Whites under siege hunker down in Zimbabwe

Attacking the nation's whites is "the last card" Mugabe has in his fight for political survival.

Robert Mugabe 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Robert Mugabe 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
With his 28-year grip on power slipping, President Robert Mugabe's government has again lashed out at Zimbabwe's white community, calling his black opponents tools of former colonial master Britain and stoking anger against the nation's whites. In the past, such attacks struck a chord in a country that suffered under white minority rule until 1980 and where whites controlled much of the economy even decades later. But after repeated attacks, the seizure of most white-owned farms and the near collapse of the economy, the white community's size and power have dwindled. It may no longer be effective to use whites as a scapegoat for the nation's ills. Attacking the nation's whites is "the last card" Mugabe has in his fight for political survival, analyst John Makumbe said. "He has nothing else to offer." Mugabe's past programs to seize white wealth might have been too effective, Makumbe said, and may have deprived the president of his most valuable tactic. Now, with just a handful of whites left controlling businesses and farms, offering to seize white property may not be seen as a rich prize to the poor blacks suffering the worst of the economic hardships, Makumbe said. Before the March 29 elections, Mugabe castigated British government leaders and whites in Zimbabwe he said were yearning for a return to colonial-era white privilege, calling them "pink noses" he would smash with his fist. Following the vote, which he reportedly lost though the results have yet to be released, Mugabe again turned to the racial issue, telling Zimbabweans that the land taken from the white farmers was under threat. "This our soil, and the soil must never go back to the whites," he said. Since then, ruling party militants have invaded scores of the farms still owned by whites. The opposition says the attacks are part of a wave of intimidation by Mugabe loyalists meant to ensure that the president does not lose an expected runoff. "Looting is taking place. It is a free-for-all. Farmers are being told they are enemies of the state. There is no more discussion than that," said Trevor Gifford, head of the mainly white farmers' union. Mugabe once was hailed as a model leader who brought racial reconciliation. At independence in 1980, he offered an olive branch to the nation's 270,000 whites following 15 years of rule by Ian Smith's minority white government. But as their power decreased over time, many whites left the country, and only 70,000 remained two decades later. In 2000, as the opposition Movement for Democratic Change presented the greatest challenge to his rule, Mugabe abandoned the rhetoric of reconciliation and railed against the white community and the 4,500 white farmers who still controlled 80 percent of the nation's most fertile land. Television footage of wealthy whites giving donations to the MDC reportedly infuriated Mugabe, who felt it violated his tacit agreement with whites that they could retain their economic power as long as they didn't meddle in politics. "A lot of whites naively thought the MDC offered a new democratic dispensation they could openly support. Since then, they've had to wind their necks in," said Ian Stokes, an executive employment consultant. "Mugabe set out to punish the people he said spurned his hand of reconciliation." Mugabe endorsed farm invasions by ruling party militants and began a radical reform program he said would right historic wrongs by dividing the best land among poor blacks - but ended up putting most of that land in the hands of party cronies. The land reform is often blamed for igniting an economic crisis that has devastated the country. He also pushed legislation to take over majority stakes in white-controlled businesses. The moves set off an exodus among the nation's remaining whites. Now, there are only 30,000 whites left out of a population of about 12 million - though an estimated 5 million Zimbabweans, black and white, have fled as economic fugitives and political exiles. Many of the remaining whites are retirees finding it nearly impossible to live on their meager pensions with the official inflation rate of 100,000 percent, the highest in the world. Independent financial firms say real inflation is closer to 290,000 percent. One white retiree in the Alexandra Park suburb of northern Harare said his monthly pension does not buy him a loaf of bread, and he survives on handouts from relatives abroad. The man asked not to be identified because of the widespread fear of retribution. White enclaves such as tennis, sports and social clubs, have largely disappeared. Whites no longer display what affluence they retain, fearing it will make them targets. "Having a big car and a house boat for fishing trips on Lake Kariba became a liability," Stokes said. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of whites are suffering stress-related conditions, respiratory illness and alcohol abuse, doctors said. Mugabe's allies in the ruling party, with their luxury cars, ornate mansions and access to state-subsidized fuel and special rates for buying hard currency, now sit atop the economy. Businessman and former ruling party lawmaker Philip Chiyangwa owns a Hummer even though gasoline is almost impossible for ordinary Zimbabweans to find. He boasted in the state media recently that he installed a computerized color-coded wardrobe for matching hundreds of suits, shoes and fashion accessories at his 30-room home in the exclusive Harare suburb of Borrowdale. Meanwhile, many black farm workers seen as opposition supporters are being intimidated, and several black-owned farms have been raided, witnesses said. One white community leader who asked not to be named said whites holding British and other foreign passports are asking their embassies about possible evacuation plans. "We are telling people not to panic and keep their heads down," he said.