Old Anger Over Land Is Mugabe's Weapon

Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe is officially sworn in as president after a sharply criticized runoff vote that was boycotted by his only rival, Morgan Tsvangirai.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 8, 2008

ARCTURUS, Zimbabwe, April 7 -- There was a thriving farm here once, big and lush and bursting with life. It grew potatoes and tomatoes, cut flowers for export, and wheat and corn. Dairy cows were here for milking, chickens for laying eggs. And the black Zimbabweans who did most of the work toiled in the blazing African sun for a pittance, while white owners kept the profits.

Now, all that is gone: the white owners, the animals, the profits and most of the crops. Some former workers now own scrubby, 15-acre plots of their own. But the raw anger left over from that bygone era -- when a poor, dark-skinned majority was subservient to a moneyed, light-skinned minority -- remains as bitter as ever, giving President Robert Mugabe an effective political weapon as he struggles to recover from a historic first-round election loss.

Since the March 29 ballot, Mugabe has warned that opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai will evict black peasants and allow white farmers to return if he wins a second-round vote. Veterans of Zimbabwe's liberation war of the 1970s, meanwhile, have begun invading some of the few white-owned farms still left.

"It's their right to do that, because this land does not belong to any white person," said Mugabe's security minister, Didymus Mutasa. "So they can go ahead."

The threats Mugabe has cited, in a speech Sunday and in state-run media, are fantasies, potent and without supporting evidence. White people supposedly are massing at the borders. Some, government news reports say, have even ventured as far as their old plots, zipping in on motorbikes and threatening to chase away the black Zimbabweans living there.

A political cartoon in the government's Sunday Mail newspaper pictured British Prime Minister Gordon Brown -- current leader of the former colonial power here -- pushing a white farmer toward a signpost leading to Zimbabwe. With a bag of 1 billion British pounds at his feet, the cartoon Brown says, "Don't worry, we will sponsor the re-run."

Analysts are divided on whether the scare tactics will work. Short of simply faking results, Mugabe can't dramatically better his performance without reclaiming the ruling party's traditional strongholds, many of which voted for the opposition in the first round. The date of the second round has not yet been set, nor have the official results been announced, though both sides agree that Tsvangirai got more votes than Mugabe in the first ballot.

"The land issue has exhausted all its energy," said political analyst Eldred Masunungure. "He may resort to that, being a traditional politician, but it's no longer resonating with the people."

But it is resonating here in Arcturus, a Mugabe stronghold about 20 miles east of Harare, the capital. Even those who acknowledge being poorer and hungrier now than they were when whites owned most of Zimbabwe's best land say they are reluctant to embrace a new era if it means losing their farms.

"The government told us that this is our land forever, but we're not sure what the new government will do," said Paulo Paulo, 73, a lean, leather-faced farmer whose feet are dry and cracked from walking his dusty fields barefoot. "We are just waiting. Maybe after the harvest we might be told to leave."

Paulo's experience with the ruling party has not been entirely positive. He was among the hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans whose houses were destroyed in 2005, when Mugabe's police marauded through the nation's slums, demolishing homes and traders' stalls. The destruction deprived Paulo of both his residence and some rooms from which he earned rental income.

This farm, which Paulo said Mugabe's party gave to his wife as a reward for her fervent singing at political rallies and her role in invading the land, has been little better than a disaster. Although crops grown here once spilled into local shops or were shipped to overseas markets, these days Paulo -- who had virtually no experience as a farmer before getting this plot -- barely manages to feed his large family.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company