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Eric Bloch Column

A miraculous feeding of the multitude

IF the statements last week by the Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare minister Paul Mangwana and his Agriculture and Rural Development colleague Joseph Made are to be accepted at face value, it appears that they and the government which they represent are about to effect one of the most astounding miracles ever witnessed.

Although not equipped with fish and loaves of bread, they are about to feed the Zimbabwean multitude, thanks to a miraculously bountiful harvest achieved without land preparation, without planting and without tending to the crop. Suddenly, spectacularly, without requisite actions or resources, Zimbabwe is about to become a land of plenty.

Miracle workers are rarely believed until they have actually wrought the miracles, and that is especially so when previously promised miracles did not occur. But on this occasion the prophecies of the imminent miracle were not only generally received with great cynicism and scepticism because such prophecies are so rarely believed.

The sardonic disbelief and incredulity that characterised the reception of the ministerial statements was greater than ever, because like prophecies have repeatedly failed to materialise in the past. But the tragedy of disillusionment and distress for the few who may naively have believed the prophecy of an immense outturn to the present agricultural season will be compounded by the intensified, negative impacts upon Zimbabwe’s already desperately frail economy.

The ministers stated, with considerable pride and authority, that the final crop assessments evidence that there will, in the aggregate, be an output from the now ending maize and other grains season of 2 805 995 tonnes of maize, sorghum and millet, which includes 2 431 182 tonnes of maize.

The refinement and precision of the crop assessment techniques must be astounding, for the results were not “approximately 2,8 million tonnes, inclusive of approximately 2,4 million tonnes of maize”, but an exactitude level to the last unit! Perhaps next year it will be possible to assess accurately to the last kilo, or even the last gramme!

Of the projected maize crop, the ministers expect 1 200 000 tonnes of maize will be delivered to the Grain Marketing Board. Presumably the other 1 231 182 tonnes represent production for own consumption in the communal areas.

What the honourable ministers failed to disclose was how such a stupendous crop production was possible in the light of the real circumstances on the ground in the shortly to end production season.

In the first instance, although Zimbabwe’s overall rainfall was very satisfactory, the rains only commenced at any substantial levels two months into the rainy season. By that time, much as had been planted in anticipation of the rains had wilted and died, and the farmers had little or no resource to plant again.

Moreover, all indications prior to the commencement of the season were that Zimbabwe only had a sufficiency of seed to yield a maximum maize crop of between 600 000 and 800 000 tonnes. Even if all those seeds had been fertile and developed to full growth, despite the initial inadequacy of rain, it would be truly miraculous for a crop of three to fourfold the maximum possible, on available seed, to be grown.

Such a miracle is reinforced by the widely known fact, readily verified in the period from October 2003 to January 2004, that there had been exceptionally little land preparation, other than in communal areas, for any crops of any nature to be grown. Almost all the provenly productive commercial farmers had been driven off the land under the government’s politically and racially motivated land reform programme.

That programme, which could have been most constructive and nationally beneficial, was pursued with obduracy, dogmatic denial of well-intentioned, authoritative advice, with injustices and national prejudice.

And a very great proportion of the newly settled A1 and A2 farmers could not adequately prepare the lands, for they lacked the requisite resources. They had no title to the lands, and therefore no collateral to source required funding.

Instead, they had to rely upon oft-repeated, but very rarely fulfilled, promises of the required inputs from the government, while others took it for granted that the displaced farmers would — despite all the prejudices they had sustained and all the suffering inflicted upon them — prepare the lands for the new settlers, either out of the goodness of their hearts, or due to a misplaced sense of guilt, or in response to pressures and threats including, most recently, the legalised “theft” of their equipment.

However, the miracle assured by the ministers is even greater. Not only has there not been a sufficiency of seed for the projected crops, and not only has the extent of prepared lands been insufficient to yield such crops, but Zimbabwe also did not have a sufficiency of fertilisers, chemicals and insecticides.

The constraints of limited foreign exchange availability for essential imports of chemicals and insecticides, and for equally essential inputs for fertiliser production severely hampered Zimbabwe’s three principal producers of fertilisers.

It has long been known that one cannot make bread without flour, but it appears from the ministers’ statements that Zimbabwe’s A1 and A2 farmers are able to produce maize without land preparation, without seed, without chemicals and insecticides, and without fertilisers. Truly a most sensational, spectacular and astounding miracle!

In anticipation of that miracle, the ministers have informed the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), representing the international donor community, that Zimbabwe will not require food aid this year, save and except for Aids orphans and the infirm.

Why, if Zimbabwe is going to have a crop so greatly in excess of the 1,8 million tonnes needed to feed the whole nation, does it even need food aid for Aids orphans and the infirm? With the allegedly record crop, well in excess of need, is Zimbabwe unwilling to look after its own needy? Or will those needy be the vehicle to obtain food aid when the projected crops are not achieved?

The economic repercussions of advising the donors that aid will not be required will be immense for, when it becomes evident that the prophecies were false and there is no miracle, the government will then desperately need to import large volumes of food, for it will not necessarily be possible, even if there is then a willingness, for the donor community to activate the necessary food aid at short notice.

That need to import food will make severe inroads into Zimbabwe’s limited foreign currency resources, to the detriment of industry, commerce, mining, agriculture and horticulture, and society as a whole. The insufficiency of foreign exchange will fuel further depreciation of the Zimbabwe dollar, which will in turn fuel inflation, and product shortages will also contribute to an upsurge in inflation. And the government will have to fund the food imports, thereby swelling the fiscal deficit and forcing greater recourse to borrowings. That too will be a catalyst for inflation.

The resurgence of inflation will once again erode consumer spending power, resulting in reduced demand upon industry and the distributive trades, and that inflation will destroy any existent export market competitiveness.

All these tragic economic developments can be laid fairly and squarely at the feet of the ministers. Year after year the Agriculture and Rural Development minister had delivered crop forecasts which have not materialised, and it appears that this year he has been joined therein by his colleague at Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare.

It is also, at the least, troublesome that a request from UNDP to inspect maize reserves at Grain Marketing Board silos has been declined. If the maize is really going to exist, why does it need to be hidden, and if it does not exist, should that not be acknowledged as early as possible to enable remedial aid to be accessed and the economy not further destroyed?

Zimbabwe waits with baited breath to witness the miraculous feeding of the multitude by ministers Mangwana and Made!

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