According to the final crop assessment by the government itself, this past farming season 1 689 000 hectares of the maize crop were planted but due to erratic rainfall patterns, 500 000 hectares are a write off. So this means a third of the yield has been written off, leaving a huge deficit.
Zimbabwe, once a bread basket of the region, has struggled to feed itself since government’s disorganised land redistribution programme which began in 2000.
Although the production of maize rebounded from its low of 400 000 tonnes at the height of farm seizures a few years ago to 1 350 000 tonnes during the 2010/2011 season, the country is still struggling to meet its annual grain consumption of nearly two million tonnes.
As a result of this season’s poor yields, Zimbabweans are now facing hunger and urgent measures are needed to avert starvation. To make matters worse, Zimbabwe is likely to have problems in importing grain from the region as South Africa, Zambia and Malawi may not be in a position to export.
Of late, uneven cyclonic rains over Southern Africa resulted in a contrast between heavy downpours in the eastern region and inadequate falls in the drier, western parts so while parts of Mozambique and Madagascar battle floods, traditionally semi-arid areas in Namibia and Botswana still need more water.
In Zimbabwe, this geographic difference can be seen in how the drier, southern provinces have had the lowest rains and correspondingly poor harvests and the biggest grain deficit, whereas the wetter northern half of the country still expects more heavy rains.
Although continued torrential falls have affected crops in Manicaland and Mashonaland provinces, the government’s inadequate and delayed provision of farming supplies to subsistence farmers is another major reason Zimbabwe faces an acute food shortage. From the start, seed supply for the planting season was well below national requirements and very little top dressing fertiliser needed most by those in heavy rainfall areas was distributed.
Consequently, the 2011/2012 harvest is lower than the 2007/2008 harvest when hyperinflation was at its peak during the economic meltdown and when government’s disastrous price control policies were ruining the manufacturing sector and the economy at large. Now, in a more economically stable period, similar chronic seed and fertiliser shortages have persisted.
It has been more than a decade since the 2000 violent land reform programme which was meant to benefit the “landless”, but the country still cannot feed itself. Not because of “imperialist sanctions”, but because the government just can’t get it right.
If it is true that Agriculture minister Joseph Made and Presidential Affairs minister Didymus Mutasa were involved in large-scale looting of inputs at the Grain Marketing Board and nothing has been done about it, then it’s clear that national food security is of little concern to those in charge.
Unsurprisingly though, fears of maize meal shortages and starving populations haven’t stopped cabinet ministers from unfairly hording land, seeds or farming implements because loot and grab is how President Robert Mugabe’s ministers operate.
From mining, to agriculture, banking and tourism, these elected and appointed public officials have constantly had their hands in the till and no amount of pictures of emaciated babies crying and dying from malnutrition will move their conscience.
Embarrassingly, it’s these very images which make “imperialist” NGOs hand out food, while a “pro-poor” government can’t be moved to make adequate provision for its own starving people.
The classic slogan, “Zimbabwe will never be a colony again” rings hollow when Western NGOs are the ones distributing food aid because the state neither has the funds nor capacity to feed its own people.
At last week’s meeting with Bulawayo’s business community, Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono openly encouraged people to occupy the offices of ministers and bankers supposedly responsible for stalling the disbursement of the Distressed and Marginalised Areas Fund to struggling companies. If Gono genuinely wants Matabeleland to mirror Wall Street and other global protests against bankers and corrupt governments, let the people go forth and occupy ministerial offices, not only against the drip-feed of distress funds, but also against inadequate farming provisions which, because of patchy rains, affect Matabeleland’s harvest more severely than other provinces.
Even though the region’s historic marginalisation has a lot to do with the current system and patterns of distribution of resources, food security isn’t a regional issue but a national one.
At a time when revenue inflows are below expected projections, an unending liquidity crunch affects the banking sector and a dangerously high trade deficit, importing 1,5 million tonnes of maize is bound to push up the cost of living because of imported inflation dynamics.
More unsettling is how maize shortages will probably be used to coerce an impoverished electorate into voting for those who will cynically claim to be feeding the people — even though they are the ones responsible for creating these food shortages in the first place.
For Zanu PF, it’s standard electoral practice to use food and other state humanitarian interventions as a political tool as we have seen in previous years of hunger and bloody elections. Testimonies and evidence collected by local and international human rights organisations shows how Zanu PF cardholders got first preference for subsidised GMB inputs and maize while opposition supporters had to buy grain at extortionist prices on the black market.
In 2008, another drought and ballot year, reports from Masvingo’s rural areas claimed pro-Mugabe youths and war veterans beat up villagers for receiving American aid because it was a sign of betrayal.
The rampant politicisation of something as basic and essential as a bag of maize meal is a deliberate policy of cruelty and repression which disproportionately affects the poorest communities the most. Arguably, rural women and child-headed households are Zimbabwe’s most marginalised communities demographically, but this is of little concern to the government whose primary role aught to be ensuring physical and food security of its citizens.
Unless it is to feed the multitudes, there’s no good reason why well-off people like ministers should have priority access to 30 000 tonnes of fertiliser while rural farmers are denied 25kg. Such is the incoherence of an incompetent and heartless leadership that willfully starves its own people and uses aid as a political weapon.
If the supposedly less corrupt MDC members of government have any political muscle, it’s time to use it to ensure this crisis of food shortages does not become a humanitarian disaster as has been the case in past years.
With 12 million people at risk of starvation in the Horn of Africa because of poor international response and a further 13 million people without food in the Sahel region because of drought and poor harvests, members of parliament have a duty to ensure Zimbabweans do not become a starvation statistic.
Marima (PhD) is an independent analyst and researcher.