- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 14, 2002

HARARE, Zimbabwe 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 governing Zimbabwe African National Union-Popular Front (ZANU-PF).

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, said Mr. Mamuse, a gardener who earns the minimum wage of 1,800 Zimbabwe dollars (about $6) a month. "We both deserve some land," added Miss 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."

Even before the results of the election were announced with incumbent President Robert Mugabe claiming victory and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, backed by election observers, accusing the government of widespread vote fraud one thing was clear: Land reform will be at the top of the next administration's 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 poor, 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 remain.

Lured by Cecil Rhodes' 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 lives and works on these farms, forming the backbone of the economy.

In 1980, when Zimbabwe won its independence, Britain set up a $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," said 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 Zimbabwean constitution was changed to allow for compulsory acquisition of land at government-set prices, though recently, Mr. Mugabe adopted an even more extreme tactic.

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

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 Zimbabwean-style invasions. Namibian President Sam Nujomo, who has been a staunch supporter of Mr. Mugabe, has, like Mr. Mbeki, opposed land seizures in his own country so far.

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