Whites become whipping boys of Mugabe

NIGEL SAUNDERS was not impressed as he watched huge water sprinklers irrigate a bright green wheat-field he farmed until the government took it away last October. 'It does not look good,' he said. 'The maintenance of the farm is poor.'

A few hundred yards down the dirt road, past the house he used to live in, Mr Saunders stopped his Toyota pickup beside a farmworker, one of 46 he once employed, who asked for a job when he found a new farm.

Mr Saunders, 34, lost his lease on the Ruia Falls farm he had worked for four years in the northern Zimbabwean district of Mtepatepa, under the Mugabe government's plan to take over some of the whites' commercial farmland, about one- third of the country's total territory, to resettle land-hungry black peasants.

The only catch was that the farm went not to destitute rural families but to the head of the Zimbabwean Air Force, Air Marshal Perence Shiri, who once commanded the notorious Fifth Brigade, the unit accused by international and Zimbabwean human rights groups of widespread abuses in Matabeleland in the mid-1980s.

Mr Saunders, like dozens of other commercial farmers, is on the front line of a new confrontation with the Mugabe government over the issue that has divided white and black in Zimbabwe since Cecil Rhodes led a column of settlers into the region a century ago: land. Air Marshal Shiri is symbolic of a deepening rift between Robert Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) and its mainly black rural constitutents along the more recent dividing line of class.

'The people are discontented. They (the government) are trying to take short-cuts with this land thing, by giving it to people in powerful positions, people who matter,' said Mr Saunders. 'It is just Mugabe's way of appeasing people who have the power to do something, possibly militarily, or whatever. That is why that chap has got that farm.'

In 1992, parliament passed the Land Acquisition Act, which forbade anyone to challenge in court either the state's right to acquire land or the price it offered as compensation. Last year the compulsory acquisition from white farmers began in earnest.

But the programme ran into trouble quickly when the country's new independent newspaper, the Daily Gazette, revealed that land was going not to the rural poor, but to ministers, civil servants, former and serving military officers - even to the secretary to President Mugabe and the cabinet, Charles Utete.

The Minister of Agriculture, Kumbirai Kangai, defended the leasing of land to senior officials, saying it was designed to 'facilitate a more balanced racial composition of large-scale commercial farming sector'.

The public outcry over what became known as the ''land grab' scandal forced Mr Mugabe to deny all knowledge of the affair, and to order cancellation of the leases, effective this October. But he and his deputy president, Joshua Nkomo, have increasingly accused Zimbabwe's 100,000 whites, especially the farmers, of continuing to behave like colonial overlords.

With inflation running at more than 25 per cent annually, unemployment estimated at 2 million people out of a population of 11 million, and general elections looming early next year, some analysts believe that the whites have become the whipping boys of a corrupt government that has lost its way.

'They are looking for a scapegoat,' said Nicholas Ndebele of the human rights group, Zimrights. 'It is a mistake, because the white farmers have made a big contribution to the country. The acquisition of land is just a political weapon.'

The criticisms of whites became particularly virulent after veteran politician Henry Elsworth, 64, was accused of ordering a group of women and children to strip after they were caught apparently stealing firewood from his 25,000-acre farm north of the central city of Gweru. Mr Elsworth, who once served as a Zanu member of parliament, was convicted on 18 June, after a magistrate ruled that he had 'unlawfully impaired the dignity' of the women. He was fined the equivalent of pounds 100 but has appealed against the conviction.

'Why should we keep a man like that in our country?' Mr Mugabe asked at a political rally at the time of the incident last year. He ordered the confiscation of Mr Elsworth's farm.

Mr Nkomo, whose leadership role in the struggle for independence once earned him the title of 'Father Zimbabwe', has been especially vocal in recent months, accusing whites of being racists and warning 'undesirable elements' to leave the country before a new racial war breaks out.

Such harsh statements have contrasted sharply with the early independence days when racial reconciliation was the theme. Mr Mugabe set the tone in April 1980 when he appealed on national television to all Zimbabweans to forget the past.

The rhetorical hostility to whites has also run counter to the government's stated policy of attracting foreign investment to bolster its five-year structural adjustment programme, backed by the World Bank and the IMF.

Mr Saunders, who served with the Rhodesian SAS in the late stages of the independence war, thought about leaving the country - 'taking the gap', as two-thirds of the 250,000 whites did - but rejected the idea after visiting South Africa and Europe in the early 1980s.

'A lot of my generation left for down south or overseas, but many of them would like to come back,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)