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Mugabe: ‘Let them eat potatoes’

The African leader some call a hero and others a destructive despot suggests people in his country aren’t hungry, they just can’t eat their favourite food.

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe said in an exclusi

ve interview with The Associated Press on Friday that his people are “very, very happy”, though aid agencies report four million of 11,6-million face famine.

“You describe it as if we have a whole cemetery,” Mugabe said of a reporter’s description of the Southern African nation’s dire straits, blaming “continuous years of drought”.

The problem is reliance on corn, he said, “but it doesn’t mean we haven’t other things to eat. We have heaps of potatoes but people are not potato eaters … they have rice but they’re not as attracted [to that].”

But the cost of potatoes is beyond the pocket of ordinary Zimbabweans.

Internationally, Mugabe has become a pariah and looked set for further isolation at the weekend, when the United States government said it was preparing travel sanctions against him, his government and family members, prohibiting them from travelling to the US.

That would be punishment for alleged gross human rights abuses, including torture of opponents and theft of elections, most recently in March.

Zimbabwe became one of Africa’s most vibrant economies under Mugabe, who was elected in landslide 1979 elections after a seven-year guerrilla war forced an end to white minority rule in Rhodesia, once a British colony.

He assured nervous white farmers, then fleeing the country, that “there is a place for you in the sun”.

Zimbabwe became the regional bread basket, with about 5 000 white commercial farmers growing enough to feed the nation and export.

Buyers from all over the world came to Zimbabwe’s annual tobacco auction and tourists flocked to the Victoria Falls and wildlife reserves, while its Sandawana emeralds and renowned Shona stone sculpture were widely popular.

That changed in the 1990s. Mugabe’s rule became increasingly repressive against a growingly vociferous opposition and corruption grew rampant. Mugabe then seized on an issue that long has preoccupied Africans — land ownership.

Pointing to a distribution that had a few thousand whites owning tens of thousands of hectares of rich lands, the government began appropriating white farms in a violent campaign in which some white farmers were killed.

Tens of thousands of farmworkers lost their jobs and most land was distributed to the family and friends of politically connected Zimbabweans, though some ordinary people got small plots.

Last week, the Commercial Farmers’ Union said fewer than 1 000 white commercial farmers remain, working a fraction of land they once sowed. A parliamentary committee said there would be no farming season this year, even if the drought breaks, because there are no seeds, no agricultural chemicals because there is no foreign currency, and no fuel to transport products or work tractors.

Every day in Zimbabwe, queues more than a kilometre long form for basics such as bread and fuel.

Zimbabweans also are reeling from what Mugabe calls a “clean-up” campaign, in which hundreds of thousands of poor and working-class urban people lost their homes to bulldozers.

Mugabe insisted, though: “We pride ourselves as being top, really, on the African ladder … We feel that we have actually been advancing rather than going backwards.”

Yet on September 8, setting out Zimbabwe’s aims for the United Nations Millennium Development Goals before heading to the World Summit, he said the number of Zimbabweans who cannot afford one daily balanced meal has risen from 20% in 1995 to 48% in 2003, and that 63% now cannot afford more comprehensive basic needs, including things like school fees.

In Africa, his seizure of lands that whites took from natives when they colonised in the 1800s is applauded, and he is seen as a towering hero.

Now, he said, his government will take a stake in private mining enterprises to ensure Zimbabweans benefit from their natural resources. He said he expects companies mining there, including the multinational Anglo American, to understand that desire.

“What we intend to do is for the state to have a stake in the production of some of our minerals — gold, platinum, diamonds,” he said. “We just want to be partners. We are not doing anything unusual, and this is the practice in many countries.”

Zimbabwe also mines coal, chromium ore, asbestos, nickel, copper, iron ore, vanadium, lithium and tin.

Mugabe (81) said he has fulfilled all his ambitions except retirement. He plans to stop being president in 2008, and write and farm, but said he’ll remain in politics until he dies.

“I can’t retire from that unless the Almighty says, ‘Enough is enough.'” — Sapa-AP

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