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Zimbabwe: Current Issues - page 7 / 19





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reports of serious improprieties in payments from the War Veterans Compensation Fund, intended to assist disabled veterans of the liberation struggle. Veterans mounted a series of protests, but these were stemmed in August 1997, when the government announced that all veterans would receive a substantial lump sum payment as well as a monthly pension and other benefits. Economists were concerned that no such expenditures had been budgeted or planned, and that the inflationary impact of the payouts would further weaken the currency.

Demonstrations by students and workers against corruption and unemployment by students and workers occurred with increasing frequency in the later 1990s, and these were often harshly suppressed by the police. In December 1997, during one round of protests, trade union leader Morgan Tsvangirai was attacked in his office and beaten unconscious by unknown assailants; and in March 1998, the offices of his Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) in Bulawayo were pillaged and burned. The latter attack came after the army had been deployed to put down urban protests over rising food prices. There were other reports of political intimidation against opponents of the regime, and some accounts attributed these attacks to war veterans, whose loyalty to Mugabe had been solidified by the costly veterans benefit program.

The Land Issue

As Zimbabwe’s political and economic situation deteriorated in the later 1990s, tensions between the Mugabe government and white farmers over land intensified. At the time, it was estimated that about 4,500 white-owned commercial farms were occupying about 70% of the country’s most fertile land while perhaps 8 million peasant farmers were still primarily working the poorer, drier soils of the Communal Areas. Many observers argued that the white-owned farms were critical to the nation’s economy, not only because of their contribution to the nation’s food supply, but also because the tobacco, maize, and other crops they produced for export accounted for about 40% of export earnings. Moreover, many argued that the long-term solution to unemployment among Zimbabwe’s poor lay not in land redistribution but in business and industry, including tourism. Even so, it had long been recognized by donors, and by the largely white Commercial Farmers Union, that the sharp inequity in land distribution was untenable over the long term, and programs had been developed to purchase white-owned land for resettlement by African farmers.

The goal of these land reform programs was not to divide up fertile land into subsistence plots, but to create viable small farms that would continue to produce crops for the local market and for export. Some economists argued that reform of this sort could actually boost earnings in the agriculture sector, since in their view land on the large, white-owned farms tended not to be fully utilized. Others pointed out, however, that there would be added costs to reform, since the former white-owned farms would be more densely populated, creating added needs for roads, schools, clinics, and other facilities.

From 1980 until 1992, a largely British-funded program financed the purchase of approximately 3 million hectares of land on a “willing seller-willing buyer” basis, and some 62,000 families were resettled. (The Economist, November 15, 1997). U.S. assistance funds during this time were used not to purchase land but to help strengthen the overall economy and assist smallholder farmers through agricultural credit programs, extension services, and training. British support for land purchases came to an end in 1992, when the Mugabe


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