Hitler enthusiast menaces Zimbabwe's white farmers

Robert Mugabe is stoking racial feeling in the run-up to elections

Chenjerai Hunzvi, the liberation war veteran who is spearheading occupations of around 400 Zimbabwean commercial farms, is very proud of his nom de guerre, Hitler. "I look like him, don't you think? I am a Hitler in a black skin. And I'm tall, like him," said the 51-year-old.

Dr Hunzvi's trivia lexicon may not include the titbit that Adolf Hitler was known for being short, but his broader grasp of history goes right back. "The Saxons, the Vikings and Queen Victoria, through Cecil Rhodes, were all conquerors of land. Settlers stole it from the people. That situation has to be redressed," he said in his office inHarare.

The Polish-trained medical doctor claims to have at his disposal an army of 70,000 members of the Zimbabwe National War Veterans' Association. "They are motivated purely by their will and desire. There is nothing so strong as that. This is a war of the mind, not of the gun," he added.

The veterans' will and desire to make land redistribution the central issue in parliamentary elections, expected in May, was bolstered 10 days ago by a Z$20m (£330,000) "campaigning gift" from the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) to the association. Last week, in a one-off payment to top up their monthly pensions of Z$2,000 (£33), each veteran of the war received Z$4,800 (£80). These are huge sums in a country where the minimum monthly wage is Z$1,000 (£16).

Yet on the 400-odd, occupied commercial farms - out of a total 700 which have been the scenes of demonstrations - there are not many veterans. At Hunyani Farm, 60 miles outside Harare, only one man among 300 occupiers shows a photocopy of his veteran's identity card. About half the occupiers are women and children.

The veteran and authorised spokesman for the group, Isaac Gambo, said: "We are people who were orientated to go to war by a political party. What we do goes through channels. We are veterans, but foremost we are members of Zanu-PF." His words won a loud cheer from the group. Most of them were in their teens and twenties - too young to have taken part in the struggle against white rule, which ended in 1980.

Nevertheless, the rag-tag occupiers are successfully striking terror into the 4,500 mainly white commercial farmers who produce lucrative crops on the best land in the country. Only a few whites have had the benefit of seeing the farm workers they employ chase the Zanu-PF militants off their properties.

"For every day that goes by, I am more worried," said Derek Nicolle, the owner of Hunyani Farm. "Every evening six or eight of my workers go over to the squatters' encampment and get politicised."

The fact that the occupiers are referred to as "veterans" is pure propaganda from the ruling party. The war - and the fear of more violence - remain powerful signals in Zimbabwe, and are frequently used both by the veterans and the ruling party to inspire nationalism and racist sentiment.

Last week, Zimbabwe's opposition newspapers were brimming with claims that Dr Hunzvi has exaggerated his war record and may not, as he has claimed, have been a cellmate of the late deputy president Joshua Nkomo.

At Hunyani Farm, everyone denies the rumours that they are being paid for their sit-in. "We have all we want now," said Mr Gambo. "This land." Mr Nicolle's farm workers were "becoming convinced", he said, and they, too, would get a share of the land the occupiers had carefully pegged out with wooden sticks.

The fact that the issue of solving Zimbabwe's land crisis has come down to pegs, "veterans" who never fought a war, and a Hitler-admiring ex-combatant with disputed struggle credentials, is the outcome of 20 years of politicking, procrastination and favouritism by the government of President Robert Mugabe.

Land occupations began after Zanu-PF lost a referendum last month on a draft constitution which, besides entrenching President Mugabe's power, would have legitimised uncompensated land acquisition. Now the government has asked parliament in the next two weeks to push through unilaterally the constitutional land amendment.

Dr Hunzvi said: "When that has gone through we will assist the government in an equitable redistribution process. Britain, which sent its people here, killed us and threw our people off their ancestral land, must pay." In 1980, Britain agreed to compensate commercial farmers for land they gave up. In eight years it parted with £44m, mostly to farmers who wanted to leave the country. But it stopped payments after discovering that members of the élite were being offered many of the acquired farms on peppercorn rents, and that other land was left fallow.

With the economy in ruins, President Mugabe is again using the "land card", this time with a liberation war flavour added by the "veterans". Zanu-PF hopes this will be sufficient to trounce the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the new opposition party.

But the government may be wrong, both about the willingness of the voters to believe its commitment to land reform and about the Marxist solidarity it believes veterans can instill in the illiterate and ill-informed rural masses.

Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the MDC, said: "Sixty per cent of the population is under 40 and the same tricks just do not work any more. People want to get this country on its feet and then address the land issue."

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