Chanting and beating on drums, dozens of Zimbabwean peasants descended on Kevin Conner's farm and matter-of-factly informed him they had come to take his land. "Whites stole the land from our forefathers a century ago," a group leader said as the squatters set up camp on Mr. Conner's corn fields, outside Zimbabwe's capital of Harare. "We want it back."
Similar scenes have played out on at least 600 of Zimbabwe's commercial farms in recent weeks, in every corner of the country. Some peasants have begun planting. Others simply sit on the seized land with axes and automatic rifles, chanting "war, war, war!''
Land reform has long been the most-emotional and racially divisive issue in Zimbabwe - as it is in every southern African country where colonial powers historically snatched the best farming ground. White minority rule is gone for good in this region. But in countries such as South Africa, Zambia, and Namibia, whites still own swaths of the most-fertile land. Post-independence governments have faced demands for land redistribution at every election. But generally, the region's new black rulers try to hear land claims - not expropriate white-owned farms.
Not so in Zimbabwe.
President Robert Mugabe's decreasing popularity has propelled him to take "drastic measures," says John Makumbe, a leading political analyst. The country's ruling party, the Zimbabwean African National Unity - Popular Front, has provided political, financial, and logistical backing for the recent land invasions. Independent newspapers are widely reporting that ZANU-PF has delivered the squatters to farms in party vehicles and supplied them with food and material to build makeshift camps.
Why? Black rural voters form the largest voting block and are traditionally the most-ardent supporters of the ruling party. As unprecedented opposition mounts ahead of general elections, the ZANU-PF is reviving the land issue.
"Mugabe has used the land issue at every election," says Mr. Makumbe. "He is desperate this time, because people blame him for the country's problems" - a foreign currency shortage, fuel crisis, runaway inflation, and the worst economic decline in decades.
Other analysts agree that the invasions have more to do with politics than a populist push. Party apparel adorns the camps, and at the Conner farm, peasants sing old liberation songs and chant, "Forward with Mugabe!"
"I was shaking," Conner says. "They told me I have to hand them half the land or they will destroy my crops.... I think this is all an attempt to intimidate white people."
Mugabe stunned foreign donors when he overruled his land minister and the police, advising peasants they should ignore court eviction orders and continue the illegal invasions. "We want the whites to learn that the land belongs to Zimbabweans," the president said.
Mugabe knows that kind of tough talk wins him rural support. But land experts warn that seizing land is no way to solve Zimbabwe's problems. Subdividing successful commercial farms into tiny subsistence plots will not only put thousands of black farm workers out of jobs, it could hinder the country's lucrative agriculture export industry and threaten its ability to feed itself.
Zimbabwe's bitter land dispute dates back to the last century, when Cecil Rhodes and his British settlers took what land they desired in the colony. Whites accounted for less than 5 percent of the population, but half the land was set aside for their use. The result was a guerrilla bush war that dragged on for almost two decades. Mugabe, an impassioned and articulate Marxist, finally led the country to independence in 1980.
War veterans waited anxiously for their hero to herald dramatic land reform, but today some 4,500 white commercial farmers own roughly 70 percent of Zimbabwe's most-fertile land.
Conner's father, Owen, bought 963 hectares in 1941 from a man who had been given the land by Rhodes himself. It took hard work to turn the property into one of the most-profitable farms in the country, but today the elder Conner concedes, "Yes, we are rich."
Down the highway from his green fields is a village where peasants struggle to grow enough food to eat. Among them is Benwewl Chiromo, a father of five who years ago left his family to become a liberation fighter. "The soil, land - that's what the war was all about," says Mr. Chiromo.
Today, 20 years after the war was won, he is still without land. Mugabe's government did buy millions of hectares on a "willing buyer, willing seller" basis. But a damning report obtained recently by independent opposition politician Margaret Dongo shows that out of 2,000 farms taken over by the government, 420 went to the black elite - ministers, judges, academics loyal to ZANU-PF.
Peasants who were resettled often did not succeed because the government failed to provide expertise and infrastructural support. The Commercial Farmers' Union claims that 2 million acres of that land is now lying fallow.
Still, Mugabe is trying to seize land by force. In 1998, the government unexpectedly told 841 white farmers that it would expropriate their property. International donors forced Mugabe to back down, but last month the president tried the tactic again. He campaigned for a new constitution that would have paved the way for his government to seize white land - without compensation.
Perhaps rural people had tired of the old promises. Mugabe suffered a humiliating defeat in the referendum, and a new opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, is now predicting it could win a majority in elections, which Mugabe hopes will be held in May. Mugabe is trying to pass a constitutional amendment through parliament that would legitimize the land grab.
"I don't think he can win the election this way," says Makumbe. Zimbabweans agree "there has to be a redistribution of the land. But the majority want it done in accordance with the law."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society