Robert Mugabe in effect declared war on his country's white farmers last night, branding them "enemies of Zimbabwe" and blaming their intransigence for the spate of land seizures and mounting violence of recent days.
Speaking on television after formal addresses marking the 20th anniversary of independence from Britain, the President not only failed to condemn the attacks, but to all intents and purposes explicitly endorsed his country's plunge into anarchy, which saw the murder of a second white farmer yesterday.
"Our entire community is angry," he declared. "This is why you have the war veterans seizing land." He then turned his wrath on the former colonial power, accusing the current Labour Government of reneging on earlier British commitments to fund the redistribution of white-owned land.
In London, the response was swift as Peter Hain, the Foreign Office Minister for Africa, accused Mr Mugabe of failing to halt the tide of lawlessness, and condoning racism akin to that practised by the former minority white regime ousted in 1979. He flatly ruled out any further British help with land reform until the occupations ended and a fair, legal re-allocation scheme was introduced.
There could be no double standards on racism, Mr Hain told a Commons committee; what was happening now was "no different from the old dictatorship of Ian Smith and the repression he was responsible for". The result, he added, was the most serious crisis in modern Zimbabwe's history.
Mr Hain's outrage was echoed by the white farmers themselves, as David Hasluck, director of Zimbabwe's Commercial Farmers Union, expressed his "deep disappointment" that Mr Mugabe had refused to order the squatters off the occupied farms. The murder of Martin Olds, the rancher killed near Bulawayo yesterday, could only have been "part of a planned action which the authorities did nothing to stop", Mr Hasluck said.
In his formal addresses yesterday, Mr Mugabe reverted to telling different things to different audiences. Speaking in English, he sounded comparatively moderate, expressing regret at the death of the two farmers, and promising to work for a compromise. But in his native Shona, he was defiant and unapologetic, thanking the war veterans and his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front supporters for invading the farms.
"Mugabe is two-faced," said David Coltart, the legal adviser to the Movement for Democratic Change, the principal opposition movement. "He puts on his genteel face to the West and on television, and we see the other face."
More clearly than ever, encouragement for the land seizure is Mr Mugabe's potential trump card for the forthcoming elections - designed to deflect attention from war in the Congo, corruption and economic mismanagement.
The unequal distribution of land, whereby 70 per cent of the best agricultural land is owned by a few thousand white farmers, was "the last colonial question", Mr Mugabe said, unresolved since the first white settlers dispossessed the native black inhabitants a century ago, and their descendants codified their gains in a 1930 land allocation act.
Though he is deeply unpopular in Harare and other cities, Mr Mugabe is gambling that the farm seizures will be enough of a vote winner in the countryside, where a majority of the population still lives, to guarantee him victory in the elections, due by July but whose date has yet to be set.
Theoretically there is a chance of a breakthrough next week, when Stan Mudenge, Zimbabwe's foreign minister, visits London for talks with Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, on a new land re-allocation scheme.
But the softening in Mr Mugabe's stance recently detected by Mr Cook now looks illusory. With relations between Zimbabwe and Britain going from bad to worse, the last hope of compromise seems to lie with South Africa, Zimbabwe's main trading partner, whose own economy is starting to be buffeted by the turbulence in its northern neighbour.
President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, who thus far has kept largely silent on the crisis, is due to visit Harare at the beginning of May. But if events continue at their present pace, any window for mediation may have by then been closed.
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