A Move To Grab White Owned Land...May Land Mugabe In Deep Trouble

Zimbabwe businessman John Gardiner has scrambled to lure customers since he started importing fish five years ago to sell to a nation of beef eaters. The former restaurateur gave out recipes. He served up his favorite seafood dishes. By 1997 his company, Interna-trade, employed 150 people, owned four fresh-fish shops, and raked in profits distributing fancy foods. Even though Zimbabwe's annual per capita income is a scant $550, buyers snapped up his American chocolate bars, Australian prawns, and South African fruit juices.

Those were the good days. Now, Zimbabwe is roiling under a government growing more desperate. Instead of expanding operations as planned, Gardiner, 41, fears he may have to lay off workers. Asked about his prospects, he replies: "Have you seen the movie Titanic?"

This nation of 11 million, once considered the hope of Africa because of its fertile tobacco fields and rich mineral deposits, may not have hit an iceberg, but it's sailing rough seas. Gross domestic product in 1997 grew 3.7%, down from 7.2% in 1996. The central bank expects the rate to be about 3% this year. Tensions shot up when President Robert Mugabe announced plans in August to nationalize commercial farms, mostly white-owned, and caved in to angry former guerrillas demanding huge pension payouts.

The ex-fighters, who battled the white regime when this nation was called Rhodesia, were promised a $222 million compensation package that the government can ill afford. Mugabe proposed increases in sales, income, and energy taxes to raise the money, then scuttled all but the sales tax after a national day of protest on Dec. 9 erupted into rioting. More riots on Jan. 20 over food price hikes led to five deaths.

Despair is especially acute among the unemployed, hit hardest by inflation of more than 20%. Since December, the prices of some vegetables have more than tripled, and cornmeal has nearly doubled. Private economists say unemployment could be as high as 50%, while government estimates run from 30% to 40%. "In the coming year, we won't have enough money to even feed our children," laments 25-year-old Netsai Nyamande, who sells dried fish and peanuts because she can't find a job.

"VIOLATED." The 73-year-old Mugabe, who has ruled since independence in 1980, is trying to counter a rising tide of opposition with a flurry of promises. Take the land-reform program, aimed at appeasing poor blacks by redistributing 1,480 farms. The rural blacks have languished since independence with only vague pledges that they would get productive land. About 4,000 white farmers control one-third of the land.

Dire consequences may result. Banks could get stuck with an estimated $111 million in loans on confiscated farmland. And since the government intends to hold title to seized farms, the new farmers will lack collateral for operating loans. White farmers warn that agriculture production could fall by more than a third, threatening Zimbabwe's standing as the world's third-largest tobacco producer. Some farmers are distraught. "I feel violated," says 37-year-old Warwick Evans, who bought his 1,400-hectare farm after independence. The government also hasn't explained how it will fund the astronomical costs of compensation. Negotiations continue--but having announced the program, Mugabe could find it impossible to back down.

Officials deny there is an economic crisis and consider criticism of the land program to be a racial attack. "They don't have confidence in black people," says Information Minister Chen Chimutengwende. But confusion at the top has more to do with eroding faith in the government. For example, Chimutengwende says Harare will take over outstanding private loans after the seizure of farms. A source in the Finance Ministry says that has never been discussed.

For the first time, there are whispers that Mugabe's days as President could be numbered. Parliament no longer rubber-stamps his initiatives. The opposition press is getting braver. And labor leaders are considering more strikes. Says Morgan Tsvangirai, head of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions: "You reach a limit on how much you can continue to squeeze people."

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