Surfeit of ideas, but still no land reform in Zimbabwe

On Nov. 6, a farmers' union challenged President Mugabe's land-seizure policies in the Supreme Court.

Everyone in Zimbabwe favors some type of land reform.

In the former British colony, white farmers still till an estimated 70 percent of the country's best land.

But the way President Robert Mugabe is pursuing land reform now is by unleashing thousands of people - not all of them landless or peasants - to invade white-owned farms that may or may not be among the 2,295 officially listed for government acquisition.

On Monday, Nov. 6, Zimbabwe's Supreme Court began hearing an appeal by the 4,500-member Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) challenging the constitutionality of Mr. Mugabe's decision to seize their land without compensation. International donors who support land reform are unlikely to release an estimated $22 million in funds if the court rules against Mugabe. But the president has vowed that his land-takeover plans "will never be stopped by anyone or any court" because it is meant to correct imbalances created by colonial rule. Mugabe's party has called for the dismissal of Chief Justice Anthony Gubbay, who is hearing the CFU case, because of his belief that property rights enshrined in the Constitution are sacrosanct.

Zimbabwe's president says it is up to Britain, the former colonial power, to pay white farmers compensation. Mugabe says he is compelled to right a historic wrong.

After all, whites - beginning with buccaneering mining magnate Cecil Rhodes in the 1880s - used trickery, arms, and racist legislation to gain control over the most fertile, well-watered acreage. Most black peasants remain in colonial-era "communal areas" where fragile soils have been degraded through overgrazing and overcropping. Meanwhile, the black population has grown from about 5 million in 1970 to 12 million today.

"We need land reform, yes," says Nomore Sibanda, spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which won almost half the seats in June parliamentary elections. "But we don't need it the way Mugabe is doing it."

There seems to be little "program" to Mugabe's land reform. Other than parliamentary notices naming farms destined for takeover, the only relevant document in limited circulation is a 10-page draft titled "Accelerated Land Reform and Resettlement Implementation Plan - 'Fast Track.' " It is very short on detail.

"On the ground, I haven't seen any evidence of an actual plan," says Godfrey Magaramomba, director of a farmworkers' rights organization, the Farm Community Trust. Says Mr. Sibanda: "I've only seen the notices in the government gazette of farms designated for takeover. There's no other program." Even donors asked to pay for land reform find little documentation detailing the program.

A UN team of experts sent to Zimbabwe earlier this fall reports that the government is unable to manage a '"fast track" program of resettling 30,000 families on less than 2.5 million acres this year.

"There is no paperwork," says one incredulous white farmer who had been forced off his land at machete-point.

The government is not even making any pretense of organizing the resettlement program. Ignatius Chombo, chairman of Mugabe's land-resettlement committee, says invaders should just divvy up white farms for themselves because the government lacks the surveyors to do the job.

"The need for land reform can never be overstated," says Mr. Magaramomba. "But it is not about taking land only. It's about providing land, plus credit and training, and creating markets for produce so that people can use the land to its full advantage." He says the Mugabe government is not providing invaders with seeds, fertilizer, tools, credit, or even access to water. So, Magaramomba says, Mugabe's approach "is just going to extend the boundaries" of the environmentally degraded, impoverished communal areas.

The risks inherent in Mugabe's land program are well illustrated in the Chiredzi River region of south-east Zimbabwe. Water in this arid zone is monopolized by multinational sugar-cane companies still untouched by the land invasions. Outside overcrowded communal areas, whites operating game ranches own hundreds of thousands of acres, and their land has been invaded. The new arrivals have tilled the virgin soil, but nothing has been planted despite the onset of rain.

"Our only problem is here we have no food, no vegetables, no water," says Kokerai Tinago whose family has marked out a plot for itself on the Buffalo Range game ranch, purchased in the 1950s by a white family named Style. Mr. Tinago says he had nothing against the Styles: "It's just that the government has given us permission to come here. Anyone would take the opportunity."

Tinago says organizers of the ranch invasion assured him the government would give him farming supplies, "but the government has difficulties. Tractors will come in the future" to help crop the new fields. Meanwhile, invaders make money chopping and selling the ranch's mopane trees as firewood.

Another Chiredzi land invader named Andrew says life was hard on his new plot because he had no water, no seed, and nowhere to buy food. He asked landowner Rob Style to give him a job. "We're not at war with with you, Mr. Style," he says. "I voted MDC. Nothing has been working here in Zimbabwe since 1980" when Mugabe became president.

Mugabe's unstructured land reform has unleashed turmoil in the form of political violence, business failures, currency devaluation, and inflation and unemployment topping 50 percent. The current havoc may mean this agriculturally self-sufficient country will not be able to feed itself next year: farm invaders are stopping commercial farmers from planting crops.

Victor da Silva Angelo, head of the United Nations Development Program's mission in Zimbabwe, says that Mugabe's government will listen to reason if money sweetens the argument. The current state of anarchy on farms "can be brought under control very quickly if resources are made available as well as the technical manpower." In general, international donors are far from agreeing to ante up any money for the current program "but some are readier than others to come forward," says Mr. Angelo. "We need money to leverage the dialogue."

But Mugabe doesn't yet sound like he's willing to negotiate. He says his critics are just mouthpieces for the white community. "Without land, we have no power," he said last week when the MDC launched impeachment proceedings against him.

"That is why there has been so much outcry over the land reform program. We say no to this domination" by whites.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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