THIS WEEK marks the 20th anniversary of the end of white minority rule in Zimbabwe, but public celebrations and parades have been canceled. President Robert Mugabe is not quite the "deranged despot" that opposition leader Morgan Tsangvirai recently called him, but he does not like large crowds gathering in the cities.
He is nearing the end of his 20 years in power, and the game is getting very rough.
It got even rougher last weekend, when squatters on one of the 900 white-owned farms that have been occupied on orders from Mr. Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF Party abducted the owner, David Stevens, and killed him. On the same day, Chenjerai "Hitler" Hunzvi, leader of the National Liberation War Veterans Association that is organizing the farm seizures, declared at ZANU-PF headquarters: "This is a day of war." Squatters have killed another farmer, abducted and beaten several others and burned farmhouses.
Zimbabwe had a decade of war in the 1970s, after the white minority(now down to around 70,000) illegally declared independence from Britain rather than surrender power to the black majority. Since the "settlers" lost in 1980, Mr. Mugabe has run Zimbabwe as a one-party state in all but name. But he hasn't run it very well, and the settlers didn't really lose. Almost half of the country's good agricultural land is still in the hands of some 4,000 white "commercial" farmers (out of 12 million people). The farms are a colonial anachronism, and after independence in 1980, Britain agreed to pay for buying the commercial farmers out and resettling black small-holders. But London canceled the arrangement after it turned out that many of the farms, rather than being broken up, were being "redistibuted" into the hands of senior ZANU-PF members. So for more than a decade, Mr. Mugabe let the issue slide, and now he suddenly starts using illegal violence against the white farmers. Why?
Because Mr. Mugabe himself is an anachronism whose time is fast running out. He is the last leader of the African independence generation still in power, and like most of that generation, neither his democratic instincts nor his administrative talents matched his skills as a revolutionary leader. The Zimbabwean dollar is worth one-thirtieth of what it was when he took power; unemployment is 50 percent; even literacy has fallen under his rule. So people's patience is running out, and Mr. Mugabe is getting desperate.
This explains his lurches of policy in the past couple of years, like sending 11,000 Zimbabwean troops to intervene in the civil war in the Congo on the side of President Laurent Kabila. He sent them not because Mr. Kabila is in the right, but because it is an opportunity to make large amounts of money out of illegal diamond and gold concessions. His all-out attack on the white farmers has similar motives: land to parcel out to his loyalists, and a racist/nationalist cause that might win back black voters' support.
It started in February with a referendum on constitutional changes that would have further enhanced Mr. Mugabe's powers -- and given him the legal right to seize white-owned property without compensation. To his evident astonishment, the voters rejected that proposal. Then Mr. Mugabe raised the ante by unleashing the "war veterans" linked to ZANU-PF (many of whom are not genuine vets) to occupy white-owned farms. When the Zimbabwean high court ruled the occupations illegal, he ordered the police not to intervene. He did not order the murder of David Stevens on Saturday, but it was implicit in his strategy.
The name of the game is to distract Zimbabweans from their real grievances with a black-white miniwar over colonial land issues that should have been settled peacefully long ago. Since Mr. Mugabe and the commercial farmers are political dinosaurs of equally ancient lineage, he may well succeed in the short run.
In the longer run, he is wrecking Zimbabwe. What is new and worrisome is that this time, Mr. Mugabe's ploy to win another 12 or 18 months in power involves triggering a lethal fight over race and land. This is not good news for South Africa.
South Africa has handled the transition to black majority rule with infinitely more sense and grace than Zimbabwe. The last thing it needs is someone up north setting up a violent racial confrontation over land that will reawaken all the vicious old stereotypes, hatreds and fears in the minds of South Africans, black and white. But that, it would appear, is what it is going to get.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles have been published in 45 countries.