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by Mark Olden

In the run-up to the most crucial election in Zimbabwe's post-independence history on March 9 - 11 2002, more British journalists posing as tourists seemed to be in the country than real ones. Some of the vivid accounts of the dangers they were facing - for example Ann Leslie's in the Daily Mail - were slightly undermined by them being able to traipse unimpeded around Harare's luxury hotels.

President Mugabe and his ruling Zanu-PF party duly stole the election, the foreign press pack upped and left, and Zimbabwe went straight from front-page news to the news in brief columns. With the Middle East in flames, it wasn't surprising. That so much attention had been heaped on an African tragedy in the first place was - and can largely be put down to the potent symbolism of the land invasions, and the kith and kin factor in the murders of white farmers.

But while only the deluded - or Zanu-PF apologists - can deny the endemic violence, corruption and repression of the Mugabe regime, much of the British reporting on Zimbabwe has been afflicted by historical amnesia. Mugabe may be the architect of his country's present tragedy, but he's not a man without context.

Therefore, when he cranks up his anti-imperialist tirades against Britain and America, much of Africa is able to nod in agreement. They also know what he's talking about when he rails against the IMF and the World Bank, (the fact that he orchestrated the crushing of the mass opposition that arose after his government accepted an IMF and World Bank economic structural adjustment programme with dire consequences in the early 1990s, is, of course, omitted). Mugabe's words also resonate in other former colonies when he harangues Britain for evading its obligation to fund Zimbabwe's land redistribution programme. Until the invasions of commercial farms started two years ago, 6,000 white farmers occupied half of Zimbabwe's mostly arable land.

Britain promised Zimbabwe hundreds of millions of pounds for land reform at the 1979 Lancaster House agreement that ended white minority rule - but it's never been delivered. Although the Blair government later promised 36 million for land reform if it was carried out legally and transparently, in November 1997 International Development Secretary Clare Short said in a letter to Zimbabwe's then Minister of Agriculture and Land, Kumbirai Kangai: "I should make it clear that we do not accept that Britain has a special responsibility to meet the costs of land purchase in Zimbabwe. We are a new government from diverse backgrounds without links to former colonial interests. My own origins are Irish and as you know we were colonised not colonisers." Short's arrogance was echoed not long after by Tony Lloyd, then a Foreign Office minister, who said Britain didn't owe Zimbabwe money for land reform because, "Colonisation is not something that people of my generation in Britain benefited from."

Travelling through Zimbabwe a month before the presidential election we saw the issue being played out on the ground. While Zanu-PF's re-distribution programme has seen vast tracts of land handed over to government cronies such as army chief General Vitalis Zvinavashe (who threatened a coup if the opposition Movement for Democratic Change were declared winners of the election), and Perence Shiri (in charge of the notorious Fifth Brigade which murdered up to 20,000 people in the 1980s), as well as Zimbabwe's Libyan sponsors - the land hunger that exists among the peasant population was starkly obvious. On one farm deserted by its white former occupants after another, they had flooded in and had carved out their plots.

At independence millions of peasants were living in infertile so-called Tribal Trust Lands - having been pushed out of their traditional homes over the last 90 years of white settler rule. So today, as Munyaradzi Gwisai, the socialist MDC MP for the Harare township of Highfield, points out - to the chagrin of his party's hierarchy - many of the war vets and peasants leading the land invasions are not merely puppets of Mugabe, but part of a genuine grassroots movement. Gwisai called for the MDC to adopt a more radical land position than Zanu-PF, but the party, which has moved steadily to the right since it was founded out of Zimbabwe's civil society and trade unions in September 1999, (adopting neo-liberal economic policies that have attracted western backers) rejected his advice.

But however great the need for land re-distribution in Zimbabwe is, the way Mugabe's regime has executed it over the last two years has led to agriculture in the country all but collapsing. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) recently said that 600,000 people in the country are facing starvation.

The massive queues that lined up to cast their votes a few months ago in an election whose outcome had already been determined, still line Harare's streets - only now they're queuing for hours to purchase mealie-meal, Zimbabwe's staple food. How much more the country's long-suffering - though incredibly resilient - people must endure, no one seems to know right now.