March 26, 2008 / 12:11 AM / in 10 years

Zimbabwe's whites fear vote will change little

<p>Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe speaks at an election rally in Bulawayo, March 23, 2008. REUTERS/Emmanuel Chitate</p>

HARARE (Reuters) - Like many white Zimbabweans, James Douglas wonders if he will still be a political punching bag for President Robert Mugabe after Saturday’s election.

Mugabe faces his biggest challenge in nearly three decades of rule in the March 29 polls. The defection of two senior officials from his ruling ZANU-PF party has raised hopes among his opponents of political and economic change.

But these hopes are not shared by Douglas and other whites, who lost power with independence from Britain in 1980 and who feel like political scapegoats in a country whose leader regularly decries Western conspiracies and interference.

“If the elections were going to be fair, I don’t think the outcome would be in any doubt. But I don’t think that will be the case and people are expecting more of the same,” said Douglas, whose 200-hectare farm was seized as part of Mugabe’s controversial land reforms.

The 54-year-old was uneasy during the interview, tapping the coffee table and scanning the outdoor cafe for eavesdroppers, always a concern in a country where human rights groups say abuses are common.

“I am very uncomfortable with this whole subject,” he said. “I don’t like talking about our problems in isolation because that is what the politicians are trying to do, to pin a special tag on us as whites.”

Zimbabwe’s white population, estimated to have shrunk to about 40,000 out of a total population for Zimbabwe of around 13 million, has kept a low political profile since 2000 when Mugabe started seizing white-owned commercial farms for landless blacks with little or no experience in agriculture.

A dozen white farmers were shot dead and many others were beaten and driven from their homes. About 3,800 of the country’s 4,500 white commercial farmers lost their land.

Critics say the controversial land policy has plunged the southern African country -- once a food exporter -- into a severe economic crisis marked by food and fuel shortages and the highest inflation in the world, at above 100,000 percent.

Mugabe, 84, says the seizures are part of an ambitious black empowerment drive and seek to correct colonial injustices that left 70 percent of the best farmland in the hands of whites.

He blames Zimbabwe’s economic woes on sanctions imposed by the West as punishment for his land reforms.

“SCAPEGOATS”

Whites are used to insults and threats from his ZANU-PF party, which accuses them of working with the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

“I think people have come to accept that they (whites) are a convenient scapegoat, and while they are not comfortable with it, many white people have come to expect it,” said a white journalist who asked not to be named.

“You shrug and say, ‘there he goes again.’ But you take comfort from the fact that race relations are generally cordial and that outside a few politically motivated attacks, you are not in danger of suffering any violence from other Zimbabweans.”

<p>An unidentified elderly white Zimbabwean couple attend a showjumping event in the capital Harare March 24, 2008. Many white Zimbabweans wonder if they will still be a political punching bag for President Robert Mugabe after presidential and parliamentary elections set for March 29. REUTERS/Howard Burditt</p>

Mugabe faces a fierce challenge from his former finance minister, Simba Makoni, and Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the MDC’s biggest faction, in Saturday’s vote.

The MDC is frequently denounced by ZANU-PF as a pawn of white western interests, despite its largely black urban base.

Mugabe and his party say some whites have never accepted black majority rule and are desperate to get “black puppets” into power to protect their business interests.

Mugabe recently signed into law a bill empowering blacks to take control of foreign companies, including mines and banks.

“We have whites here who see Zimbabwe as an extension of Britain, who see blacks as second-class citizens, who are racist and have never truly accepted that this is a black country, an African country,” Mugabe said at his election campaign launch.

“Anyone who thinks that we have to apologize for fighting for, and defending the interests of the indigenous black people does not understand our role as nationalists,” he said.

Critics say Mugabe is obsessed with the belief that whites have never stopped plotting against him since he assumed power from the white government of former Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith.

In 1965, Smith, who died last year, led 270,000 whites in then Rhodesia in a unilateral declaration of independence from Britain and only bowed to the pressure of a bloody guerrilla war spearheaded by black nationalists in the 1970s.

Around 50,000 mostly black people were killed in the war.

FLIGHT

The dwindling white population in Zimbabwe still retain some of the trappings of colonial-era life: many live in big houses with servants and swimming pools. But more and more are leaving, heading for Britain, South Africa, Australia or other places.

More than 150,000 whites fled Zimbabwe during the liberation struggle and after Mugabe’s 1980 electoral victory, while some 40,000 others have emigrated in the last 20 years.

Very few whites are comfortable talking to the media about politics because they fear being branded racists by the government. A handful of white officials with senior positions in opposition ranks are constantly subjected to these accusations.

David Coltart, a leading figure in a faction of the MDC and a member of parliament for a black constituency, says he has long stopped paying attention to any racial insults.

“It’s something I have got used to but which does not worry me at all because I know those feelings and views don’t reflect the general feeling in our country,” he said.

(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/ )

Editing by Michael Georgy and Clar Ni Chonghaile

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