ha produces on average about 4 000 cases of wine a year.
But now the US$6,5 million Zanu PF Gweru Conference Centre built on the estate is in a state of decay with the government reportedly rushing in to save the auditorium which has turned into a white elephant since its construction in 2012.
The auditorium, which is lying idle, has held, spasmodically, church services and musical shows, according to sources.
The sources said while the centre was earmarked to host weddings, many felt it was too big and unattractive since it has become derelict.
“Besides the irregular musical shows and church services, the hall is usually unoccupied and some of the structures are now dilapidated,” the sources told the Independent during a recent visit.
During recent investigations by the Zimbabwe Independence, workers from the Public Works Department were assessing the damage.
Workers at the conference centre – guarded by armed police round the clock – refused to comment, referring questions to Zanu PF administrative secretary Passmore Washaya who laughed off assertions that the centre was a white elephant.
He referred inquiries to Minister of State for Provincial Affairs and Devolution Larry Mavima who acknowledged the challenges encountered in maintaining the centre.
Mavima dismissed assertions that the conference centre belonged to the ruling party.
He said the Midlands Development Association, which he chairs, in fact owned the complex and would be expanding it to include other facilities and accommodation.
He said the refurbishment project, which is expected to start in the first quarter of 2022, would gobble between US$25m and US$30m, when complete.
However, sources at Greenvale Farm, where Bertram Winery was overrun for the conference centre, said the place was destroyed when Zanu PF cadres took over.
“The winery used to produce the famous Green Valley red wine. Some wines were exported but people have failed even to produce maize on the 40-ha that used to be the vineyard,” sources said.
An indigenous farmer reportedly bought Bertram Winery from the former white commercial farmer during the land reform programme.
The former white owner reportedly fled to South Africa in 2000, while the indigenous farmers, who reportedly invested US$50 000 with partners to refurbish the property and acquire farming implements, lost it to Zanu PF in 2009.
About 32 permanent workers including hundreds seasonal workers lost their livelihoods when the winery was overrun by the ruling party members.
“All the equipment was removed in 2009; they took tractors, trailers and all the wine making machinery,” sources said.
“There were also 59 tanks that were stolen,” the sources said.
The conference hall was also at the centre of controversy within Zanu PF with politburo hardliners opposing the then Defence minister and now head of state President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s role in the project accusing him of harbouring presidential ambitions.
Mavima said, “Firstly, I want to make it clear that the conference centre is not a Zanu PF project, it actually belongs to the Midlands Development Association although the majority of members belong to the ruling party.
“It was a historic project where we completed the conference centre within three to four month but the economic situation did not allow us to complete it.”
He said the association was revisiting the project and finalising new designs “after securing enough funding”.
Mavima said the plans were part of the association’s contribution to the government’s National Development Strategy 1 (NDS1).
“This is also part of devolution strategies where we are trying to decongest Harare and Bulawayo. We are looking at providing accommodation and conference facilities by the end of 2023,” he said.
He said the economic and investment climate was not conducive for such a project but it takes time to complete a project of such a magnitude.