WESTERN diplomats and foreign aid donors have all but abandoned hope that Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe will modify a controversial bill that empowers his government to nationalize nearly half of white-owned farmland without owners having recourse to the courts on compensation.
"He's on the ledge and he's going to jump," says a Western diplomat close to behind-the-scenes efforts to persuade Mr. Mugabe to soften the measure.
The bill has drawn widespread protest from Western governments, foreign donors, farming bodies, and the Law Society of Zimbabwe.
But Mugabe appears to have solid support within the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. When the bill was introduced Feb. 27, party backbenchers applauded loudly.
Despite increasing criticism from academics and businessmen over the autocratic methods of the ruling party, Mugabe still has a tight grip on power.
Tension surrounding the measure has been heightened by a severe drought that is threatening to exhaust foreign aid earmarked for economic reform.
Since the bill was introduced in Parliament two weeks ago, there has been speculation that it could be withdrawn or substantially modified to allow a role for the courts in determining fair compensation for seized land.
But Mugabe put an end to the speculation last week.
"No one in my government is developing cold feet on land reform," he told reporters. "If I see anyone with cold feet I'll put hot irons under them."
Publicity surrounding the bill has had the effect of rendering agricultural land virtually worthless. There are no buyers for farms and farmers have stopped making improvements on land they could ultimately lose.
Mugabe brushed aside an intervention by British High Commissioner Kieran Prendergast, who had warned earlier that if the bill became law it could jeopardize Britain's $12 million economic reform program.
The president said last week that he did not believe Britain would dare take the issue to the International Court of Justice at The Hague, Netherlands, to argue that British citizens living in Zimbabwe had been unfairly treated. Mugabe added that he had no indication that Western countries would cut aid if he went ahead with implementing the bill. A break with the past
The Zimbabwean Parliament is preparing for the second debate on the Land Acquisition Bill within the next two weeks.
It will then be scrutinized by a legal and parliamentary committee to ensure that it does not infringe upon the Constitution, which was modified two years ago to remove a 10-year guarantee ensuring a "willing-buyer, willing-seller" basis for land acquisition.
The bill would give the government power to buy roughly 12.4 million of the 28.5 million acres of land owned by the 4,500 licensed white commercial farmers.
Under the terms of the bill the farmers would be paid in local currency at a price determined by the authorities. The government would have the option of buying out the farmers with government bonds probably at a price well-below current market values.
Mugabe, who has in the past balked at carrying out threats to establish a formal one-party state, made clear in a speech last week that he regarded land nationalization as a "do-or-die" issue.
"We cannot run a society of haves and have-nots and hope that the people will continue to accept the situation," he said.
Mick Taggart of the national association representing the affluent tobacco farmers said that the legislation smacked of "confiscation" and could destroy the base of the country's economy and undermine its credibility abroad.
Agriculture provides most of Zimbabwe's foreign exchange earnings, which are already in short supply.
In a full-page advertisement in a Zimbabwean newspaper, Mr. Taggart said he doubted the bill was constitutional in its present form and he urged farmers to fight the measure.
In the two-year run-up to the bill, white farmers have kept a low profile in the hope that Mugabe could be persuaded not to push ahead with the measure. Whites who speak out openly against the government fear victimization by the powerful Central Intelligence Organization - the main security instrument of ZANU-PF. Drought and reform
Mugabe has displayed little sympathy for the argument that land reforms should be delayed until drought dangers in southern Africa have passed.
It is estimated that Zimbabwe will need to import 2 million tons of food this year. Almost 2 million rural Zimbabweans face starvation without official and donor relief schemes.
At a meeting in Paris last month, Zimbabwe put forward an economic reform plan that was well received by Western donors.
Donors committed $400 million to the plan - coincidently the amount Western officials estimate it will cost to import food for drought relief.
"All the money we were going to send to try to keep the economy going is now going to be used on food alone," says Scott Spangler, assistant administrator for Africa of the United States Agency for International Development.
"It's terrible," he says, noting that the land-reform issue could complicate matters.
African National Congress President Nelson Mandela has assured whites in South Africa that an ANC government would not follow Zimbabwe's example.
"We will be influenced by our own conditions - not those of Zimbabwe," he said in an interview with the financial daily, Business Day.
"Zimbabwe believes in a one-party state, but we believe in a multiparty state," said Mr. Mandela.
Mugabe has in the past expressed a preference for a one-party system although he was not supported by other ZANU-PF officials. Zimbabwe has a nominal multiparty system, but weak democratic structures make it closer to a one-party system in practice.