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January 2002, Volume 8, Number 1

Zimbabwe: Land Invasions

President Robert Mugabe and his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF has been in power since independence in 1980. Zimbabwe's economy has been shrinking. Voters in a February 2000 referendum rejected a constitutional amendment that would have consolidated Mugabe's presidential powers. This prompted a government-supported move by veterans of Zimbabwe's 1970s liberation war to seize commercial farms owned by white farmers, who account for less than one percent of the country's 12 million people.

The government targeted about 5,000 farms- 95 percent of all farms owned by whites--for redistribution to largely landless blacks and, under a mid-November 2001 amendment to the Land Acquisition Act, farmers whose land has been acquired cannot appeal. Interference with black resettlement is a criminal offense. At independence in 1980, white farmers owned more than 11.6 million hectares.

Between March 2000 and September 2001, some 1,700 of the 4,600 farms owned by whites were invaded by militant Blacks. Under pressure from other nations, Zimbabwe agreed in September 2001 to stop violent takeovers of white-owned farms. The chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) said: "the economic and political problems Zimbabwe is facing now could easily snowball across the entire southern African region."

The tobacco industry directly employs 20 percent of the labor force in Zimbabwe, and 50 percent of the work force in Malawi. Zimbabwe is the world's fourth-largest tobacco producer after China, Brazil and India, and ranks third to Brazil and the United States as an exporter. Tobacco accounts for about 10 percent of gross domestic product in both Zimbabwe and Malawi.

The South African government is reportedly bracing itself for a possible mass exodus from Zimbabwe if violence and economic turmoil worsens. A government official estimated that about 1,200 illegal Zimbabwean immigrants to South Africa are being deported each week. The government uses "deportation trains" to return illegal Zimbabweans. The South African government is also preparing an emergency plan should Zimbabwean farmers cross the border to seek asylum. The plan is to accommodate them in army tents on a showground until the Home Affairs office can determine their status.

White farmers in South Africa's Northern Province complained about a government decision not to renew the work permits of 10,000 Zimbabweans working on labor-intensive citrus and vegetable farms near the border town of Messina after October 15, 2001. On October 15, the South African government announced that it would postpone the deportation of the Zimbabwean workers.

About 8,000 Zimbabwean workers left South Africa between October 13 and October 17, apparently unaware of an agreement that postponed their deportation. They earn R300 to R750 a month, plus receive room and board. The government is proposing an agricultural minimum wage of R400 to R750 a month. Farm wages totaled R7.5-billion in 2000.

Edward Vorster, president of Agri North, a farmers union, said that the farmers needed more time to find South Africans to replace the Zimbabweans. Unemployment in South Africa is 30 percent, and the number of commercial farms that hire workers has dropped from about 130,000 in 1970 to 50,000 in 2000. South Africa's Department of Labor compiled a list of 20,000 people in the area who are eager for work.

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