TOPICS > Politics

Land Crisis in Zimbabwe

April 21, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: In the former British colony of Zimbabwe, this is the chaotic scene that has been repeated throughout the country. White-owned farms are being violently taken over by roving bands of disgruntled black citizens, many of whom are self- described veterans of Zimbabwe’s civil war 20 years ago. The violence has led to the murders of five white farmers since February, two killed this week. Farmer David Stephens was shot on Saturday. Then, farmer Martin Olds was murdered Tuesday after his house was firebombed.

MAC CRAWFORD, Commercial Farmers’ Union: Obviously the intense heat drove him out. As he came out he’d been obviously injured; it appeared in both legs. As he came out, it seems they all opened up on him. They rushed him, and he was shot in the head, and by the judge of it he was severely beaten as well.

SPENCER MICHELS: So far, this year, black activists have taken more than 900 white-owned farms, and thrown the country into chaos. At this farm yesterday, nearly 200 attackers threw stones, burned the buildings, killed several dogs, and plundered the quarters of black employees. White owners have fled, saying they do not know when or if they will return.

JOHN HAMMOND, Farmer: Anarchy is not something that anybody can live under. I’ve been here for 61 years now, and this farm was opened up in 1939. Now I am getting out.

SPENCER MICHELS: The roots of the crisis in Zimbabwe go back more than 30 years. In 1965 minority whites in the British colony of Rhodesia declared independence from Britain, and made the country a republic five years later. But their control was challenged both by black nationalist guerrillas and the international community, which imposed UN sanctions against what they considered an illegal white regime.

In 1980, after years of fighting and negotiations organized by Britain, the black majority took control. Robert Mugabe, the leader of the Liberation Army, was elected president, and the country’s name was changed to Zimbabwe. Then, as now, a key issue was control of the rich farmland. Mugabe promised to redistribute the land to the black majority, and a million acres were transferred. But today whites, who comprise 1% of Zimbabwe’s 12 million people, still control one-third of the best farmland. And two decades after the majority blacks took over, many war veterans remain angry over the slow pace of redistribution. The latest political crisis began in February, when the parliament passed a bill backed by Mugabe that would have allowed the government to seize white-owned farms without compensation.

PRESIDENT ROBERT MUGABE, Zimbabwe: We are happy, overjoyed, and therefore in a mood to celebrate that, at last, at last the people of Zimbabwe have now acquired full sovereign right to determine their future. (Applause)

SPENCER MICHELS: But the bill was tied to other measures extending Mugabe’s power. Voters, angry with Mugabe over a bad economy and alleged corruption, defeated the land redistribution plan in a national referendum. Mugabe supporters immediately began invading farms the day after the vote.

CHENJERAI HUNZVI, Zimbabwe War Veterans: I don’t call it land-grabbing. We are taking back our land, and if we fought for this country, then we fought to free our land. We cannot be foreigners in our own land. We cannot be run by these settlers, who came to settle our land here, who came to grab. They’re the real grabbers of our land.

SPENCER MICHELS: The battle is intensely political. Earlier this week, a senior leader of the main opposition party to Mugabe was killed, he was a member of the party movement for democratic change. Farmer Martin Olds, who was killed on Tuesday, was also associated with that party. A dozen more party supporters have been injured. Although Mugabe has been widely blamed for condoning or even encouraging the violence, he has sent out conflicting messages. In one televised speech on Tuesday, he appealed for calm.

PRESIDENT ROBERT MUGABE, Zimbabwe: We can understand the frustration of the war veterans, just as we appreciate the pressures faced by the commercial farmers.

SPENCER MICHELS: But he made remarks later that day branding white farmers as enemies of the state.

PRESIDENT ROBERT MUGABE: Our present state of mind is that you are now our enemies, because you really have behaved as enemies of Zimbabwe, that we are full of anger and our entire community is angry. And this is why you have the war veterans now, you know, seizing land.

SPENCER MICHELS: Police often have stood by while squatters have taken over the lands. Many farmers say Mugabe is using the issue to gain support in the upcoming parliamentary elections, diverting attention from the dire economy, with 50% unemployment and an inflation rate of 70%. In the current atmosphere, many white farmers are fearful of staying.

FARMER: We don’t see ourselves as enemies of the state or enemies of the people. And people are… Farmers, at this stage, wondering where on earth we belong.

SPENCER MICHELS: The government’s response has also provoked criticism from Britain and the United States.

JAMES RUBIN, State Department Spokesman: We are calling very strongly on President Mugabe to accept responsibility to uphold the law and to uphold the law for all Zimbabweans. We are deeply troubled and deplored President Mugabe’s suggestion that white farmers are the enemies of the people of Zimbabwe. That is utter nonsense.

SPENCER MICHELS: Farmers and squatters met earlier this week with Mugabe. Squatters said they would stop the violence, but not move from the farmlands that they have occupied.