Saturday, February 11, 2006

Muddle in farm offers

The fate of Zimbabwe's dispossessed white farmers was uncertain yesterday after the regime publicly contradicted private assurances that some landowners would be allowed back to their properties.

Ministers close to President Robert Mugabe are considering a partial reversal of the land grab. Assurances have been given that some farmers will be allowed to lease back their holdings.

After this was disclosed in The Daily Telegraph, Didymus Mutasa, the security minister also responsible for land reform, denied any U-turn. "We are not going to change our land policy and we are not going to surrender any land that has been given to our people," he told state television.

A constitutional amendment passed last year made every acre of agricultural land the property of the state.

Mr Mutasa pointed out that the last handful of about 250 surviving white farmers need official leases to stay on their properties.

"To my knowledge there are not many, if any, white commercial farmers who have the permission, so most of them who are farming now are doing so illegally," he said.

Senior figures in the regime have told farmers that, as a first stage, the surviving 250 will be given leases allowing them to stay on their holdings. Then a limited number of displaced landowners will be given leases allowing them to return.

The thinking behind this policy is that it will ease pressure from the International Monetary Fund, which has threatened to expel Zimbabwe for failing to pay its dues.

But Joseph Made, the agriculture minister, told the state press that white farmers were "irrelevant". He added: "The country's land policies are very sound and will not be frozen or set aside."

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