April 21, 2000

The crisis in Zimbabwe is being played out around issues of land and race. Some 1,000 "white" farms have been invaded by groups led by independence war veterans demanding that farms be handed to black Zimbabweans.

Critics accuse president Robert Mugabe of using the issue to drum up support for his Zanu-PF party in the run-up to elections, and to deflect attention from his government's failed land reform programmes.

But it is hard to overstate the hunger for land in southern Africa or the resentment towards (white) farmers with their history of labour exploitation and state support. South Africa, Namibia and Zambia are anxiously watching events because of the danger conflict in Zimbabwe poses to stability and prosperity in the region.

David Simon, professor of development geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, said there was alarm in South Africa when the Pan-African Congress made approving comments at events in Zimbabwe.

"However, the government and other parties and groups have repudiated this stance," Professor Simon said. "The prospect of anarchy overtaking land redistribution, especially if the almost inevitable racial connotations fan open conflict, could rapidly bring South Africa to its knees as is virtually happening now in Zimbabwe. Market-based redistribution has its limitations, but is far preferable to chaos, whether officially fanned or not."

Chris Marfu, a researcher for the Land and Agricultural Policy Centre in Johannesburg, said South Africa and Zambia are applying market principles on a "willing seller, willing buyer basis", a system more equitable than Zimbabwe's.

South African land reform hinges on two constitutional principles: protected property rights and the right to equity-tied land redistribution, Mr Marfu said. The aim is to widen land access to South Africa's dispossessed in ways that safeguard property rights.

Glen Thomas, acting director-general of land and agricultural affairs, said policies would transfer land rights to tribes, groups or individuals, or to emerging black farmers.

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