HARARE, ZIMBABWE — ZIMBABWE announced a radical National Land Policy earlier this year that would force the resettlement of half of the country's white-owned farmland by the year 2000. Political pressure has mounted on Zimbabwe's government over the slow pace of land reform. When Zimbabwe was a British colony, 5,000 white farmers owned the best half of the land, while 800,000 peasant families crowded into the remainder.
But the government appears to be rethinking its resettlement plan after a loud outcry from the country's powerful commercial farmers, who employ a quarter of the labor force and who produce 40 percent of foreign-exchange earnings.
Publicly, President Robert Mugabe says there is no going back. ``It makes nonsense of our liberation struggle that the majority of our peasant farmers have remained outcasts of our land tenure system,'' he told a recent rally.
Last month, at the Commercial Farmers' Union (CFU) annual congress, outgoing President John Brown said the effect of the government's new land policy would be to frighten away foreign investors at a time when Zimbabwe desperately wants them. But in a closed-door meeting, Agriculture Minister Witess Mangwende exhorted the white farmers to ``please take heart and get on with the business of farming. There is no intention whatsoever to grab anyone's land.''
Many analysts also say that the ruling party is backing down on the controversial question of whether or not to introduce a one-party state. Foreign Minister Nathan Shamuyarira said that the party still hoped to achieve the goal through ``intensive political mobilization and organization,'' rather than ``cohesion or legislation.'' In his opening speech at last month's Central Committee meeting, Mr. Mugabe conceded that ``some'' members of his inner circle are uncomfortable with the one-party state idea. In August, the Financial Gazette reported that 22 of 26 Politburo members had voted against the idea.
Technocrats in the Cabinet argued that introducing a one-party state when the trend worldwide is in the opposite direction will severely blemish the country.
The land issue was reopened at the 10th anniversary of independence this April, when the compromise, British-brokered independence constitution expired. In that agreement, Zimbabwean nationalist leaders reluctantly agreed that no white-owned land would be expropriated. The government has only been able to buy 10 million acres of land: 8.5 million acres for the resettlement of 51,000 families, and the rest for state farms. Improved agricultural extension, marketing, and credit facilities have boosted the productivity of farmers in the formerly blacks-only communal areas. But 1 in 12 Zimbabweans remains a squatter.
According to its disputed plan, the government aims to purchase another 15 million acres of commercial farmland for the resettlement of 110,000 families. That would leave 15 million acres for commercial farmers, or about 37 percent of what they owned at independence. Commercial farmers contend that resettled areas will lose productivity. Experience thus far is that while resettled farmers tend to do better than their peasant counterparts, production is lower than commercial farmers' yields.
White farmers also protested the methods the government would use to acquire farmland. Price controls would be put on land that would considerably reduce its market value. Each farmer would be limited to one farm only (except in exceptional circumstances). And farmers would not have to be compensated for land in scarce foreign currency (which would allow them to leave the country).
The plan prohibits absentee landlords and says that land will only be sold to foreigners if they possess technology or skills that are not locally available.
Following the response of the white farmers, all parties have gone back to the drawing board. With mounting unemployment and sluggish economic growth over the last few years, the government does not want to ``kill the goose that lays the golden eggs,'' as a government official says.
A CFU report, prepared in conjunction with the National Farmers Association of Zimbabwe (peasant farmers), and Zimbabwe National Farmers Union (small-scale farmers), endorsed the principle of land being purchased on a willing buyer/willing seller basis. It suggested that Zimbabwe emulate resettlement plans in Malaysia, where peasant farmers borrow money on favorable terms to purchase their own land.
``It is more important in the year 2000 to say we have done resettlement properly, without lowering anyone's standard of living, than to say we have achieved this or that target,'' a senior CFU official contends.