The Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC), the main ecumenical organization in this southern African country, has urged the government of President Robert Mugabe to move swiftly to distribute land—mostly owned by white farmers—to thousands of peasants, under a comprehensive land-reform program.The call follows the invasion in recent weeks of more than 300 commercial farms by thousands of former guerrillas who fought in Zimbabwe's war of independence, which brought white rule to an end in 1980. The war was fought under the banner of "land for all," and the unequal distribution of land was one of the major reasons that spurred Zimbabweans to war.Zimbabwe's president, Dr Robert Mugabe, has said that those who occupied the farms should remain on the land. However, the ZCC said that land redistribution should be undertaken by the government in a "systematic, just and transparent manner" rather than left to the "acquisitiveness of individuals" and has called on the war veterans to be patient.The issue of the white-owned farms is highly controversial both in Zimbabwe and abroad, as the government refuses to pay compensation to the white farmers who are losing their property. In 1995 government amended the constitution and gave itself powers to forcibly acquire land, but giving owners an option to contest the acquisition in a court of law.According to the London Independent newspaper's Africa correspondent, after Zimbabwe became independent, the former colonial power, Great Britain, paid compensation to some commercial farmers who gave up their land. Britain "later froze its payments after Zimbabwe's redistribution program fell short of its target, and a number of prime properties were given to ministers and members of the ruling Zanu-PF party.""Twenty years after President Mugabe came to power, about 4,000 commercial farmers—most of them white—still own the most productive third of Zimbabwe's land. About 1.5 million black subsistence farmers live on the remaining two thirds," the newspaper adds.A draft constitution, rejected in a referendum by the majority of Zimbabwean voters last month, contained a clause ordering Britain to compensate farmers whose land was acquired for resettlement purposes. Following the defeat of the constitution vote, the Harare government moved a bill in parliament to make it obligatory for Britain to compensate farmers. However, Britain has refused to co-operate with any such arrangement.Relations between Harare and London have been extremely tense in recent weeks, and Britain recalled its high commissioner to Harare this month after the Zimbabwean authorities broke diplomatic protocol by searching diplomatic bags being transported by London to the High Commission here.Speaking to Ecumenical News International (ENI), Perpetua Bganya, head of the ZCC's justice, peace and reconciliation unit, said of the issue of farm ownership: "The churches are not in dispute that people are land-hungry, but let land redistribution be done in a systematic, just and transparent manner." She called on the war veterans to be patient and allow the government to distribute the land."The problem cannot be left to the acquisitiveness of individuals to be resolved. It is a duty of the government to redistribute land in this country," she said.Since independence the government has been talking about a comprehensive land reform program but this has yet to be implemented.Bganya told ENI: "What we want is consultations with the people so that the land reform process becomes a communally-owned and sustained program that benefits everyone, not just the privileged few."The former guerrillas said the farm invasions were a way of registering their unhappiness with the rejection of the draft constitution. They claimed that the commercial farmers had vigorously campaigned against the draft constitution.A spokesman for the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference, Jesuit priest Oskar Wermter, commented: "The war veterans and their hangers-on are barking up the wrong tree. The farmers are not the main obstacle to an effective land reform in Zimbabwe," he said.Wermter said the repossession of the land was only one question that needed to be dealt with. The government had to find ways to teach new farmers skills to work the land.According to the Independent, Jerry Grant, of the Commercial Farmers' Union (CFU), said March 16 that the farm invasions were being orchestrated by Zanu-PF and aimed at frightening landowners."Yesterday Mr. Grant said CFU members had reported [that] unemployed youths [were] being paid, fed and transported to white farms by ruling party organizers with government vehicles and equipment," the Independent reported. He said those who occupied farms were often too young to have fought in the war."Last week President Mugabe said on state television that the occupiers could stay on the farms," the newspaper added. "He said the invasions were a political protest against the government's defeat in the referendum."Copyright © 2000 Ecumenical News International. Used with permission.

Article continues below
Related Elsewhere

Other media sources covering this story include The Zimbabwe Standard, Newsweek, The Associated Press, Agence France-Presses, the Sydney Morning Herald, the London Times, the BBC, and Africa News Online.