The volatile fight for land and political power in Zimbabwe burst into violence this week. And that, say critics, is exactly what the ruling regime has hoped for.
The country's once-loved president, Robert Mugabe, faces overwhelming opposition ahead of upcoming elections, and many analysts believe his powerful political party is turning violent as it struggles to hang on for dear life.
"The violence is clearly facilitated and condoned by the state," fumes human rights lawyer Brian Kagoro. "The aim of all this is to ban mass action under the pretext of maintaining law and order."
Mr. Mugabe first sought to attract support from rural people - the country's largest voting bloc - by publicly backing the peasant invasions of some 900 white-owned farms over the last month.
But this week, government supporters attacked peaceful demonstrators, took one white farmer hostage, and brutally beat another, Ian Kay, with whips and bricks. On Tuesday, a policeman was shot dead as he tried to arrestMr. Kay's attackers. Yesterday, a pipe bomb was tossed into the workshop of a political-opposition worker.
Mr. Kagoro believes the thugs are tied to the ruling government, an allegation that has been backed by political analysts, independent newspapers, civil rights organizations, and even church leaders. Most say Mugabe is hoping to create such anarchy that he can justify declaring a state of emergency, and then cancel elections slated for May.
"These are effective tactics," says Kay, the farmer who was rushed to the hospital after dozens of squatters tied and whipped him Monday on his property outside Harare. South African newspapers carried gruesome pictures yesterday of his bloodied face.
"But I hope people don't back off," Kay told reporters this week. "Then we would be lost."
Zimbabwe's deepening political crisis has already raised fears in neighboring southern African countries that foreign investors will pull capital out of the region. South Africa is Zimbabwe's largest trading partner, so instability in one country immediately affects the other.
International condemnation is also mounting against Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since leading the country to independence 20 years ago.
"He is almost a caricature of all the things people think black African leaders do," South Africa's respected Archbishop Desmund Tutu lamented to reporters in Sweden this week. "He seems to be wanting to make a cartoon of himself."
Rarely diplomatic, Mugabe again lashed out at Britain this week at the first-ever summit between leaders of the European Union and Africa - a meeting intended to forge new partnerships between rich nations and the poorest countries on this continent. Mugabe was annoyed when Britain's Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, urged him to end land invasions and protect opposition protesters.
"Britain is trying to teach us how to run our country," Mugabe told reporters. "We are not a British colony anymore. Britain has no right to try to suggest to the rest of the world that we are a failure.''
Mr. Cook offered to fund a land reform program in Zimbabwe - "providing it assists in tackling the problem of rural poverty."
Some 4,500 white commercial farmers own more than 70 percent of the country's most fertile land, but Mugabe's repeated promises to correct the historical injustice have failed to produce solid reforms.
A draft constitution sought to allow government seizures of white land, but the president was defeated when the proposal was put to a referendum in February. Mugabe is proceeding with the controversial land grab anyway. A constitutional amendment that will give government the power to take white land without compensation went through its first reading in Parliament on Tuesday.
For farmers, the tension has become unbearable.
"We are apprehensive, concerned, fearful, wondering where the future is," says Steve Crawford, spokesman for the Commercial Farmers' Union. "And this is all happening at a time when farmers have to harvest the summer crops."
J.J.Hammond told South African media yesterday that 40 squatters have made him a hostage on his own farm. The invaders put him under "house arrest" for three days, and policemen have done nothing to end his confinement, despite a court order. At another farm, squatters told a white couple they had 10 minutes to get off their property. When the British Broadcasting Corporation arrived to film the forced eviction, journalists were confronted by 150 men with axes and clubs.
"The government is trying to intimidate people into submission and divide people along racial lines," says Nomore Sibanda of the new opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change.
But a recent opinion poll suggested the government's strategy will not work. Eighty percent of people said it was not sensible to blame the white minority for Zimbabwe's problems.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society