Land reform: an African issue

The winner of Zimbabwe's presidential vote, being tallied now, will immediately face land-return issues.

As the polls closed at the Hatfield Primary School here, Nason Mamuse helped an exhausted Beverly Chakundunga out of her chair. The two had served side by side as elections agents for three long days - one representing the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC); the other, the government ZANU-PF party.

Now they were both headed back home to rented shacks where there will be no food on the table.

"We all want some land to call home," says Mamuse, a gardener who earns the minimum wage of 1,800 Zimbabwe dollars (about $6) a month. "We both deserve some land," adds Chakundunga, who supports three unemployed brothers on her almost-equally meager salary as a post office clerk. "The only thing is how to get that land."

As the world awaits the results of the election, no matter who wins - incumbent President Robert Mugabe or opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai - one thing is clear: Land reform will be at the top of his agenda.

Whites here make up 5 percent of the population and own some 70 percent of the best land. Expectations are high on the part of the increasingly poorer, black population that this historical injustice will be redressed as soon as possible.

It's a phenomenon faced by many African nations, like South Africa, right next door. European colonial powers may have left Africa years ago, but their colonial legacies of whites controlling the best land remains.

Lured by Cecil Rhodes's promises of wealth, white settlers came to Zimbabwe - then called Rhodesia - in the late 19th century. They seized huge tracts of land, built tobacco and livestock farms, and relegated the majority black population to marginal communal areas. Today, a third generation of white Zimbabweans live and work on these farms, forming the backbone of the economy.

In 1980, when Zimbabwe won its independence, Britain set up a £55 million ($77 million) fund to assist the new government in buying land from the whites. Some 60,000 black peasants were settled, but the program was halted in 1988 when Britain and other donors accused Zimbabwe of handing most of the lands over to cabinet ministers and generals instead of the needy.

"This was a turning point," says Sam Moyo, director of the Southern African Regional Institute for Policy Studies. "The government of Zimbabwe just turned around and said: 'Fine. We will do it our way.' "

In the early 1990s, the Zimbabwe Constitution was changed to allow for compulsory acquisition of land at government set prices, though more recently, Mugabe adopted an even more extreme tact.

Faced with angry and landless liberation-war veterans who had discovered their compensation funds plundered by high-ranking government officials, Mugabe began to encourage land seizures without compensation. Zimbabwe's courts have ruled the seizures illegal, and the international community has voiced outrage. But Mugabe and the veterans have pressed ahead.

According to a report by Human Rights Watch, many of the settlers had neither agricultural training nor money to buy seeds or fertilizers and have since abandoned their plots. A drought has compounded the crisis, and the economy here is in a steady decline, with inflation soaring and half a million people on the verge of starvation.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, whose economy has already been hurt by the events in Zimbabwe, is none to keen to see it collapse further and is sure to be watching how Zimbabwe proceeds with the land-reform issue.

Two-thirds of the land in South Africa is held by 60,000 whites, while 14 million subsistence farmers scratch out a living on tiny apartheid-era plots. In 1994, the post-apartheid government passed a land restitution act and set a goal to redistribute 30 percent of the country's farmland. But bureaucracy and confusion bogged down the plan, and today less than 1 percent of the land has been reallocated.

Mr. Mbeki has been muted in his criticism of Mugabe, who is an old friend and was an outspoken critic of apartheid But he has pledged to speed up land reform in South Africa and to avoid following Zimbabwe's lead.

In Namibia, meanwhile, only 35,000 people have been resettled since independence in 1990, and some 243,000 Namibian peasants are waiting for land. The 4,000 mainly white commercial farmers have been warned to speed up the land-reform process, or face Zimbabwe-style invasions. Namibian President Sam Nujomo, who has been a staunch supporter of Mugabe, has, like Mbeki, opposed land seizures in his own country so far.

In Kenya, the problem is less extreme as the whites there, while still in control of some productive plots, are no longer the major landowners in the country. Nonetheless, the landless in Kenya have been grumbling in recent years, with some warning that as population pressure increases, they might use the actions of the Zimbabwe war veterans as a model, turning against the small white land- owning population as well as the large black landowners.

There is, say observers, a way in which to run a land reform program constructively. "Land is just a commodity, and in Zimbabwe there is plenty of it," says Sue Haley, a strategic consultant whose firm has been helping the Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union.

Haley says the white farmers want a land commission set up, and would be willing to hand over 1 million hectares of land, as a start, to such a commission. "It would be so easy to resolve if it were not politicized," says Haley. "There is no resistance to land reform from any sector. It just has to be done in the right, negotiated, way."

Tsvangirai has vowed that, if victorious, he will dedicate his energies to resolving the land issue in an intelligent manner.

Britain and other donors, in turn, have offered to give substantial funds to help the Zimbabwe government carry out a fair and transparent land-reform scheme.

"The land-reform issue has been exploited by Mugabe for political reasons," says political scientist Masipula Sithole. "But nonetheless, there is a real hunger for land here, and popular pressure has been unleashed. It must be addressed."

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