Land Reform: An African Issue ; the Winner of Zimbabwe's Presidential Vote, Being Tallied Now, Will Immediately Face Land-Return Issues

By Danna Harman writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 13, 2002 | Go to article overview

Land Reform: An African Issue ; the Winner of Zimbabwe's Presidential Vote, Being Tallied Now, Will Immediately Face Land-Return Issues


Danna Harman writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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 government ZANU-PF party.

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

As the world awaits the results of the election, no matter who wins - incumbent President Robert Mugabe or opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai - one thing is clear: Land reform will be at the top of his 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 poorer, 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 remains.

Lured by Cecil Rhodes's 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 live and work on these farms, forming the backbone of the economy.

In 1980, when Zimbabwe won its independence, Britain set up a 55 million ($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," says 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 Zimbabwe Constitution was changed to allow for compulsory acquisition of land at government set prices, though more recently, Mugabe adopted an even more extreme tact.

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

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