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Zeroing in on Zimbabwe

There exists a striking difference between the manner in which the American media is covering the situation in Zimbabwe and the manner in which it is being covered overseas. If one simply read news reports of what is taking place in the African nation of 11 million people you would be led to think that all of a sudden a group of poor Blacks, with the sanction of the president of the country, has decided to rise up against a group of wealthier whites and steal their land from them. But nothing could be more devoid of context and further from the truth. This weekend both the New York Times and L.A. Times led the way in providing coverage of events in Zimbabwe that left out significant details or attempted to minimize historical truths that would have helped to explain some of the reason why events are evolving the way that they are in Zimbabwe. Glossed over in the U.S. media are the blunt facts that almost in and of themselves indicate that something is very wrong in Zimbabwe that has little to do with the present. One such fact is that 4,500 white farmers own 11 million hectares of land and 1,000,000 million Blacks own only16 million hectares. The white-owned land is prime Zimbabwe agricultural territory and the Black owned land is in drought-prone areas. In fact the whites of the country own 70 % of the best or most useful land in the country. The population of the country is 99.4% Black and 0.6% white. That is correct; 99.4% Black and 0.6% white. The media, analysts and a sort of other "know-it-alls" would do well to begin their look at Zimbabwe by considering the plain facts.

The origin of the dispute over the land traces back to the European settlers who followed Britain's Cecil Rhodes lead into the southern part of the continent of Africa. The whites who currently reside on the land are the descendants of this original group of British immigrants. And though the country of Rhodesia as it was then known, broke from out of the rule of the British in 1980 the inequality in the distribution of land has never been resolved. And because the land issue has never been resolved the issue of economic inequality has never been addressed to the satisfaction of the Blacks of the country. The unemployment rate of the country is 50% and the rate of inflation is 50%. The country has the highest rate of AIDS on the continent and is wrestling with every kind of societal woe imaginable. Foreign aid has fallen and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after years of demanding Zimbabwe follow its dictates on matters of monetary and fiscal policy matters, cut off aid last year out of concerns with Zimbabwe's involvement in the funding of the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This, after Zimbabwe agreed to whatever conditions the IMF deemed necessary to continue providing aid and after Zimbabwe disclosed to the IMF the level of its financial involvement in the war in the DRC.

The media ignores or pays lip service to these facts and plunges into a discussion about how unfair President Robert Mugabe has been to the whites that now have a group of very angry Blacks squatting on their farmland and demanding that the land be divided more equally between the two sides. Mugabe's obvious and real shortcomings are harped upon as well as the likelihood that he and those close to him have profited from the sale of some of the white-owned land and via other forms of government corruption. Though these allegations do appear to have merit, the American media's insistence upon them should in no way absolve Britain, the IMF and the white farmers of their obvious historical exploitation of the Black population of the country and of Zimbabwe's natural resources. The American and western media even go as far as to warn that because the whites are more experienced in farming key cash crops than are the Blacks, if the land is transferred to Black control the economy will suffer. Another device used to avoid dealing with the matter in a just and equitable manner.

Many Blacks in the country are upset with Mugabe regarding the slow pace at which the government has been able to transfer the land from white farmers to Black. And because of this his popularity has fallen. The crux of the land issue is determining what land will be transferred and what compensation the white farmers will receive and who will pay it-the Zimbabwe government or Britain. On this issue Mugabe has been painted as a wild-eyed radical who is urging that Blacks "steal" land from whites. Nothing could be further from the truth. Still, Mugabe receives the blame for the problem. Even the N. Y. Times after spending a few thousand words depicting Mugabe as a "race-baiter" conceded that Mugabe was not solely responsible for the land problems. The Times wrote in its Saturday cover story on Zimbabwe, " Land experts say the government is certainly not the only entity to blame for the slow pace of land redistribution, a program that has been endorsed by the World Bank, the British government and other foreign donors. Despite their repeated assurances that they support land redistribution, the farmers have failed systematically to identify and map the fallow land that is actually available for sale. And foreign donors have put little money on the table to help finance land reform in recent years. In that context, many experts and commercial farmers see the president's actions as simply a strategy to win rural votes and to press donors and farmers to do more. They doubt that he will actually seize farms with out paying for them". The president's "actions" include expressing sympathy with a group of military veterans who currently are camped around 800 farms that they claim to be their own. They say to the white farmers who they want removed that they only want back what was taken from their (the Blacks) forefathers. Some of the encounters have been violent.

Mugabe wants the British to compensate the white farmers for the land that is to be redistributed, arguing that the British are the ones who stole it in the first place. The matter has become very tense because Zimbabwe is in the midst of an election that finds Mugabe, in power since 1987, facing his stiffest challenge ever from Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change. Tsvangirai has the financial backing of the white farmers and is arguing that Mugabe is dividing the nation by seeking land redistribution. He also argues that if the land is redistributed the country will lose badly needed foreign assistance and cannot afford to lose any more aid from abroad. Last Thursday the parliament in a narrow vote gave Mugabe the right to confiscate farmland without paying compensation. Mugabe has shied away from taking such action.

It is doubtful that the American media will provide a balanced picture of the situation in Zimbabwe. To do so would force the media to take into account the true history of the European colonialization and the fact that land was ripped from the possession of Blacks and given to whites to explore and extract natural resources and precious metals from. Not only was the land stolen but huge income streams were generated that went straight to Britain. No, that is too much to expect from the American press; it is much easier to begin the story in this generation with accounts of government corruption by an African leader. While that is an unfortunate aspect to this story it certainly is not the centerpiece. But in the way this issue is being handled by the Western media, particularly in America and Britain, one can see a pattern. The real land question that the media avoids in Zimbabwe is the same question it avoids in the Middle East where Palestinians where forcibly removed from their own land. And it is the same question being avoided in North America where the Native Americans were robbed of their land. Just like in their coverage of Zimbabwe, the media glosses over what has happened to the Palestinians and the Native Americans. To blame Mugabe for the actions of Blacks in Zimbabwe who are frustrated, in pain and poor as a result of what has been stolen and denied to them is intellectually dishonest and evil. But it certainly does not come as a surprise.

Cedric Muhammad

Monday, April 10, 2000

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