Asian and white communities prepare to leave

Cornerstone of country's commercial farming and business sectors face renewed threat of seizures
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Zimbabwe's small white and Asian communities, who are the cornerstone of its commercial farming and business sectors, expressed alarm yesterday after President Robert Mugabe said he would embark on a new round of seizures of white-owned companies.

About 70,000 whites and 14,000 Asians, the stalwarts among minorities that were once many times that size, had anxiously awaited indications of what their leader planned to do next after the presidential elections denounced by the majority of international observers as rigged.

Yesterday's inauguration speech by Mr Mugabe, dressed in a blue suit bedecked by a ceremonial chain and sash for the occasion, left no doubts in their minds. Many of them will now leave, unless a miraculous political settlement is reached over the next couple of days that draws the opposition Movement for Democratic Change into a government of national unity.

"I fear for my business and our safety," said an Asian grocery store owner in Harare. "My wife and I have stuck around because this is a gem of a place. But with more of the same to come after a terrible two years, we're seriously considering joining our children in Australia."

The invasion of companies by members of Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party began last April but was stopped after howls of protest, including from South Africa, which has significant business interests in Zimbabwe. They could well resume as party supporters seek rewards for their votes.

Commercial farming, which is already severely disrupted, is likely to collapse under an accelerated, chaotic land reform programme. Nearly all the 4,000 white-owned farms have been listed for state acquisition, and many of them have been violently invaded by the poor.

Eddie Cross, economic spokesman for the MDC, said: "In the worst scenario, there is no doubt in my mind that Mr Mugabe will look to extend farm grabs to businesses and industries. He threatened to do that several times during his election campaign, so that's what he must have in mind."

In June 2000, Mr Mugabe told The Independent that the assets of British and other foreign mining companies would be seized in the next stage of "indigenisation" that started with the listing of white farms.

"After land, we must look at the mining sector," he said, complaining of "too many Britons" in Zimbabwe.

"There must be Africans in there, as owners, not just as workers," he said. After mines, he added, he would "Africanise" the rest of the economy.

Last week about 2,000 people in Kwekwe, south-west of Harare, stormed a mine and began panning for gold "to celebrate Mr Mugabe's victory".

On Friday, 200 Zanu-PF youth militia went on the rampage in Bulawayo, beating shop owners, workers and traders, looting goods, stealing money and injuring 20 people.

Mr Cross said: "Any firm not toeing the line, for instance not adhering to price controls, could well be targeted for illegal acquisition. Many white-owned companies are vulnerable to grabs, and many senior managers are already seriously harassed by Zanu-PF heavies." One example is Lobels, a family business and one of southern Africa's biggest bakeries. After opposing price controls on bread late last year, the company was visited by Zanu-PF officials who offered to buy it for a fraction of its value and advised the owners "to take the money and run".

Lobels has survived price controls by stopping deliveries to rural areas, but many smaller black-owned bakeries have gone under.

State acquisitions of companies would chase off the few remaining foreign investors. Mr Mugabe's solution to that yesterday was to call on Zimbabweans to invest to halt the decline of an economy that has shrunk 30 per cent in two years and will contract 10 per cent this year.

Hundreds of businesses have closed and commercial agriculture, which generates food exports and which supports some 3,000 related businesses, faces disaster.

Crops have not been planted on farms brought to a standstill by invasions, and two thirds of their irrigation capacity has been dismantled. Mr Cross said: "Farmers can't take any more of this. They have had two years of hell. With farmers owing banks around Zim$40 billion in loans taken out against farms that now have little value, some banks face bankruptcy."

Mr Mugabe said yesterday that land reform "must proceed with greater speed and strength" and vowed to carry on correcting the "monstrous colonial injustice" that saw much fertile land controlled by white farmers: all agree on the need for land reform, but not how it is being done.

Today, 44 white farmers from Raffingora must report to court in Chinhoyi to face charges of corruption for handing out food to polling agents during the election and possessing illegal radio equipment – the same charges laid against 12 of their colleagues last week.

One of them is Jean Simon, 44, who has been harassed by Zanu-PF supporters for two years and has been in hiding since police arrived at her farm to arrest her a week ago for being on a list of Raffingora farmers who, among other things, assisted MDC polling agents during last week's election. She said: "My family has been in Africa for 200 years and I'm here for the duration. But I can't speak for my colleagues. Many of them are totally fed up and thinking of packing up and heading south."