Mugabe plays on land issue to boost support

White-owned farms are again under siege in Zimbabwe, but while critics deride Robert Mugabe’s land-reform programme as shambolic and economically fatal, it could yet help him cling to power.

President Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF concedes he fell short of securing a sixth term in the March 29 polls and is playing on the emotive issues of land and race to try to discredit rival Morgan Tsvangirai ahead of a possible run-off.

In comments picked up by state media on Monday, Mugabe himself fanned the flames by urging Zimbabweans to jealously guard the land for which thousands of freedom fighters died during the liberation war in the 1970s.

“Today, we cannot afford to retreat in the battle for land,” said Mugabe, who badly needs to mobilise voters in his rural heartlands if he is to beat Tsvangirai in any second-round vote.

“Land must remain in our hands. The land is ours, it must not be allowed to slip back into the hands of whites,” Mugabe was quoted as saying by the government mouthpiece Herald.

The Commercial Farmers’ Union, which mainly represents the few remaining whites farming in Zimbabwe, described the situation on Monday as volatile and said Mugabe supporters had moved on to at least 15 white-owned properties.

“The police have intervened twice in [southern] Masvingo, but they can’t do much about it since it’s state-sponsored and orchestrated from the highest office of the land,” union president Trevor Gifford said.

“People are being paid to basically carry out the wishes of the highest office. This is purely racial.”

The farm invasions serve as a reminder of the violence that followed Mugabe’s last electoral reverse, when he lost a referendum on presidential powers in 2000.

About 4 000 farms were occupied after he was defeated in a constitutional referendum aimed at broadening his powers and facilitating land seizures.

Gifford warned similar sentiments were on the boil again and urged the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to intervene.

“It’s another apartheid.
It’s going to get out of hand if SADC does not have a grip on it,” he said.

Imbalances

A Zanu-PF spokesperson claimed on the weekend that Tsvangirai and his opposition movement were determined to reverse the land reforms and were already bringing back white farmers.

“Their intention is to destabilise the country into chaos over the land issue,” said Patrick Chinamasa. “Their policy is clear and that is to reverse the land reforms.”

Mugabe launched the reforms nine years ago, ostensibly as an attempt to redress the imbalances of Britain’s colonial rule when about 4 500 white farmers owned 70% of the most fertile land.

After he lost the 2000 referendum, the organised process of land redistribution soon gave way to spontaneous invasions by war veterans and ruling party militants. Several people, including farmers, were killed.

Critics say the land reforms are largely responsible for Zimbabwe’s meltdown from regional breadbasket to a country with six-digit inflation and 80% unemployment.

Agricultural production is estimated to have decreased by more than 50% between 2000 and 2007 and Zimbabwe is now forced to import its own staple crop maize from neighbouring countries.

Mugabe has been unapologetic about the expropriations, saying criticism was inspired by Western anger that the rulers of the former British colony had “dared to take our destiny into our own hands”.

Britain was obliged to honour a clause in the 1979 Lancaster House agreement in which it had pledged to buy out the properties of white farmers unwilling to remain through funds given to the Zimbabwean government.

Harare for years accused London of reneging on its promises and when the Labour Party came to power in 1997, it said it did not accept Britain was any longer responsible for meeting the costs of land purchase in Zimbabwe.

The Zimbabwean government says it has resettled 200 000 new farmers and fewer than 400 white farmers are still believed to be operating in the country.—AFP

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