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Question of land hangs over Zimbabwe

Mugabe's farm seizures helped very few and alienated his base. But those who gained may block opposition's rise.

May 11, 2008|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

HARARE, ZIMBABWE — When Ishmael Dube got his own small plot of land, it felt like justice. He'd grown up a black child under a racist white regime when this country was called Rhodesia. Half his youth was gobbled by darkness: war and prison.

He got the farm in 2000, two decades after Zimbabwe's independence from Britain, when President Robert Mugabe urged liberation war veterans to invade white farms. For the war veterans, it was a time of exhilaration and violence. For white farmers, it was a time of bitterness and terror.

"When the land invasions started happening, people were excited," Dube said. "When we were fighting, land was one of the things that we were fighting for."

But Dube lasted just one year; farming was much more difficult than he had expected. After 12 months, the veterans were evicted from the land by a ruling party heavyweight.

Mugabe, who has ruled since 1980, often draws on land, history, blood and race in the bitter liberation rhetoric that peppers his speeches. He called the March 29 elections a new phase in the war over land, describing the opposition as British puppets poised to give back property to white farmers.

But the dire warnings are no longer working. Even many of the war veterans, who helped Mugabe oust the British and stay in power for nearly three decades, aren't listening. And that could mean the end of the liberation hero's long reign.

"People have seen through that kind of cheap propaganda," Dube said.

Mugabe's rhetoric about land and the liberation war now has a tiny, but extremely powerful, circle of supporters: the cronies who still have farms, mainly Mugabe relatives, ministers, generals, judges and intelligence, police and security chiefs. Many of them own several farms, most of them unproductive.

"Mugabe is now losing, because of his greed," said Percy Gombakomba, 53, a war veteran and former bureaucrat in the president's office. "I believe that if Mugabe walked in the streets, he would be stoned.

"People ask, 'Why did you go to war? What were you fighting for?' If you say you were fighting for the land, they will laugh at you."

So few have benefited from the redistribution that Mugabe's broader support has been undermined among traditional allies such as the war veterans. But he was careful to ensure that the top military and security commanders, on whom he relies for protection and survival, got one or more farms.

With Mugabe looking increasingly precarious, analysts believe that in the end it will be the "securocrats," the 20 or so commanders who form the strategic Joint Operation Command, who will determine whether the president goes.

Mugabe began the land seizures in 2000, after he faced his first serious political threat: the emergence the year before of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change from the union movement, supported by white farmers.

Last month, Mugabe's regime began a new wave of evictions of the few remaining white farmers after it lost control of parliament for the first time since independence in 1980. He sent out security forces in a campaign of intimidation against farmers, opposition supporters and activists.

But many influential Mugabe supporters in the ruling ZANU-PF party don't believe the violence is working this time. Most believe that Mugabe will lose an expected second round of voting in the presidential election.

"I think we allowed corruption to go uncontrolled to the extent that it affected the majority of the people," said one influential ruling party figure and war veteran who spoke on condition of anonymity. He said public support for Mugabe had eroded because of corruption in the ruling elite.

"They're saying if you live with thieves and protect them, you are also a thief."

One reason Zimbabwe's economy imploded was Mugabe's failure to manage the expectations of war veterans. The more he revisited the liberation war rhetoric, the more the veterans expected pensions, land, businesses or jobs.

War veteran Gombakomba said Mugabe should have given them "a good reward" for their wartime sacrifices.

"That's why we thought of grabbing the farms. People had to jump into farms before they saw any fruits of the liberation struggle," he said. But after Mugabe paid out lump sums to war veterans in 1997 and pledged monthly pensions, the Zimbabwe dollar collapsed, never to recover.

When they seized farms in 2000, war veterans such as Dube had no idea how to farm. There was no hope of bank loans for equipment without title deeds to use as security.

Agricultural production, the country's biggest export earner, fell and the economy lurched further into crisis.

Gombakomba and eight war comrades invaded a farm near Lake Kariba. He said the owner had fled to Zambia. But like Dube, he did not last long.

"The thing is, I was never a farmer myself," he said. "I didn't know what farming was, to tell you the truth. And there was no equipment, no financial support. It was difficult. And that's when we began to understand that farming was not a picnic.

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