Friday, August 28, 1998 Published at 06:37 GMT 07:37 UK
Small beginnings for Zimbabwe land reform
President Mugabe needed to show his critics he was serious about land reform
By Joseph Winter in Harare
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has officially launched the second phase of his controversial land reform programme.
He says he will acquire five million hectares of land from white commercial farmers over the next five years and give the land to poor black families.
As a result of colonial policies, land ownership is very unbalanced in Zimbabwe, with a few thousand whites owning nearly half of all the best farm land. Critics say the land reform will destroy the country's economy, which is based on agriculture.
To mark the start of the programme, President Mugabe went to a farm in the north-east of the country which had been bought from a white farmer and which will now be handed over to 40 black families, each with its own field.
This farm was purchased before last year's publication of a list of 1,500 farms set for compulsory acquisition and so is not really part of the new phase of land reform.
But Robert Mugabe was under intense pressure to act, and act quickly. Villagers have recently begun invading white-owned farms, trying to resettle themselves, because they say the government is doing nothing.
The rainy season starts soon, when farmers are too busy to be moving on to new land. Now the president can answer his critics by saying that the process has at least begun.
However it will not be easy. Forty families is not even a dent in the 150,000 who Robert Mugabe says will be resettled over the next five years. And that number still leaves millions more who will also ask for extra land.
Mr Mugabe is in a very tight situation, caught between millions of impoverished villagers, whose appetite for land he has whetted with his fiery rhetoric, and his lack of money to fulfill his many promises.
A donor conference is scheduled for next month, when Zimbabwe will ask for the cash needed for land reform, but there is growing speculation that some donors will retort: "If you've got the money to sent soldiers to Congo, you can pay for your own land."