Zim Bob's Way

By June Thomas

(Aug. 21, 2001)

Dispossessed white Zimbabwean farmers chased from their land by "war veterans" this week declared farm seizures to be a form of "ethnic cleansing." In the last 16 months, militants have illegally occupied more than 1,700 white-owned farms, encouraged by government promises to expropriate more than 5,300 such farms and to redistribute the property to landless blacks. In the last two weeks, the rate of attacks has increased; as the Financial Times observed, "For its land-for-votes strategy to have any chance at the polls in March [when the presidential election is due to be held], the government must get settlers onto the land in their thousands over the next few weeks in time to plant crops for 2002." According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, Zimbabwe's agriculture minister said Sunday that a fast-track land reform program would be instituted within 12 days. When Zimbabwe's only independent daily paper, the Daily News, reported last week that police vehicles were used in farm lootings, four journalists from the paper were arrested and charged with "publishing subversive material." (As the British >Independent's Africa correspondent noted, in the 26 months it has been in business, the News has been sued for defamation, its printer has been bombed, and its vendors are constant targets of assault.)

Since whites own most of Zimbabwe's prime agricultural land and many of their crops have been either destroyed or neglected, a major food shortage is predicted for the coming year, as well as a severe economic downturn from a sharp decline in tobacco production. The annual inflation rate is currently 70%, with forecasters predicting that it could rise to 100% before the end of the year. Britain's Guardian reported that South Africa, Mozambique, and Botswana are bracing for an influx of refugees from Zimbabwe.

Several papers noted that Zimbabwe's black majority�not the white farmers�has borne the brunt of the government's repression: The Guardian said, "Last month alone, more black opponents of Mr Mugabe's rule were killed in politically motivated violence than white farmers since the land grab began early last year." An editorial in the Observer agreed: "The crisis is not a black and white issue. We play into Mugabe's hands if we focus only on the plight of white farmers � and not on the attacks on Zimbabwe's trade unionists, opposition politicians and the independent journalists beaten, harassed and arrested last week." Indeed, a Guardian op-ed penned by a white Zimbabwean expatriate said that "inherent racism still present among many white Zimbabweans" was a "crucial factor" fueling blacks' feelings of rage.

The consensus is that President Mugabe is desperate to manipulate next year's presidential election. The Observer said, "If Mr Mugabe has a strategy, it is to escalate the current crisis to create a pretext to cancel next March's presidential election." The Independent declared:

[Mugabe] is not a man driven by hatred for whites. Nor is he concerned about land inequity. After all, not only did he ask whites to remain in the country after independence, but until recently he has lived peacefully with them and even appointed some into his Cabinet. And, during the first 19 years of his reign, a long enough period to have dealt with the land problem legally and responsibly, he has not raised the issue. He is driven by a fear of multiparty democracy.

South Africa's Mail & Guardian urged Pretoria to take a leadership role in finding a solution to Zimbabwe's woes before outside investors decide that "property rights in Southern Africa, including South Africa, are not something in which any potential investor can have confidence." While finding it prudent to withhold drastic sanctions until the situation worsens, the paper recommended "freezing the foreign bank accounts and assets of Zimbabwean leaders and officials, curbing their right to travel, ostracising them diplomatically and considerably improving and deepening relations with the opposition to the Mugabe government." The Financial Times laid out the international community's dilemma: "It can help feed Zimbabwe, and cushion Mr Mugabe from the consequences of his misguided policies. Or it can watch the country go short of food, in the hope of precipitating change." The FT said that South Africa, Zimbabwe's biggest trading partner, "has considerable clout." It concluded, "A judicious economic squeeze by Pretoria and diplomatic pressure, coupled with sustained defiance by the opposition inside the country, is Zimbabwe's best hope." But South Africa's Sunday Times castigated Zimbabweans for a lack of political resolve:

Despite their outrage, Zimbabweans have remained a largely apathetic lot, evidently incapable of standing up to the president. Instead, they depend on the goodwill of the international community to free them from Mugabe's chains. � Until urban Zimbabweans lose their arrogant pride and do more than moan about misrule, their beloved country will continue to slide into chaos and tyranny.

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