Land and freedom: only both will do

There have been two bloody struggles between blacks and whites. Mugabe says the third will be a fight to the finish
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Call him what you will: despot, opportunist, racist, ageing megalomaniac casting around for any device to preserve the power he has spent two decades abusing. But President Robert Mugabe, avid student of history, trained by Jesuits and reared on Marxism, has all along understood the central truth about his country: that since the white man first arrived, the bane of Zimbabwe has been the ownership of its land.

Today land ownership is Mr Mugabe's one and only card as he fights for his political life in the elections set for next month. By encouraging so-called "veterans" of the 1970s independence war to occupy hundreds of white-owned farms, he is gambling that old grievances will prevail over present realities - that his predominantly rural people will forget Aids, economic chaos, and the cronyism and corruption he has visited on his country, and vote for the man who gives them back what the whites stole a century ago.

When the British South Africa Company of Cecil Rhodes first turned its rapacious eyes north in 1890, it was seeking gold. But what the settlers in the pioneer column which trekked into what was then called Mashonaland found - and seized - was land. They purloined livestock and brought in forced labour. They wrote themselves fancy land deeds and accused the native Africans of being "trespassers" on the land they had tilled for generations. For good measure they imposed a "hut-tax" of 10 shillings (50p) a head.

Three years later, the whites overthrew the monarchy of Matabeleland, plundering land and herds and tyrannising the population. In 1896, the Ndebele and Shona peoples rebelled. It was called the Chimurenga, or "uprising", and within months 400 settlers had been killed. The reaction was even more savage - aimed, as one white wrote, "to wipe out every nigger and every kraal we can find".

And they did. Chiefs were executed as common criminals. Tribal and social structures that had grown up over centuries were obliterated. In 1930 white dominance was codified, with the Land Apportionment Act dividing Rhodesia into African and European areas, and two countries co-existed with a single border. For Europeans, Rhodesia was God's own acre, offering a life as good as any on earth. As for the blacks, their plight was summed up in the title of Lawrence Vambe's haunting book on the destruction of old black Zimbabwe, An Ill-Fated People.

Even at their zenith in 1951, whites accounted for only 6.3 per cent of Zimbabwe's population; today the proportion is under 1 per cent. Yet one third of the territory - and threequarters of the best farmland - of a country of 12 million people covering an area the size of Spain, is still owned by some 4,500 white commercial farmers. After the "second Chimurenga", the 13-year struggle which culminated in the 1979 Lancaster House agreement for Zimbabwe's independence and a new constitution, this injustice was to be tackled. But it never truly was. The war ended white political dominance, but not their dominance of what really mattered - the land.

True, white Rhodesians who stayed on have demonstrated their commitment to the country called Zimbabwe; indeed, at least until the latest crisis, relations between the races were by common consent easier and more relaxed than ever before. But the lot of the African rural poor scarcely improved at all.

No one disputes that the current allocation of land is iniquitous. Not of course Mr Mugabe, whose government on Thursday rammed through a law declaring Britain "liable" for paying compensation for seized farms. Nor the Movement for Democratic Change either, the umbrella opposition group led by the former trade union chief Morgan Tsvangirai, which criticises Mr Mugabe's methods but not his goals.

Britain too insists, in the words of Clare Short's Department for International Development, that today's distribution of land "does not serve Zimbabwe's development needs". Indeed, until it realised the process was benefiting not the needy but Mr Mugabe's friends and henchmen, Britain provided £44m for land reform in Zimbabwe's first decade of independence. Only last week, Robin Cook, Foreign Secretary, reaffirmed that Britain was ready to put up money to fund land reform that helped the poor. Even white farmers accept in principle the need for change.

But how? At every turn the land argument is tinged by race. A doctrine of racial superiority underpinned the original land-grab a century ago. Now there is Mr Mugabe's own unabashed race-baiting. But there is a subtler, unspoken racism which colours ostensibly economic objections to reform. With its advanced technology and economies of scale, white farming, especially of tobacco which is Zimbabwe's main export earner, is one of the very few things in the country that functions efficiently.

But the lesson of most previous experiments in post-colonial Africa is that to break up the white ranches into parcels for peasant farmers would reduce their productivity and thus merely deepen Zimbabwe's economic misery. Some then use this as camouflage for a racist argument: yes, the Africans have a right to their land, but unless they're properly trained and supervised, they'll just mess everything up. In other words, only white men can run a modern agro-economy.

Thus the central dilemma of Zimbabwe/Rhodesia has returned to haunt another Labour government. In the 1960s, Harold Wilson wrestled unsuccessfully with the illegal minority regime of Ian Smith. Now Messrs Blair and Cook must handle the climactic upheaval of the Mugabe regime. The violent rhetoric of Peter Hain has made the task no easier. The sincerity of the Foreign Office Minister for Africa, raised in South Africa and a decades-long campaigner against white minority rule, is not in doubt. His sense of timing, however, is.

Every tirade from Mr Hain against the corruption and reverse racism of the regime permits Mr Mugabe to change the argument from his own incompetence, and rail against British "colonialism" and the machinations of the man he calls a self-styled "Governor of Rhodesia". Unwittingly Mr Hain may also be digging Britain deeper into that deadly political hole, of responsibility without power.

Since 1890, Britain may have nominally been the colonial power in the land north of the Limpopo river; but never - excepting the interlude between the fall of the Smith regime and Mr Mugabe's election victory in 1980 - was Rhodesia/Zimbabwe ruled directly from London. Britain funked intervention in 1965. Today it can intervene only with words, and with contingency plans to evacuate the 20,000 white Zimbabweans who hold British citizenship.

So far, the High Commission in Harare has not been stormed by passport applicants. But that might change, as a desperate Mr Mugabe talks of "war" to regain land which was seized almost within living memory. Thus would a third Chimurenga begin, and probably destroy not just the vestiges of white Rhodesia but, tragically, the best hopes of modern Zimbabwe as well.