By MacDonald Dzirutwe
HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe's new agriculture minister on Wednesday ordered illegal occupiers of farms to vacate the land immediately, a move that could ultimately see some white farmers who say they were unfairly evicted return to farming.
Perrance Shiri, a military hardliner who was head of the air force before being picked for the critical land and agriculture ministry this month, called for "unquestionable sanity on the farms", the government-owned Herald newspaper reported.
Land is an emotive issue in the southern African nation after the violent invasion of white-owned farms in 2000 by supporters of former president Robert Mugabe, who defended the seizures as a necessary redress of colonial-era imbalances.
The seizures move sent the agricultural sector -- the mainstay of Zimbabwe's economy, once one of Africa's most promising -- into a tail-spin, triggering a broader slump that saw GDP almost halve between 2000 and 2008.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who replaced 93-year-old Mugabe as leader last month, has promised to stabilise the economy, including agriculture, and create jobs.
Reuters reported in September that Mnangagwa was plotting with the military, liberation war veterans and businessmen including current and former white farmers to take over from Mugabe, who resigned after a de facto military coup.
"All those who were illegally settled or who just settled themselves on resettlement land should vacate immediately," Shiri was quoted as saying on the Herald's website after meeting provincial ministers in Harare.
"Only those people with documentation of land occupancy and/or those who were allocated land legitimately should remain on the farms and concentrate on production unhindered."
The Herald is the government's main mouthpiece and reflects its thinking and intentions.
Peter Steyl, president of the mostly white Commercial Farmers Union told Reuters: "It's still early days, my attitude is to wait a bit more, but I am encouraged by the message from the government which means that there will be room for former (white) farmers to come back.
"The government has a lot of problems to sort out (and) we have to be a bit patient," he said.
A white farmer kicked off his property at gunpoint in June was told last week he could return within days, the first signs of the post-Mugabe government making good on promises to respect agricultural property rights.
White farmers have previously complained that politically connected people used state security agents to force them off their farms, sometimes even when they were in the middle of harvesting.
(Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by Ed Cropley and Catherine Evans)