Stench of decay overwhelms Mugabe's parliament

Assembly modelled on Westminster debates seizure of white farmers' land as opposition welcomes president's pledge on elections

A fish rots from the head - so goes a favourite Zimbabwean saying. By yesterday, with the Chief Fishmonger away - President Robert Mugabe is frying in Cairo - the stench of decay had become so overpowering that only 58 MPs out of 150 turned up at the country's cod-Westminster.

Yet this was an important day: the first reading of the 16th amendment to the country's constitution, authorising the Chief Fishmonger to grab the land of the biggest fish in the country's economy - its commercial farmers - and hand it to the little kippers who have been tilling stony ground since the end of white rule in 1980.

The parliament building in Harare, conceived as a hotel in 1895, is redolent of Zimbabwe's complicated relationship with its former colonial master, Britain. Prominently placed on an avenue named after one of Africa's great liberators, Nelson Mandela, it faces Africa Union Square (formerly Cecil Square), whose walkways are laid out like the Union Jack.

The chamber is a copy of the Commons, except that the seats and carpet are racing green, not red, and because this is a single-party state, ministers sit on the opposition benches.

"Order!'' bellows the gown-clad Speaker, Cyril Ndebele, when agitated MPs slip from English into Shona. From time to time "the ayes have it'', MPs slap their benches, wave their order papers and go out for tea. Then, with due respect to Marxism and only moments after Prayers, the Speaker hands over to "the Honourable Comrade".

The Justice Minister, Emmerson Mnangagwa, found himself fishing for elusive compliments in yesterday's small but combative session. Addressing the initial turn-out - 58 MPs, eight of them women - he heralded "the opportunity as a result of a long and bitter liberation struggle to consummate our political independence by casting aside the colonial bondage". He said: "We must now grant unto ourselves the right to acquire land unfettered with colonial laws which require compensation to be paid for stolen land."

As the clerks scribbled fiercely and the brass mace caught a few rays of African sun which had filtered into the enclosed chamber, Mr Mnangagwa cantered through colonial history. "We must not forget that in 1896, the first war was fought by our forefathers who united to remove the colonial settlers. Never, never, never again shall our land be alienated from its people or our people from their land,'' he said, as a few ageing MPs embarked on their afternoon naps.

He ran through the brutal heritage of Cecil John Rhodes's opportunism - native reserves, the racial division of land and the apportionment of settlements for white soldiers returning from the Second World War. He conceded that, in 1979, the Conservative Party "attempted to honour, to some extent, their colonial obligations but the current Labour Government, which all former British colonies mistakenly regarded as their friends, have reneged on the issue''.

The strong words impressed no one and, as the turn-out dwindled within an hour to 14 MPs, five of them women, it became increasingly clear that the lack of interest had less to do with the Chief Fishmonger's absence than with complete disillusionment with the ruling party among its own MPs.

The debate on the amendment was set for today but the Speaker happily allowed rebel MPs to attack the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF). "Our people - I mean us, the blacks, took advantage of the (1980 land resettlement) scheme," said Norman Zikhali, casting his line deep into the waters of Zanu-PF pride. "Some of our people in the leadership, big fishes in the public and private sector, jumped the gun and got in before the povo (the masses). They got land for Z$3,000 (£50),'' he said.

There were only 11 MPs left by this stage - including the five women. One of them, Mavis Chidzonga, decided to launch a broad attack on the ruling party and its 22 ministers (three of them present), "who think they serve the President, not the people". She said: "All they do is get in their Mercedes Benz. We talk about the collapsing health system and the food queues but they have developed an elephant skin and do not hear the people. There is a wind of change blowing through this country and we are failing to manage that change as a government and as a party. The executive should not forget where they have come from."

One MP, Margaret Dongo, can be credited with inspiring her rebel colleagues. As one of only three opposition MPs in a parliament where 30 of the 150 seats are guaranteed presidential appointments, Mrs Dongo has become a veteran irritant. Yesterday, clad in bright yellow wraps, she moved around the benches, shaking hands and chatting, especially to her female colleagues.

It is the women who, as Zimbabwe has rotted from the top down, have kept in touch with ordinary people's concerns and maintained some faith in this parliament. "All the MPs love Margaret Dongo,'' said a Zimbabwean colleague in the press gallery. "Even some of the real Zanu-PF stalwarts call her 'the president'." As fish go, Mrs Dongo is a small-fry trouble-monger, but ahead of the elections next month, she is riding on a tide that increasingly looks like a sea change.

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