No one can say president Robert Mugabe is not doing an exemplary job of bringing Zimbabwe down. His rigging of the 2002 elections and the often violent repression of his opponents (there were at least 58 documented cases of political killings and torture in 2002, according to Amnesty International) led to an extension of his country's 18-month suspension from the Commonwealth. The significance of this is more than symbolic: with Commonwealth membership comes access to large amounts of desperately needed European funding.
Hand in hand with the vote-rigging has been legendary mismanagement, intolerance and a flagrant disregard for his people's suffering. The irony is that Mugabe was once considered the rational voice of African heads of state, the leader of a country which had been the second richest on the continent, after South Africa. Today, Zimbabwe has the highest inflation rate in the world, running at 619.5 per cent. International aid agencies call the consequences of the economic collapse a major humanitarian disaster.
Mugabe's furious departure from the Commonwealth on December 8 last year means that the country is now isolated at a time when it is experiencing widespread starvation, HIVAids, an economy in tatters, drought and growing dissent and demoralisation. His "fast track" land reform programme, a transparent attempt to win votes from the rural poor, has been identified from within and internationally as a disastrous failure. His support of the self-styled war veterans' often violent seizures of land from more than 4,000 white farmers in the years 2000 to 2002 has helped bring about a massive deficit in crop production. According to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, of the Movement for Democratic Change, the maize shortfall alone will be one million metric tonnes.
The tragedy that is Zimbabwe today can be explained in a word that is more politically and emotionally loaded than any other in southern Africa: land.
This issue has festered for more than a century and looks set to change the face of a rich but troubled part of the continent for years to come.
Land grab In 1889, white settlers from South Africa moved north in a land grab. This was not a free-for-all - it was sanctioned by the British South Africa Company, a commercial undertaking awarded a royal charter by Queen Victoria. A year later, the company started to administer the areas of Northern and Southern Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe respectively).
The BSAC was run by Cecil Rhodes, an industrialist who believed it was Britain's mission to bring the "uncivilised" peoples of the world under British rule. Under a law giving white settlers rights to land belonging to indigenous people, the company organised the forcible removal of Africans from the vast fertile swathes of land that had been their home for centuries, and placed them on reserves - remote tracts of poor quality land, far from railway lines and areas where valuable minerals such as gold and diamonds were likely to be.
On to the productive farmland came British settlers from the south in the early 1890s. Their presence was not welcomed by the Africans; the first national uprising, or Chimurenga, spontaneously erupted in 1893. It was brutally suppressed and the white administration expanded its foothold. In the process it created a system of racial segregation in most spheres of life, including agriculture.
Land seizures continued and, by the beginning of the First World War, 75 per cent of the area was owned by 28,000 whites, comprising 3 per cent of the population. One million Africans were restricted to 23 per cent of the land, forced into reserves situated on the worst farming land in the country. The policy not only ensured that whites had the best land to farm, but also that the black population could be supervised and controlled, thereby avoiding further uprisings. In addition, it meant that the settlers had labour pools in specific areas from which to draw men to work in the gold and platinum mines. The meagre living that Africans could eke out on the reserves ensured that there were always men prepared to take up mining work far from their homes, from which they could regularly send money home.
Southern Rhodesia became a self-ruling British colony in 1923 and soon legalised the racially defined land tenure system throughout the country. This legitimised a segregated system of land distribution in which Europeans were allocated productive farming land in their own area and Africans were confined to the reserves.
To soften dissent, blacks were offered the opportunity of acquiring freehold property in areas adjacent to the reserves. This was the model for the Bantustans (tribally based "homelands") that the apartheid regime would introduce in South Africa a few decades later. In both countries, the system formed the foundation on which enormous wealth for the whites was generated while blacks lived in poverty and servitude.
Britain was not happy with the uncompromising position of the white Rhodesians towards the black majority and relations grew increasingly tense throughout the 1930s and 1940s between the British Colonial Office and Salisbury, the capital. An African Marxist-socialist guerrilla movement emerged in the early 1950s, encompassing urban and rural followers, and including black trade unionists. Zanu (Zimbabwe African National Union), led by Robert Mugabe, was mainly made up of the Shona people from the north. It was a splinter group from the more moderate Zapu (Zimbabwe African People's Union), headed by Joshua Nkomo, which was based in Matabeleland in the south. Both organisations led incursions into Southern Rhodesia from neighbouring Mozambique throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
While it was a good time for the black majorities of 35 former colonies across Africa who gained independence in the 1960s, it was the worst time for Ian Smith, who was elected Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia in 1964.
Guerilla insurgents were waging a civil war on the white minority in the second Chimurenga that was sweeping across the country. And the British government's NIBMAR policy (No Independence Before Majority African Rule), was pressing him to usher in sweeping reforms that would give the African population the self-determination that had been achieved elsewhere in Africa - including Zambia, previously Northern Rhodesia.
But in a move as audacious as that of Mugabe's exit from the Commonwealth 38 years later, Smith issued a unilateral declaration of independence in 1965. This was rejected by Britain, which then tried and failed to negotiate a settlement with the white Rhodesians. In the end, Harold Wilson's Government led a Commonwealth trade boycott that was taken up by non-Commonwealth countries.
In another foreshadowing of the position that Zimbabwe finds itself in today, Rhodesia found itself with only one friend: its fellow pariah state, South Africa. The neighbouring apartheid regime sent troops to join Rhodesian security forces against Zanu and Zapu guerrillas.
Although a temporary internal settlement was reached, Rhodesia remained outside the international fold until it became independent Zimbabwe in 1980.
Elections and catastrophe
The road to independence was laid by the Lancaster House Agreement in London in the preceding year. Mugabe and Nkomo, who came to the talks united as the Patriotic Front (PF), agreed on a new constitution and ceasefire, as brokered by Britain. The issue of land was to be addressed 10 years after independence. The fact that this never happened, and that both Britain and Zimbabwe are culpable, is seen by political commentators as the prime reason for today's government-orchestrated mob rule by war veterans, killing or intimidating white farmers and taking over their land. What should have been internationally recognised legislation that would have redressed the balance of a century of injustice and disenfranchisement has become a bloodbath, promoted by a head of state who insists on calling it "redistribution".
But in 1980, when Zimbabwe's first free elections were held, Zanu's dashing, articulate, university-educated leader Mugabe swept into power, and there was a moment of hope and joy. It passed quickly. Guerrilla war broke out between the rival liberation movements Zanu and Zapu. The government responded with ferocity, killing and torturing Zapu activists and supporters and forcing Zapu leader Nkomo into exile in Britain. The brutal repression of opponents was to become a continuing feature of the Mugabe regime. Zimbabwe has developed, as a result, into a one-party state.
Another feature of the regime has been Mugabe's zeal for supporting other controversial heads of state. He delighted in declaring his admiration for the North Korean communist dictatorship and for Serb president Slobodan Milosovic. He also put his weight behind the genocidal Hutu militias at the height of the atrocities in Rwanda.
Now, seven million people are deemed "food insecure" by international relief agencies, meaning they are unable to feed themselves. This is partly due to drought. But it is widely acknowledged by agencies, including the UN, that it is the government's land reform programme that is largely responsible for the failure of food production in Zimbabwe in the past three years .
Land has been left untended on a huge scale: wheat output has plummeted from 283,000 metric tonnes to 60,000 over the past year. Those who had the expertise no longer have the land and those who have the land have no capital, title deeds or practical wherewithal to produce food.
In the widespread looting and vandalism that followed the farm seizures, huge amounts of machinery were broken or stolen and later resold. Fewer than half the peasant families - 127,000 - who were pledged land by the government for small-scale farming have been resettled on previously white-owned land; white farmers now hold, according to a government survey, 3 per cent of all arable land compared with 30 per cent before 2000.
But behind these figures, say international human rights groups, more than a million farm workers, including 10,000 orphans and 14,000 elderly people, lost their jobs when those farms were seized; only 35,000 had alternative places to go to. Moreover, the government is ensuring that its supporters get a good crack at "redistribution". Published lists show that some of Mugabe's closest political allies, and journalists whom he wants to keep sweet, are now the owners of some of the 5,000 farms in the "fast track resettlement programme".
For every friend rewarded, many more enemies are punished. A Human Rights Watch report has revealed that the Zanu-PF authorities are withholding essential food aid from political opponents and former workers on white-run commercial farms.
Mugabe's retirement is imminent, according to Zanu-PF sources. But it is certain that without a fair resolution to the land issue, Zimbabwe will remain unstable. And with the ripple effects of land reform already being felt along South Africa's northern border, it may just be a matter of time before the Rainbow Nation becomes restive.
Age structure: 0-14 years: 39.7 per cent (male 2,517,608; female 2,471,342); 15-64 years: 56.8 per cent (male 3,600,832; female 3,542,497); 65 years and over: 3.5 per cent (male 224,631; female 219,832)
Life expectancy: total population 39 years; male 40; female 38
Ethnic groups: African 98 per cent (Shona 82 per cent, Ndebele 14 per cent, other 2 per cent), mixed and Asian 1 per cent, white less than 1 per cent Religions: syncretic (part Christian, part indigenous beliefs) 50 per cent, Christian 25 per cent, indigenous beliefs 24 per cent, Muslim and other 1 per cent
Languages: English (official), Shona, Sindebele (the language of the Ndebele, sometimes called Ndebele), numerous tribal dialects
Climate: tropical; moderated by altitude; rainy season November to March
River: the Zambezi forms a natural riverine boundary with Zambia; in full flood (February-April) the massive Victoria Falls on the river forms the world's largest curtain of falling water.
Source: CIA World Factbook
Rhodes and Rhodesia: The White Conquest of Zimbabwe 1884-1902 By Arthur Keppel-Jones
McGill-Queen's University Press pound;52
African news www.namibian.com.na2002Januaryafrica0237459368.html
Human Rights Watchwww.humanrightswatch.orgpress200310zimbabwe102403.htm