In Harare it's economy, not race

African leaders meet Zimbabwe's president today, amid unrest on white- owned farms.

Three African presidents have pledged to help stop the escalating violence in Zimbabwe.

Leaders of South Africa, Mozambique, and Namibia plan to confront Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe at a meeting in Victoria Falls today. Their aim is to pressure Mr. Mugabe to stop his ruling party from supporting black squatters, who have invaded hundreds of white-owned farms.

For weeks now, chaos has reigned in rural Zimbabwe, where some 1,000 white-owned commercial farms are occupied by a mix of war veterans and young men paid by Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF Party.

Two white farmers and two opposition political-party activists have been murdered, and hundreds of farm workers have been beaten, threatened, and burned out of their homes since Mugabe publicly refused to obey two court orders commanding the police to evict the invaders and restore order.

To the region and the world, Mugabe's refusal to stop the crisis has been puzzling, because it has worsened the economic crisis (the country faces 70 percent inflation). But many here say it is a tactical move, a way of maintaining his power.

"It was not about land - it was about politics," says John Osborne, a white farmer badly beaten by squatters. "None of those vets was interested in land. The major pummeling we got was to get us to say we supported the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)."

With his popularity steadily declining and parliamentary elections set for May, Mugabe desperately needs an enemy to deflect attention from the country's economic troubles.

According to John Robertson, a Harare-based political analyst, "The methods the ruling party are using are ... intimidation tactics to say 'If anyone else wins the election, your lives will be a misery.' "

Mugabe has continued to threaten war if whites resist the land invasions. Tuesday, after what should have been a conciliatory meeting between himself, the Commercial Farmers Union, and the War Veterans Association, Mugabe said on state television: "Our present state of mind is that you [white farmers] are our enemies because you have behaved as enemies.

"The whites that we forgave and allowed to live with us on the understanding that we will get our land back are now refusing to cooperate," Mugabe said. "They are now working to topple the government, and this is what has infuriated the people."

But Zimbabweans, according to an extensive public-opinion survey - paid for by the South African Helen Suzman Foundation and conducted by Gallup early in February - say the crisis is politically-motivated.

The survey of 1,900 rural and urban adults found 68 percent had "not much, very little, or no confidence" that the government was telling them the truth, and 58 percent said there was a great deal of corruption in the government. Although Mugabe has campaigned exclusively on seizing white land, the survey surprisingly paints a picture of an electorate unmoved by racial blame.

Fully 80 percent thought it was not sensible to blame the country's problems on the white minority, and 74 percent put blame on the government for the fact that the land question remained unresolved.

DISSATISFACTION is most pronounced among the young and city dwellers, with the ruling party retaining slightly more support among women and its strongest support among those least educated. It also found that 65 percent say Mugabe should step down immediately.

"I have absolute confidence in the results of the survey. I don't think there is a single sitting ZANU-PF [parliamentarian] in towns who will survive [the election]," says Bill Johnson, the director of the Suzman Foundation.

One rising star for Zimbabweans is Morgan Tsvangirai: trade union leader, constitutional reformer, upstart politician, and Mugabe's chief nemesis.

A former head of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, Mr. Tsvangirai and his newly formed MDC political party, represent the first realistic challenge to Mugabe's 20 years of autocratic rule.

Two years ago, Tsvangirai led a series of successful nationwide strikes against higher taxes. Then he led a civil-society campaign to reform the Constitution. When Mugabe wrote his own constitution, enshrining his autocratic powers, and put it to the public in a February referendum, Tsvangirai led the campaign defeating the reforms.

In South Africa last week to garner regional support and raise funds for parliamentary elections expected late in May, Tsvangirai expressed supreme confidence in the election outcome and dismissed as "improbable" threats by war veterans to launch a civil war if the ZANU-PF party loses the election.

Despite the outcome of the parliamentary vote, Tsvangirai vows to challenge Mugabe aggressively. If the MDC wins a two-thirds majority, he promises to change the Constitution to end Mugabe's term as president two years early and force a quick election. "That's why it is very important to catalog all his violations of the rule of law," Tsvangirai says.

But Mugabe retains some crucial advantages. Out of 150 seats, he appoints 30 personally. That means he needs only 46 of the 120 elected seats to command a majority. As in past elections, Mugabe can dedicate huge amounts of state cash to campaigning and for gifts of free food and seed to woo rural voters.

However, the most important factor is fear. Violence played an important role in past elections.

Mugabe routinely refers to the prospect of war, and warns people he is prepared to return to the bush, a message powerfully reminding people of the mid-1980s when he sent troops in to slaughter thousands of minority Ndebele people in Matabeleland.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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