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World Perspective | ZIMBABWE

Plan to Reallocate Land Yields Dissent

Whites oppose seizure of property. Even the black recipients are unhappy. They often end up with scrappy parcels good only for subsistence farming.

March 27, 1998|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CENTRAL MASHONALAND, Zimbabwe — In this rural northern province, the disparities between white and black farming are as immediate as the roadside fields.

On expansive commercial farms, which are mostly white-owned, the corn grows tall, the cattle fat and the farmers rich. On patchwork communal farms, which are run by blacks, the corn has too little fertilizer, the cattle too little pasture and the farmers too little land to do much more than feed their families.

"People didn't go to war for freedom of expression or the right to vote," said Simeon Mawanza of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Assn., referring to the armed struggle in the 1970s that ended white-minority rule. "They wanted land, and most of them haven't gotten it."

Nearly two decades after the birth of Zimbabwe--the independent successor to the former British colony of Southern Rhodesia--colonial land practices are once again tearing at the soul of the nation. But as President Robert Mugabe is learning, proposed quick fixes to the century-old injustices may play well with the landless majority, but they also play havoc with the economy.

The Mugabe government has veered from crisis to crisis ever since the president announced in November that he intends to confiscate millions of acres of white-owned farms in an attempt to speed up the country's sluggish land-redistribution program. The effort has been plagued by resistance among whites and rampant corruption among Mugabe's associates--many of whom have kept the best farms for themselves.

While nearly everyone--including white farmers--acknowledges the need for greater black ownership, Mugabe set off alarms when he threatened to seize the farms of reluctant sellers and compensate owners only for improvements, such as outbuildings and irrigation systems. Mugabe said it was wrong for the black government to pay for the land itself since it had been "stolen" by white colonialists.

White-dominated commercial agriculture serves as a pillar of the Zimbabwean economy, accounting for about one-quarter of all employment. The scare sent Zimbabwe's dollar plummeting on currency markets, and Western countries that traditionally provide development assistance backed off pledges. Industrial workers have staged two national strikes and, in January, rioters took to the streets of the capital, Harare, to protest price increases.

Although Mugabe has not tempered his anti-white rhetoric, his aides have begun to quietly downplay objectionable aspects of the land-grab plan. In a major scaling back of earlier plans, the government is unlikely to try to take more than 120 of the 1,471 farms this year--and it is uncertain that it can even afford those properties.

The land problem dates to the 1890s, when British settlers, led by Cecil Rhodes, marched north from South Africa, appropriating vast stretches of the most arable land. Today there are fewer than 100,000 whites among Zimbabwe's 12 million people, yet they still own about two-thirds of the richest farmland. And although they employ black workers, white owners pay average monthly wages of just $35.

Since independence, about 70,000 black families have been resettled on crowded communal farmlands pieced together from white-owned estates bought by the government. But the parcels are mostly too small and too scrappy for anything but subsistence farming. And because the government retains title to the property, communal farmers have no collateral to finance sorely needed improvements.

The only lasting solution, analysts say, is a voluntary arrangement between white farmers and the black government--something that would give blacks an equal footing on land issues without undermining the economy. And before any property changes hands, experts say, it must be fitted with irrigation and other necessities to ensure that black farmers can succeed.

"We don't want free handouts," said Nokwazi Moyo, director of the Indigenous Commercial Farmers Union, a group of black landowners. "We want initiatives that will bring blacks affluence."

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