Zimbabwe?s government says it is ready to allow the return of white farmers who were driven off their farms under the land reform program.  The announcement was made by agriculture minister Joseph Made.  He denies that the new openness toward white farmers marks an about-face in the land reform policy of president Robert Mugabe.  The policy has been blamed for the downward spiral of the country?s economy.  Fewer than 600 farmers remain on their properties in Zimbabwe, once considered the breadbasket of southern Africa.

John Worswick is the chief executive officer of Justice for Agriculture ? a group that represents thousands of Zimbabwean farmers and farm workers.  In an interview with English to Africa reporter Ashenafi Abedje, he reacted to the government?s latest announcement.  ?We don?t see this as a way forward, as it espouses state ownership of land.  We realize that you cannot build a new 99-year tenure system on the back of an existing seriously infringed tenure system. 

The government maintains it undertook the initial land reform measure to redress the imbalances in land ownership inherited from the colonial era.   Worswick says neither the commercial farmers nor the farm workers disagree with the need for land reform.   ?Our bone of contention is how the policy has been driven, with the government having failed to follow their own legal process.  This has resulted in the destruction of production and an economic meltdown.?

Worswick says the government first needs to address outstanding issues pertaining to dispossessed commercial farmers.  He says these include compensation and damages owed to the evicted farmers.  ?Beyond that,? he says, ?our organization requires a return to the rule of law, an expansion of the tenure system into the communal areas where there is a huge restriction on production, all based on the individual ownership of land.?  He says ?this is the only way to free the people of Zimbabwe and empower them.?