'Empowerment'
 
Mugabe's government - which critics accuse of plunging Zimbabwe into turmoil by seizing white-owned farms and handing them to inexperienced black farmers - says the bill is part of its drive to empower the country's poor majority.

Paul Mangwana, the economic empowerment minister, said: "We cannot continue to have a skewed economic environment where our people are not able to fully participate."

The bill would give the minister responsibility for reviewing, approving or rejecting all proposed transactions, and also sweeping powers to cancel the operating licences of companies that fail to adopt the stipulated shareholding structure.

Many analysts fear the move could sound the death knell for an economy that has also suffered from foreign investor flight over fears about the security of their investment.

MDC politicians have argued the law was designed to enrich a few powerful individuals and win votes for Mugabe's party in parliamentary and presidential elections due in March.

Criticism

During a heated parliamentary debate in which an opposition member was thrown out of the chamber, Innocent Gonese, an MDC politician, said: "As far as we are concerned, this bill is cast in concrete but I want to urge the minister to reconsider because our economy needs foreign direct investment."

But Mangwana and ruling ZANU-PF politicians defended the bill and branded those opposed to it as seeking to perpetuate economic imbalances brought about by colonialism.

Mugabe, 83, and in power since independence from Britain in 1980, has accused some foreign-owned firms of working with his Western opponents to topple his government by raising prices without justification and stashing foreign currency proceeds abroad.

Zimbabwe has the world's highest inflation rate, above 6,600 per cent, while four in five adults are out of formal work, with persistent shortages of foreign currency, fuel and food.