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Villains breed violence in Zimbabwe

PEOPLE OFTEN like to see moral issues in high contrast. A simple question takes less time to answer, and often can incite a response through sheer emotion, without much need for reasoning. In this realm, few people get what they want. The most critical questions, however, rarely offer a ready answer in black and white. The recent spate of violence in Zimbabwe offers an example of a situation without heroes. Villains, however, abound in this situation.

The present problems go back to Zimbabwe's war of independence back in the 1970s. The people of Zimbabwe, then called Rhodesia, won their independence from Britain in 1980, led by Robert Mugabe, the current president. In part, the war was waged for political control. A significant factor contributing to the peoples' desire for freedom from British domination, however, was the inequitable distribution of land. Following the war, however, redistribution progressed only slowly. Much of Zimbabwe's black majority remains landless.

Until recently, Britain was funding the redistribution of land in Zimbabwe, spending about $70 million to compensate white landowners. The funding dried up, however, when Britain accused Mugabe of giving the land mostly to his cronies. Since that time, a whirlwind of activity has erupted around Zimbabwe's white-owned farms.

From a government end, Mugabe supported an amendment to the constitution that would allow for the seizure of white land without compensation. This, as part of a package that expanded his powers as president, was defeated in February. After that, the Zimbabwean parliament passed a law shortly before its dissolution that achieved the same essential goal.

The legal manipulations, however, are not the crux of the story. Following the defeat of the referendum in February, people claiming to be veterans of the war of independence began invading white-owned farms. While some are doubtless truly veterans, eyewitnesses report that many are far too young to have been fighting in the war more than 20 years ago. To date, squatters have invaded nearly 1,000 farms, mostly near the capital city of Harare. Numerous squatting incidents have escalated into violence, with a few deaths being reported.

Mugabe has told the nation's police force that it is not to attempt to remove the squatters from the farms, despite the ruling by Zimbabwe's High Court that the squatters should be evicted. Furthermore, Mugabe has called the white farmers enemies of the state for trying to hold on to their land, and lauded the squatters for keeping the revolutionary spirit alive. His only concession to farmers is to say that if they fear for their safety, he will arrange a police escort to help them out of the country.

For their part, many Zimbabweans feel, and the parliament has stated as an issue of national policy, that the land the farmers presently own was stolen from Africans during Britain's colonization of the country. This is true -- the traditional pattern of colonization is to take land with little or no compensation for the natives. By the squatters' reasoning, the descendants of the colonists have become heirs to the injustice perpetrated by their forefathers. For lack of a better term, the land is tainted by its original theft, and so the farmers who now live on it have no real right to the property. This position, while philosophically respectable, is very difficult to deal with in practice. Finding the people who had untainted rights to land requires going back in some instances to before written records were kept.

At any rate, the farmers have not come to the table with perfectly clean hands. Still, their treatment by Mugabe's government has certainly been unjust. While the land may have been taken unjustly, the white farmers who now live on it are not the people who did the seizing. Certainly they deserve more for their land than a free escort out of the country. Mugabe has declared war on his own people, a race war centered on taking land from whites without regard for law or justice. Yet that is not the full effect of his actions. Due to his choices as president, Zimbabwe has lost most of its international aid and is spiraling towards economic ruin.

Villains are everywhere here. The white colonists who stole the land initially, the squatters who are stealing it again, and Mugabe, who is using the violence to prop up his struggling political regime, all lack important redeeming qualities. Still, we can pick out a side to support. Further aid to Zimbabwe should be made contingent upon the end of the squatting and the compensation of farmers for land redistribution.

(Sparky Clarkson's column appeared Tuesdays in the Cavalier Daily.)

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