Explosive land crisis in Africa

Time bomb: Racial confrontation in Zimbabwe underscores imbalance of land ownership.

April 08, 2000

ZIMBABWE'S president, Robert Mugabe, is a desperate man. Two decades after winning a civil war and leading the former Southern Rhodesia to black majority rule, he sees power slipping from his hands. Disillusioned people are restless; the mismanaged economy is in a shambles.

In a last-ditch effort to cling to power, Mr. Mugabe is now exploiting emotions about land ownership -- an issue so explosive it may destroy him and whatever harmony is left in Zimbabwe.

On the surface the imbalance is deceptively simple: Some 4,700 white farmers, who account for a mere 0.7 percent of Zimbabwe's 12 million people, own 70 percent of the best agricultural land. Those farms, though are a mainstay of the country's economy.

After half-heartedly toying for years with the expensive proposition of buying land from white farmers, Mr. Mugabe is now encouraging simple takeover by blacks. Compensation, he says, is not Zimbabwe's problem: Britain should pay the white farmers for their losses because its colonial empire allowed the land to be stolen in the first place.

This conflict has escalated recently. The way in which it is resolved will not only determine the future of Zimbabwe but will also impact neighboring countries. South Africa, in particular, is trying to figure out how to cope with the thorny issues of land reform.

The basic situation there is the same as in Zimbabwe: Most of the most productive agricultural land is owned by white farmers, while the black majority is trying to eke out a living from badly eroded soil. A difference is that many white, South African farming families are not relatively recent immigrants but have cultivated their lands for centuries.

President Nelson Mandela understood the emotional and economic complications of this situation on a continent where droughts and famine are pandemic. But as harsh reality has replaced euphoria, his successor, Thabo Mbeki, is coming under increasing pressure to do something about the imbalance in land ownership.

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