Robert Mugabe's racial decree on whites and land brings backlash

A week after saying the last white farmers must leave and that whites can't own land and must live in apartments, Zimbabwe's press and business community is crying foul.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/FILE
One newspaper has called Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's ban on white ownership of land 'not just racist but also unconstitutional, retrogressive, and detrimental.'

President Robert Mugabe’s statement early this month that whites will no longer be allowed to own land in Zimbabwe, and that any white farmers still left will be kicked out, raised eyebrows at home and abroad.

Now those comments by the long-ruling autocrat are bringing a backlash in Zimbabwe’s beleaguered trade and tourism ministries. One Harare business newspaper calls them “not just racist but also unconstitutional, retrogressive, and detrimental.”

As the Monitor reported July 3, Mr. Mugabe visited a small farming community 120 miles from the capital Harare that was handing out land permits. He then said that the few whites that survived his policy a decade ago – where gangs of veteran soldiers kicked out some 4,000 white farmers – would also be kicked out.

On the same day, Mugabe, whose initiatives over the years have aimed at redressing British colonial injustices, also said that whites in Zimbabwe may own companies and apartments in urban areas, but no actual land.

The Zimbabwe Independent today castigated the president’s speech, in which Mugabe’s “voice was dark and foreboding when he said ‘we will have no mercy for white people regarding the land, they cannot own our soil.’”

The Independent, the leading financial paper from Harare, quoted analyst Dumisani Nkomo saying that Mugabe “was addressing party supporters and therefore should not be taken seriously.” Yet the presidents statements are “against the letter and spirit of the new constitution and as such should not be tolerated in any democratic society,” Mr. Nkomo said, adding that the remarks were “not helpful for a country such as Zimbabwe which has been struggling for many years to re-invent itself as an investor-friendly destination.”

Prior to Mugabe’s violent land reform policy in 2000, the nation was a fruitful breadbasket to Africa, but now has to import food aid for 10 percent of its population, according to Harvard expert and Monitor blogger Robert Rotberg. 

The Zimbabwe Independent editorialized July 4, two days after Mugabe's speech, that, "The constitution upholds the rights of all, albeit with qualifications. It doesn’t exclude minorities of any type from land ownership.This important point needs to be spelt out to President Robert Mugabe who seems to think he can make pronunciamentos regardless of individuals’ rights." 

Last week the Monitor wrote: 

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has ordered the nation’s remaining white farmers to be booted off their farms in order that the land be given to black Zimbabweans.

In the harshest official policy on race and land reform in a country that has been close to bankruptcy, the 90-year old autocrat said Wednesday that whites may no longer own any land in Zimbabwe. Whites would still be allowed to own businesses and urban apartments. 

Speaking to farmers in Mhangura, a small mining town about 120 miles north of the capital Harare, Mr. Mugabe said all remaining white farmers should leave – and closed the door even on white families renting farms from black owners, as some several hundred have been doing since most were violently chased away a decade ago.

“I have been given a list of 35 white farmers in Mashonaland West alone,” Mr. Mugabe told an emotional crowd in what was billed a patriotic speech. “We say no to whites owning our land and they should go. … They can own companies and apartments…but not the soil. It is ours and that message should ring loud and clear in Britain and the United States.”

The policy seemed chilling to many here. Barnabas Thondlana, editor of “The Observer,” a weekly, told the Monitor that, “I strongly and vigorously denounce someone who expects me to hate someone because of the color of their skin. I think what the president is doing is out of order because the problem with our country at the moment is not whites.”

Mugabe, reelected last summer to his fifth consecutive term, also fingered his own associates who make lucrative profits owning farm land and renting it to whites. Mugabe characterized this practice as unpatriotic under his notions of indigenous black African nationalism.

 “There are white farmers who are still on the land and have the protection of some cabinet ministers and politicians as well as traditional leaders. That should never happen. They [whites] were living like kings and queens on our land and we chucked them out. Now we want all of it.”

War veterans

At the turn of the century Mugabe, a former guerrilla leader, unleashed waves of violent land acquisition by war veterans aligned to his political party. Thousands of white commercial farmers were forced out under a so-called “indigenization” land reform policy. 

Mugabe’s land seizure was widely seen as a means of strengthening his grip on power after the emergence in 1999 of a robust opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change led by Morgan Tsvangirai – whom Mugabe defeated in the election last July. The policy gave Mugabe a means to pacify a black rural population that for years had worked the least productive land, a legacy of British colonial era.

Since then, Zimbabwe has been in an economic tailspin, with banks collapsing and with the government unable to pay the wages of many in the civil sector. 

Much of the land previously taken by those in the Mugabe regime has benefited the security, police and military wings of the leader’s circle. 

Mr. Thondlana, the weekly editor, adds: “The problems with our country at the moment are dictatorship, [bad] governance, corruption, kleptocracy and other all forms of prejudices. We should be fighting these prejudices like tribalism, regionalism and racism. I say no to racism.” 

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