SIXTY-five-year-old Michael Sithole (not his real name) sits outside his mud hut in the heart of Kezi district, Matabeleland South, deep in thought.
Permutations on the next course of action are haunting him. His agricultural harvests have been poor in the last four years. He has survived on food handouts from donor agencies such as the World Food Programme and Care International, among others.
The biggest challenge he faces is his inability to feed his four children, wife, and his ailing sister who has been living with HIV and Aids for the last three years.
“I am not able to feed these children you are seeing here and looking after my sick sister. I am now old and have become dependent on support from these people (donors). I wonder what the future holds for us now,” he says as he brushes his grey beard.
“That (donor assistance) was the only hope we had and we have been told that these people are going back to Bulawayo because the government does not want them here anymore.
“They are accused of telling us who to vote for. I think someone failed to read politics because this is going to anger the people more as the government has taken the peopleâ€™s livelihood away. Who can vote for someone who pushes them further into abject poverty?” Sithole says, before taking a swig of his favourite mahewu brew.
Given his age, he cannot be employed by any company and has had to rely on tilling the land to raise enough food stocks to cater for his family. Now that the land, which had become his source of food, has failed to produce the food he needs, he has had to rely on the donor community for handouts.
The 50kg bag of mealie-meal, one 750ml of cooking oil, one 500g packet of salt and one 500g of sugar beans he has been receiving monthly from these donors will no longer come his way because government has banned operations of NGOs.
Like Sithole, hundreds of people around the district, and millions across Zimbabwe have all been left to face the debilitating effects of a poor harvest and lack of government support with food aid. The announcement by Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare minister, Nicholas Goche last week that government had banned all humanitarian NGOs from operating in the country left millions of poverty-stricken villagers exposed to serious food shortages.
Aid groups have said more than four million Zimbabweans have been depending on food aid.
Prior to the introduction of food aid by the donor community, there were concerns by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) that President Robert Mugabeâ€™s government had been abusing food aid for political gain.
The MDC accused the government of denying its supporters food as a tool to force the victims into submission and to desist from voting for the 10-year-old party.
Last week, it was the governmentâ€™s turn to accuse the food aid-related NGO community of using food to lure votes for the MDC.
In a circular to the NGOs, Goche said: “It has come to my attention that a number of NGOs involved in humanitarian operations are breaching the terms and conditions of their registration as enshrined in the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Act (Chapter 17:05), as well as the provisions of the Code of procedures for the Registration and operations of Non-Governmental Organisations in Zimbabwe (General Notice 99 of 2007).
“As the regulatory authority, before proceeding with the provision of Section (10) sub-Section (c) of the Private Voluntary Organisations Act (Chapter 17:05), I hereby instruct all PVOs/ NGOs to suspend all field operations until further notice.”
Goche, sources in the NGO community say, accused them of involving themselves in political activities and campaigning for the MDC.
The MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai garnered 99 seats in the lower house of assembly while Zanu PF, for the first time in Zimbabweâ€™s history, came second, with 97 seats. Arthur Mutambaraâ€™s MDC garnered 10 seats while independent Tsholotsho legislator and former cabinet minister, Jonathan Moyo, retained his seat. In the presidential race, Morgan Tsvangirai raked in 47,9% of the votes while Robert Mugabe garnered 43,2%.
But all the NGOs deny the allegation. They say they have been dealing with humanitarian issues far divorced from the politicking that government is accusing them of being engaged in. A spokesperson for Care International, one of the affected NGOs told the Zimbabwe Independent last week all organisations had a code of conduct document that bars any of their employees from engaging in political activities.
“We have codes of conduct that all the employees abide by. This code bars anyone from engaging in political activities. In fact, NGO ethics bar us from such activities and we are prepared to prove that we have not been doing what the minister (Goche) accuses us of doing,” said the spokesperson.
Care International, the spokesperson said, was only involved in assisting villagers in Midlands and Masvingo to set up clean water sources as well as access them through funding of projects in line with water issues.
“We have not campaigned for any individual or party. We have assisted communities such as Chivi, Mberengwa, Gutu, Zaka, and Bikita, among others to access water while we have also funded micro-credit schemes, home-based care projects, helped orphans and vulnerable children as well as the chronically ill,” the spokesman said.
“Nothing political has ever been done in our organisation and we have records to prove that.”
The NGO has, since the start of its operations in Zimbabwe in 1992, provided aid worth US$100 million to Zimbabwe, with more than 920 000 underprivileged people benefiting from its programmes every month.
“We have, as a result of the banishing order, recalled 300 staff members from these communities. Very soon, we are gong to be holding a meeting to review the next step to take in the face of the order by the minister. If government says go ahead and stop operations for good, then I am afraid there will be disaster on the ground,” the spokesman said.
Nango spokesperson, Fambai Ngirande said the move by the government would leave millions of people facing serious humanitarian problems that the poor and underprivileged members of society would not be able to extricate themselves from.
“What the government is doing is in legal contravention of the PVO Act that protects the rights of the NGOs. What they are really trying to do is to put their aspirations at the forefront of their own pursuits and this has made it difficult for NGOs to operate,” said Ngirande.
He said the biggest problem they were facing was the procedure they had to undergo to allow food, medicine and information to be distributed in the rural areas.
“The biggest challenge is the presence of war veterans and the extra-legal means of control by the local government against humanitarian efforts that attempt to assist people. These areas have been concealed by pro-Zanu PF forces that have made it difficult for aid organisations to have access to the areas where there are people who are faced with starvation,” Ngirande added.
By Nkululeko Sibanda/Wongai Zhangazha