'All Mugabe cares about is getting land. It doesn't matter if he destroys a nation'

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The Independent Online

The calm in Harare from yesterday's general strike ominously resembled the hour before a storm, with the news that the government is to seize at least half of the white-owned farms without paying a single devalued Zimbabwe dollar.

The calm in Harare from yesterday's general strike ominously resembled the hour before a storm, with the news that the government is to seize at least half of the white-owned farms without paying a single devalued Zimbabwe dollar.

A Western diplomat said: "Nobody really knows what Mugabe is trying to do. But if he goes ahead with the farm plan it is catastrophic for Zimbabwe, its agriculture and the economy as a whole. It seems that the government wants to solve the land problem once and for all. Getting the land is the ultimate goal - it doesn't matter if it destroys Zimbabwe and makes people poor."

The government, faced with a mass "stay-away" led by unions and supported by business and farmers, appears to have been booted out of the inaction that had beset it since the June elections, when the new opposition Movement for Democratic Change just lost to President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF, in power for 20 years.

But the action the government has taken seems irretrievably illogical.

On the eve of yesterday's highly effective mass action,the Finance Minister, Simba Makoni, said Zimbabwe's currency was to be devalued from Zim$38 to Zim$50 to the US dollar. It is good news for a devastated economy whose overvalued currency has stifled imports crucial to its key mining and agriculture sectors, and led to serious fuel shortages. The devaluation is aimed at restoring confidence in the Zimbabwean economy. But at the same time, the extended land seizure is going to destroy confidence.

On Monday Vice-President Joseph Msika confirmed plans to seize in the coming weeks, without compensation, half a million hectares of "white" farms for redistribution to half a million poor black families: sort of "one family, one hectare". The number of white farms already planned for confiscation rose from 804 to more than 3,000. White farmers went to the supreme court yesterday to try to halt the seizure.

Some 1,500 farms have been occupied since February by "liberation war veterans" intent on repossessing land "stolen" by colonisers.

However, there are serious doubts about the government's capacity to implement land reform. Despite saying two weeks ago resettlement was to begin "immediately", there is no evidence that a single Zimbabwean has been moved on to aseized farm. This week the government said the army would help. But even if the relocation goes ahead, the government will be unable to assist the half-million families. It has glibly said development will follow: but in 20 years the state has provided little help to poor farmers on communal land anywhere in Zimbabwe, and it has no money to do so now.

So what is Mr Mugabe doing? The signs are that he is a man caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

On the one hand he is trying to appease what he believes is land hunger felt by the rural poor, the bedrock of a Zanu-PF support base that has shrunk by half in less than a year, and to fulfil his primary election promise.

At the same time, by devaluing Zimbabwe's currency he is trying to bring back on board some of a mostly urban electorate lost to what he believes were "protest votes" during the election, and international institutions whose financial support he urgently needs. But until the rule of law is restored in Zimbabwe and a reasonable land reform programme pursued, reconciling the two will be difficult.

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