'Things are going the wrong way'

Having constantly dismissed comparisons with Zimbabwe, Namibia’s government last week lent credence to current perceptions when it announced plans to expropriate white-owned farms on the same day President Robert Mugabe’s propaganda chief arrived in the country.

Government ministers in Windhoek this week continued to insist that Prime Minister Theo-Ben Gurirab’s televised announcement of the intention to forcibly buy farms and the arrival of Zimbabwean Minister of State Information Jonathan Moyo were unconnected.

But farm owners, opposition parties and foreign diplomats have expressed concern that Namibia’s land reform process may resemble Zimbabwe’s. Moyo described his presence during the announcement as a “happy coincidence”.

Gurirab announced that the Namibian government plans to speed up the change of land ownership by expropriating farms, partly because the state’s buying of land for resettlement was moving too slowly.

Gurirab also pointed to the maltreatment of farm labourers as a motivation for the government to take white farms.

The government has said it needs at least nine million hectares for 240 000 people who have applied for resettlement. This represents more than 10% of Namibia’s total land mass.

Namibia’s land ownership remains skewed in the favour of whites, who make up less than 10% of the population. Official figures indicate that more than 80% of the country’s arable land (about 30-million hectares) remains in the hands of white farmers.

But while all appear to accept the need for change, the chaotic land grabbing in Zimbabwe has put people on edge, largely because of President Sam Nujoma’s closeness to Mugabe.

The minister’s announcement was followed by the publication in the ruling party’s self-titled mouthpiece, Swapo, of the names of the first eight farms targeted for expropriation. The listed farms’ owners have all had clashes with their workers, have evicted those too old to continue working or have taken the government to court over land rights.

The list, although so far unconfirmed by the government, has sent shock waves through the white farming community.

Foreign diplomats have privately said they are worried about the motives behind the expropriation. Opposition parties have described the expropriation announcement as a political ploy aimed at boosting votes for Swapo in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections.

“It seems as though the names, as listed and published in the mouthpiece of the governing party, do not reflect the criteria as internationally perceived and [could be] interpreted as a retaliatory measure,” said Jan de Wet, president of the Namibia Agricultural Union.

Panicked white farm owners this week hastily formed the Farmers’ Support Initiative to collect funds for future court battles and to launch a publicity campaign.

“We saw that things are going the wrong way,” said the initiative’s founder, Sigi Eimbeck. “The individual farmer is in a very vulnerable position. That [the government is identifying] farms on the grounds of labour relations is bothering us. There is no other reason than blatant racism and political opportunism,” said Eimbeck.

Eimbeck said while the government maintains that Namibia will not adopt the Zimbabwean approach to land reform, “time and again we are reminded [by politicians and Swapo-affiliated unions] that it could go the Zimbabwean route, that the people are tired” of the way farm owners treat their workers.

Namibian Lands Minister Hifikepunye Pohamba this week said he “cannot comment on what happened in another country. I don’t know what’s happening in Zimbabwe.”

The Namibia Farmworkers’ Union, a Swapo-affiliate, which has threatened since last year to occupy farms where clashes have occurred between their members and the owners, has complained that the government had failed to allocate land to farm workers.

On Wednesday Pohamba said more than 240 000 people had applied for resettlement and that the farm labourers in question may have been among the applicants.

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