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Friday, December 5, 1997 Published at 16:22 GMT

image: [ The BBC's Ian Mills ] Zimbabwe land reform row

Ian Mills
Reporting from Harare

In Zimbabwe, the government of President Robert Mugabe has said it is pressing ahead with its plans to nationalise more than five million hectares of farmland, most of it white-owned, in order to resettle black farmers currently living on a subsistence level. The government says the land was stolen during the British colonial era and is now being taken back. But Ian Mills in Harare says the policy has created alarm and despondency among the country's - population both white and black - and has increased concern for Zimbabwe's economic future.

It's Sunday morning and I've just come from church, where the sermon was on a subject that, more so than at any time since independence 18 years ago, is dear to the hearts of everyone in Zimbabwe - namely hope.

Melodramatic though it may sound, both black and white in this currently troubled and unsettled country don't believe there's much hope left for them, hence the sermon. A potent mixture of economic decline and seemingly harsh and ill-considered government action has created nationwide gloom and fears about the damage and disruption these actions might cause.

And it's all happened within the past few weeks.

Central to what is generally perceived as a national, political, economic and ethnic crisis is land reform, or rather the way the government wishes to promote it.

President Mugabe has decreed that major advances in land reform must be made immediately and that five million hectares of mainly white-owned farmland must be seized without payment in order to resettle what the government describes as landless peasants.

So 1,503 large-scale commercial farms and ranches - nearly half the total in the country - have now been listed for seizure. About 60 of them are owned by black commercial farmers, which makes it an inexplicable decision given the government's black empowerment policy.

A mere glance at the farm list shows that the government has reneged on its previous promises not to seize productive farms. In fact, many of the farms being seized are among the most viable and productive in the country.

To understand the impact of all this, it has to be appreciated that agriculture is Zimbabwe's mainstay, being the biggest single foreign currency earner - mainly through tobacco - and generating two-thirds of the national domestic economy.

Commercial farming leaders assert that if the government goes ahead with its plans, Zimbabwe's agricultural output and foreign earnings will be cut by half.

The government, however, rejects these claims and arguments as humbug. It is equally assertive in maintaining that the new farm residents will easily fill the gap, some call it a chasm, left by the former white owners.

All this comes amid a steep decline in the country's economic fortunes. Its currency has been on a serious downward slope for some time and recently had to be rescued from a record low level.

The over-spending has taken on new and massive proportions with Mr Mugabe's seemingly personal decree to award his former Independence War freedom fighters pension and gratuity payments that are, in the first year, going to cost four billion Zimbabwe dollars - that's about 30m US dollars.

Understandably, this prompted an avalanche of questions on where the money would come from. The bland and affable Finance Minister, Herbert Murewa, explained that the government would simply borrow two billion on the local money market and raise the rest by increasing taxes.

Howls of outrage followed from all quarters, except, of course, from the 40,000 or so war veterans. The nation's trade unions responded with threats of a national strike.

Why do it all now is the question on many Zimbabwean lips.

The answer is that Mr Mugabe has dallied too long in dealing effectively with his political imperatives. But now, this week in fact, he wants to deliver - some would say has to deliver the goods at his party's national congress, faced as he is with increasing criticism and faltering support.

This is not only from within his party, but also further afield among international donors, who have steadfastly witheld countless millions in budgetary support over the last three years to demonstrate their displeasure over his government's poor fiscal performance.

There may be other reasons for Mr Mugabe's recent swift and uncompromising moves. Inside his party, there is talk that he is contemplating doing a third term as president, which would need a change to the constitution - and therefore some vote-catching.

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