Zimbabwe land grab rattles region

President Mugabe seizes 841 farms, but some say Africa's unruly rulers are on shaky ground.

Zimbabwe, the second most-powerful country in southern Africa, may be threatening regional stability through an intensifying series of political and economic crises - the latest being President Robert Mugabe's expropriation of 841 mostly white-owned farms last week.

But among Zimbabwe's civic reformers - and next door in South Africa, the region's most powerful country - some view it all with a certain optimism.

"In a strange way, it's the birth pangs of the African renaissance," says Jackie Cilliers, director of the South African Institute for Security Studies based in Johannesburg. As espoused by South Africa's deputy president, Thabo Mbeki, that renaissance began at the start of the decade with the end of the cold war, apartheid, and their related regional wars - and will be marked by the emergence of responsible, democratic government throughout the continent.

Zimbabwean President Mugabe and Namibian President Sam Nujoma "are the last two political dinosaurs holding out in the region," says Mr. Cilliers.

Each was his country's first post-liberation president. Both have rigged the electoral process to maintain power.

Most recently, both lapsed Marxists are actively backing President Laurent Kabila in his war with rebels in Congo - apparently in the hope of gaining Congolese mining concessions for themselves. Their Congo intervention is in opposition to "renaissance" leaders Mr. Mbeki and President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, whose democratic tendencies seem to infuriate both Mugabe and Mr. Nujoma, would-be presidents for life.

"What's happening with Mugabe could have a ... [domino] effect in Namibia," says Cilliers. "One wonders whether this current crisis is not part of the inevitable end of the two leaders, that it's the last bit of cold-war scaffolding being removed, and that it will restore some sort of appropriate political leadership in the region."

Mugabe is daily compounding his country's problems as he tries to counter increasing opposition, particularly as his fractious party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), heads into its annual congress in December.

The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) has emerged as the only real opposition to the government. It staged two successful strikes this month and is calling for the 2002 presidential elections to be held earlier. The ZCTU wants Zimbabwe out of Congo, as the cost of that involvement is estimated at US$1 million daily when the money could be used to reduce inflation and unemployment, which both top 30 percent.

Mugabe's erstwhile allies, the veterans of the liberation war, are also flexing their muscles. Over the years Mugabe has made several empty promises that Zimbabwe's good farmland, now concentrated in white hands, would be turned over to blacks. Despite attempts to appease vets with US$90 million in cash payouts and pensions last year, for several months vet leaders have mounted peasant invasions of white-owned farms.

In September, Mugabe and his Cabinet promised to develop a cohesive farm resettlement policy, and foreign donors said they would fund it if it were sustainable. But, with the imminent party congress on his mind, Mugabe last week unilaterally expropriated the 841 farms.

Financial markets were thrown into deep turmoil. The country's fragile banking sector is reeling as many white farmers threaten to quit paying debts on properties no longer their own. Land invasions intensified last week, and two white farmers were murdered.

Despite the tendency for chaos to cross borders, Cilliers's colleague Mark Malan doubts Mugabe's "land grab" will be imitated in neighboring South Africa.

Mr. Malan says there is not the same political pressure within the governing African National Congress to do anything as drastic as Mugabe has done. Unlike Zimbabwean vets, Malan says, the South Africans are not generally looking for land as their postwar payout:

"The Zimbabwean war was a classic peasant war, a land hunger conflict, and the veterans still reflect that, while all the South African cadres [guerrillas] were from urban areas, and they've accepted pensions and cash payouts as their due."

SAYS Cilliers, "We may see a palace coup, it may be bloodless, but it seems there will be some kind of unconstitutional intervention by elements in the military." There are reports of mutiny among the estimated 6,000 Zimbabwean soldiers in Congo, necessitating the expedition of 1,500 military police to the war zones, according to the Johannesburg institute of security studies.

While a coup is a definite possibility, many Zimbabweans still hope for a civil solution more in tune with an African renaissance.

Says Mike Auret of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe: "Those of us in civil society, the nongovernmental actors, hope that the national constitutional assembly, which is working with moderates in ZANU-PF, will come up with a viable and acceptable new constitution by the year 2000. Then we'll take it to a referendum, then we'll have a stable political situation" - with no job for Mugabe.

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