- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 17, 2000

HARARE, Zimbabwe Dozens of men armed with clubs and shotguns yesterday invaded the third-largest lumber company in southern Africa and demanded the firm declare its fealty to President Robert Mugabe.
Forty men entered the sawmill, Borders Timbers, armed with sticks and two shotguns and seized an employee, who was attacked as police looked on.
"One of our men was handcuffed and beaten very badly in the presence of the police, who did nothing," said a witness. "We have no protection at the moment in this country."
The invasion represents the largest confrontation yet in two months of political violence in which ruling party supporters have invaded hundreds of white-owned farms and killed at least 20 opposition party supporters and white farmers.
The invasion of sawmill came as Mr. Mugabe met with Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for June 24 and 25. Mr. McKinnon was in Harare to prepare the ground for election observers that his organization plans to send.
Mr. McKinnon said the Commonwealth, which groups 54 countries with historic ties to Britain, would send 40 observers and that he expects other organizations to participate.
"I leave Zimbabwe in the hope that there will be a peaceful and orderly election which will further strengthen multiparty democracy in the country and have the confidence of Zimbabweans," Mr. McKinnon said before leaving the country.
The election represents the biggest challenge yet to continued rule by Mr. Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party, which was shocked by its defeat in a constitutional referendum earlier this year.
"There is a lot of fear in the public and fear in the ruling party that it will be ousted," said John Makumbe, professor of political science at the University of Zimbabwe.
Mr. Mugabe, 76, has been in power since the end of white rule in 1980. He set the date for the parliamentary election after a Cabinet meeting Monday. All candidates must be registered to run for the 150 available seats by May 29.
Opposition candidates said they did not believe the elections could be free and fair.
"With the amount of violence that has gone on, with the total denial of access to the media, with the fact that we have not had an opportunity to look at the voter rolls yet, there is just no way that a free and fair election can be held," said David Coltart, an official with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change who is running for parliament from the southern town of Bulawayo.
Zimbabwe has not yet published its voter roll, and during the recent voter registration period voters were given no receipts to show they had registered. The opposition fears there will be too little time to challenge the roll in court and no recourse for rural voters who find on election day that their names are missing from the list of registered voters.
Yesterday's invasion of a Border Timbers' sawmill in the eastern town of Chimanimani marked an escalation of the land grab campaign.
Recently bought by new investors from South Africa's Anglo American conglomerate, Border has 98,000 acres of timber on five plantations, three sawmills and a door-making plant dedicated to the U.S. market. It has three whites among its 15 top managers.
The invaders demanded that the company immediately replace all white managers, identify all workers supporting the opposition, declare the company in support of the ruling party, ferry workers to government rallies and provide cattle for slaughter.
Company chairman Philip Chipudhla said in an interview he planned to cease all operations and send his 3,500 workers home.
"It is absolutely crazy. It is anathema for us to identify ourselves with any political party. The board felt it is totally unacceptable. The decision has been taken that we cannot allow people to walk in like that. Our number one priority is the safety of our workers," Mr. Chipudhla said.
The company has an annual turnover of $26 million and brings in $20 million worth of foreign exchange, half from exports to South Africa. It is the region's largest employer.
"Without Border Timbers, Chimanimani doesn't exist. There are 25,000 to 30,000 people indirectly supported by its operations," said Deputy Chairman Ken Schofield.
"I don't think there is any question this political program is extremely well organized. It is barbary at its worst," he said.
Mr. Chipudhla said much of the blame for the crisis belonged with the Commercial Farmers Union, which has continually negotiated with and made concessions to the ZANU-PF supporters who have invaded about 1,200 commercial farms.
"It is all part of a political game. It is a way of coercing people to vote for one political party," he said.

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