Zimbabwe refugee crisis looms

Next month, leaders from six Southern African nations will meet to discuss Zimbabwe's land crisis.

Southern African nations are finding that political turmoil, like rain and air, is not bound by the borders on a map.

As Zimbabwe's land crisis jeopardizes food supplies and economic stability, its southern neighbors are beginning to feel the effects. A growing number of Zimbabweans are illegally entering South Africa, Botswana, and Mozambique, fleeing high inflation, food shortages, and growing political violence. The three neighboring countries are now bracing for the possibility that tens of thousands of refugees may flood their borders in the runup to Zimbabwe's elections early next year.

The downward spiral of Zimbabwe's economy is also affecting the economies of neighboring countries, and is focusing greater international attention on their domestic issues.

African leaders, who have been loath to speak out against the situation there, are hardening their political positions toward Zimbabwe. Next month, leaders from South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi, Botswana, Namibia, and Angola, will meet to discuss the land crisis in Zimbabwe.

"The idea that we could isolate ourselves from the effects of their economic collapse is something of the past," says Richard Cornwell, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, a South African think tank that works on regional security issues.

Since the beginning of the year, the once-prosperous and peaceful Zimbabwe has been torn apart by political violence. More than 20 years after independence from Britain, about 70 percent of premium agricultural land is still owned by white farmers, who make up 0.06 percent of Zimbabwe's 12.5 million citizens. President Mugabe, who has lead the country since 1980 and is currently facing the first major challenge to his power, has used the land issue to rally support in preparation for the presidential elections next year.

Mugabe has targeted almost all of the country's 4,500 white-owned farms for redistribution to landless blacks. He has given his blessing to armies of self-styled war veterans, composed primarily of poor, black men, too young to have participated in the country's war of independence. Since April, more than 1,000 farms have been attacked and nearly 500 remain illegally occupied. In recent weeks, the looting of farms has increased as well.

Agriculture is one of Zimbabwe's top foreign exchange earners and its largest source of employment. The recent disruptions in production have led to severe food and gasoline shortages and skyrocketing inflation.

In response to the worsening situation there, South Africa, Botswana, and Mozambique have held discussions with United Nations officials about plans to build refugee camps near their respective borders with Zimbabwe.

While the South African government insists that a refugee crisis remains a remote possibility, they don't want to be caught unprepared, should thousands of displaced Zimbabweans arrive at the border empty-handed. "The situation hasn't yet gotten out of hand. There are no panic buttons yet," says Leslie Mashokwe, a spokesman for the Department of Home Affairs. "But we are making plans, should there be a need for us to step-up."

Mr. Cornwell predicts refugee inflow will grow as Christmas nears. "The wheat shortage is starting to hit now. That affects the people in the towns. In the countryside, it's maize. Once that is seen to be in severe shortage, people may decide to vote with their feet."

In recent weeks, the Mugabe government has intensified the pressure on whites and political opponents. Twenty-one white Zimbabwean farmers, from the area near the northern city of Chinhoyi, were arrested by Zimbabwean police, along with a number of local reporters who had implicated police in farm invasions and looting in the area.

Those who succeed in passing through the porous border fence into South Africa, join an estimated 4 million illegal immigrants already living here. Illegals are blamed by many South Africans for stealing jobs and contributing to the high unemployment rate.

The troubles in Zimbabwe have also been blamed for South Africa's recent currency troubles. Over the past week, the rand fell to its all-time low against both the dollar and the pound and many believe that investor fears about the situation in Zimbabwe has contributed substantially to this decline.

Nico Czypionka, chief economist of SG Securities, says the currency devaluation is largely about perception and the fear that the situation in Zimbabwe is merely a precursor to unrest elsewhere in the region.

Conscious of this perception, Southern African leaders have hardened their stances toward Zimbabwe. Last week, South African Reserve Bank Governor Tito Mboweni became the first high-ranking South African official to criticize Zimbabwe when he publicly blamed instability there for the current slide in the value of the rand.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has faced heavy criticism for his "quiet diplomacy," recently told the BBC that serious steps must be taken to avoid an economic meltdown in Zimbabwe. And when South Africa faced its own land crises in early July of this year, the government moved swiftly to evict land invaders, promising that no Zimbabwe-style land situation would develop in South Africa.

But Mr. Czypionka says that in order to restore investor confidence, more must be done to distance the two countries. "South Africa could turn the light switch off in Zimbabwe. And I think it should. It should give Zimbabwe an ultimatum."

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