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Zimbabwe: Land & Votes.

Zimbabwe's parliamentary election in late June is about two issues: the governance question and the land question. From the point of view of governance, President Robert Mugabe is simply the latest liberation hero turned despot, yet another example of the failure of successful nationalism to establish a democratic polity. But nationalism has never been a good school for democracy. Nationalists tend to think of opposition as treason and see democracy as the cat's-paw of foreign interference, not just in Africa, but the world over. What is new about Mugabe is not that he is a sit-tight nationalist leader but that after more than two decades in power, he still is able to identify the one issue that could possibly give him control over Parliament for yet another term. That issue is the land question, the most pressing legacy from Zimbabwe's settler colonial past. In a nutshell, nearly 4,500 mostly white commercial farmers own 11 million hectares (27 million acres) of prime land, while more than 6 million black Zimbabweans are crowded onto barren communal areas. Although the land question was at the heart of the colonial struggle, land reform was not at the heart of the postindependence settlement brokered by Britain at the Lancaster House conference in 1979. The provision that land must be bought in foreign currency on a "willing buyer, willing seller" basis gave constitutional protection to those among the landowning white farmers most reluctant to work out a postindependence accommodation with the black majority.

Not surprisingly, there were few willing sellers and little reform. When land was redistributed, it was just as likely to go to one of a group of state-connected black commercial farmers as to the land-poor majority. Not only that, the newly independent state did not cut off a single important subsidy on which white farm prosperity had come to depend since settler rule under Ian Smith. The Mugabe government thus continued with the program of cheap electricity, cheap water, cheap seeds, cheap fertilizers and feeder roads as part of a communication network that benefited the commercial farm sector at the expense of the communal areas.

Long before the referendum on a new Constitution held earlier this year-which the ruling party lost-the land question was beginning to come to a boil. The most vocal demand for land came from families of guerrilla war veterans. Numbering roughly 70,000 in 1980, the vets had found it difficult to get farms and difficult to get jobs in the private sector. Sprinkled throughout the public sector-from the civil service to the army to intelligence-they form an influential group. Today, they are also the spearhead of a genuine social movement that has grown through a strategy of farm occupation.

While landlessness has been a century-long phenomenon in Zimbabwe, joblessness is a relatively recent, post-IMF-mandated "structural adjustment" development. While landlessness is associated with settler colonialism, joblessness is seen more as proof of the ineptness and corruption of the Mugabe government. It's not surprising that when the referendum on the Constitution took place, it was more the jobless urban masses than the land-poor rural masses who came out to vote. Although only 20 percent of the electorate voted, 60 percent of those voters were urban voters-in a country where only 30 percent of the population is urban. Also, referendum ballots were counted on a one-person, one-vote basis, not on a constituency basis. This single fact should explain the rationale for Mugabe's postreferendum decision to give official backing to farm occupation by the land-poor and the war vets. His hope is that this will bring the rural masses to vote for his party in the parliamentary election, thereby swamping the urban majority that handed the referendum victory to the opposition. His simple calculation is that, after all, not only the rural folk but also rural constituencies outnumber the urban crowd at least two to one. Will it work?

Just as interesting as the result of the election will be what happens afterward. The election will resolve the question of power but not the question of land. Mugabe can fuel the movement for land, but he cannot turn it off. The opposition can pose as saviors of white farmers to fill election coffers, but it cannot easily save them from the land-poor after the election.

The land question resonates beyond Zimbabwe's borders, particularly in those countries with a settler colonial past, such as Namibia, Kenya and, most important, South Africa. That explains why South African President Thabo Mbeki has not made the mistake of confusing the land question with the governance question, though the two are intimately intertwined for the moment.

In mid-June, South Africa announced that it would seek enough funds to redistribute 30 percent of white-owned farmland. The SWAPO government in Namibia has announced that it will give urgency to land redistribution in its social program. Clearly, it is not the plight of the land-poor but political calculations in the face of Mugabe's initiative that have motivated these changes. For distant observers of Africa, too, it would be a mistake to underestimate the long-term power of justice-related issues to influence politics in former colonies.

Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan citizen, is Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia.
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Title Annotation:Land use key issue in parliamentary elections
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:6ZIMB
Date:Jul 10, 2000
Previous Article:Sense and Secrecy.
Next Article:BLAIR CLARK.

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