Three features from today:
The Zimbabwean farmer looked older than his 47 years. He could barely stop coughing, having walked 12km to catch a bus to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second town, to look for medicines for his daughter. The ticket had cost $Z45,000 – barely $[U.S.]1 at the parallel-market rate – his last remaining cash.
That morning, elephants, ranging free from the Hwange National Park, in one of the more-bizarre manifestations of the lawlessness spreading across Zimbabwe, had rampaged over his small pumpkin patch. In a minute, his winter larder was no more.
The tale of Christopher Ncube’s attempts to survive as a smallholder is grimly emblematic of the consequences of Operation Murambatsvina, or Clear Out the Trash, the government’s forced removal of hundreds of thousands of people from urban to rural areas that began two years ago on Friday.
It also sheds light on the implosion of Zimbabwe’s agriculture, once the mainstay of the economy. Shadreck Mlambo, a senior official in the Ministry of Agriculture, had to admit to parliament this week that only a tenth of the required winter wheat crop had been planted.
Mr Ncube was one of many in the informal settlements around Harare and Bulawayo who woke [up] two years ago to the sound of policemen bashing at his door. Within minutes, he was outside with his family, as the police set light to his shack.
Days later, his town life was over. Instead he was on his way to a five-hectare plot outside Bulawayo to start again as a peasant farmer.
He was to be a foot soldier in what President Robert Mugabe’s supporters hailed as a new agricultural army, which would plough and sow their way to a new prosperous future.
His eyes flashed when reminded of that day – and the accompanying government spin. “I had never farmed before,” he said. “The land was not cleared. We don’t have cattle or farming implements ... the government has given us nothing.”
Mr Mugabe’s government said [that] the operation was a slum-clearance aimed at reducing disease and driving out black marketeers. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change saw it as an attempt to undermine its strongholds, Zimbabwe’s two big towns [i.e., Harare and Bulawayo].
The government’s subsequent neglect of the evicted – estimated at between 700,000 and more than 1 [million] – lends credence to the MDC’s argument. Amnesty International reported last year that a government rehousing programme had provided just over 3,325 new homes. Many of them, it added, were still incomplete.
Two years on, Mr Ncube and his household – his wife, five children and three Aids orphans from his dead brother’s family – are still struggling to understand rural ways.
Other evacuees echo their experiences. Edward Sibanda, a former security guard, has an 11-acre plot in Nyamandlovu, outside Bulawayo, on what used to be a highly profitable farm. The white farmer had to give up most of his land six years ago, when Mr Mugabe sanctioned the occupation of most of the country’s commercial farms.
Most of the plot, however – and indeed most of the expropriated part of the farm – lies sunbaked and untended. Mr Sibanda has a few chickens, and a scrappy vegetable patch, but he too lacks tools and the know-how to feed even his family, let alone anybody else.
The government is trumpeting a new initiative to revive agriculture. Gideon Gono, central-bank governor, is calling on local industry to build 100,000 ploughs and as many harrows, cultivators and ox carts.
In theory the equipment is to be handed out to the new smallholders. Companies have been told to rush through orders by early next year, conveniently for the ruling Zanu-PF, just before March’s parliamentary and presidential elections.
With the official inflation rate at 3,779 per cent, contracts are welcome. But businessmen have heard such talk before. “I am surprised [that] we weren’t asked to stamp [']Zanu-PF['] on the equipment,” said the chief executive of a small manufacturing company. “While Zimbabwe could probably produce 100,000 ploughs, even if you can make them, there aren’t the oxen. There just isn’t the capacity to pull them.”
The Zimbabwean authorities have a history of controlling access to food for political purposes. As the ongoing drought adds to the food shortages, and the 2008 elections draw closer, the government is once again focusing its attention on distribution.
By imposing restrictions on non-government organisations, NGOs, officials are curbing their ability to provide food aid. And as international [donors] find that their local partners are less and less able to operate freely, there is a danger [that] they will divert food aid to countries where it can be distributed effectively.
During the liberation struggle in what was then Rhodesia in the Seventies, Ian Smith’s white minority regime withheld food from rural areas, in an attempt to starve out rebel guerrilla groups.
Soon after independence in 1980, the new administration of President Robert Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party again used food as a weapon against political opponents. During the Gukurahundi campaign, in which thousands of civilians in the Matabeleland and Midlands regions died, shops were closed and relief aid was halted to these drought-stricken areas, just to prevent a few hundred armed dissident fighters from accessing food.
Since 2000, when Mugabe launched a campaign to dispossess white farmers and redistribute their farms to landless people, Zimbabwe has suffered severe problems with agricultural production. As a result, many people are reliant on handouts from relief agencies or the government.
As well as selective distribution through its own food aid centres, the government has tried to influence the way [that] international relief groups manage distribution.
In the run-up to the 2002 presidential election, ZANU-PF members warned local chiefs and headmen in some areas that they would be denied supplies of food aid for their communities, if they did not deliver an electoral victory for Mugabe. The government also discouraged international donor organisations from giving out food, misleading them by telling them that Zimbabwe had had a bumper harvest.
Then in 2004, months before the crucial 2005 parliamentary election, the authorities introduced the controversial Non-Government Organisation Bill, which restricted the activities of NGOs and human-rights groups, particularly those financed from abroad.
This attempt by Mugabe to stifle debate served its purpose, as most NGOs were uncertain about their future and security, and many limited their operations during that period.
As a result, an estimated 2.3 million rural people in need of food aid had to rely completely on government assistance programmes. Food imports arranged by the MDC were seized at the border and distributed by government.
In autumn 2006, the government lifted a ban on NGOs handing out food. But as the country heads towards next year’s make-or-break presidential and parliamentary election, the government is again trying to control NGOs, particularly those involved in food aid, human rights, civic education and election monitoring.
Local aid groups are now jittery after Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu said [that] all NGOs had been "deregistered" and must apply for new licenses to operate. Later, however, the government said [that] it had not banned NGOs, but simply put in place new policy guidelines for their registration and operation.
Under the new regulations, NGOs now have to sign a memorandum of understanding with the government department relevant to their specialist area, and can be stripped of their official registration, if they are deemed to have exceeded their mandate.
Towards the end of April, Agriculture Minister Rugare Gumbo reiterated the official line that any food aid that appeared to have political strings attached would be blocked.
"Government will certainly sit down and decide which aid agencies or organisations to allow assisting with food distribution,” he told the United Nations information agency IRIN. “We realise that there are organisations bent on using aid as a political tool [in order] to enhance the interests of the opposition, and we are not going to allow that.”
The government is shipping state-subsidy grain for public distribution – but only to ZANU-PF strongholds. Given the state Grain Marketing Board’s history of discriminatory allocation, supporters of the opposition are likely to suffer.
“Food distribution has been made political,” Fambai Ngirande, spokesperson for the National Association of NGOs, told IWPR.
“Distribution organisations have been compelled to give food only to card-carrying members of the ruling party. These agencies have been denied access to some areas, and told to leave the food with government distribution arms.”
Ngirande predicted that the pressure, obstructions and surveillance [that] NGOs now have to endure would get worse.
“As we are heading towards 2008, part of the election strategy is to close certain NGOs that deal with governance and human-rights issues. They also want to monitor food; and given that it is a drought year, they want to make sure that they are the sole distributors of food aid,” he said.
Zimbabwe’s food crisis may get worse, as stocks of the staple food item, maize, are said to be running out.
Domestic production of maize, sorghum and millet for the 2006-07 growing season is forecast to be about 50 per cent of the preceding season. Cereal production is forecast to be enough to meet only 40 to 50 per cent of domestic consumption needs.
The United [Nations' World] Food Programme says [that] nearly half of Zimbabwe’s 13 million people will need food aid this year, and a country which used to export food to its neighbour would need to import two million tons of grain to get through the year.
With no hard currency reserves, the government will almost certainly be unable to pay for adequate grain imports – even taking hundreds of tons of donated food into account.
Ngirabnde said [that] most foreign-funded organisations had already significantly reduced their aid to Zimbabwe, and given the worsening environment in which NGOs operate, they were liable to curtail it even further, putting millions of lives at risk.
“We are telling our members that pulling out is not the answer, as it will make it worse for ordinary Zimbabweans,” he said. “If we stop our activities, the human-rights abuses, torture and denial of food because of political affiliation will go on. The situation demands an even-greater presence – we simply cannot afford to close down.
“Most of our organisations are funded from outside, the foreign policies of those countries affect resources that come into Zimbabwe. If the food distribution is not done properly, then they would rather go elsewhere where there is also need.”
Nonthando Bhebhe is a pseudonym used by a journalist in Zimbabwe.
Judith Moyo is unable to give her child enough food. She has to bring her 18-month-old daughter to a council clinic for check-ups every month, because of what nurses call her ‘‘slow development''.
‘‘I give her isitshwala leftovers from the previous night,'' 33-year-old Moyo says as she tries to keep the child quiet. Isitshwala is a staple thick porridge prepared from maize meal.
The fourth of the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) seeks a two-[thirds] reduction in the deaths of children under five by 2015. But the issues related to the first MDG, the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, will push the reduction of child mortality in Zimbabwe beyond the target date of 2015.
Despite President Robert Mugabe's declaration in Zimbabwe's first MDG progress report in 2004 that the country was achieving success in the implementation of the goals, the continued lack of access to basic services makes this unlikely.
The World Health Organisation's estimates for 2004 put the under-five mortality rate in Zimbabwe at 129 per 1,000 live births. This has meant a sharp increase since 1990 when infant mortality was estimated at 80 per 1,000 live births. In 2000, it stood at 117 per 1,000 live births.
The United Nations Children's Fund reports that while Zimbabwe saw a decline in infant mortality in the early 1990s, numbers have risen steadily after 2000, as health-delivery services declined amid growing international isolation.
Zimbabwe therefore remains one of a few countries to reverse the gains made during the early years of independence.
Apart from Moyo, other women at the government clinic also admit that they cannot provide enough sustenance for their newborns, because of escalating food costs.
Selina Zulu makes regular visits to the clinic. She used to give her older children, who have since finished their primary education, supplements like peanut butter. But now she cannot do the same for her three-year-old son, because of escalating prices.
‘‘Things have changed so fast. We have had to turn to feeding our children food, which we know is not good for them,'' she said amid nodding from other women gathered at the clinic.
A nurse at the clinic says [that] a number of children under five have been put on supplementary feeding. They are getting rations from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
‘‘Many of the children have been given the anti-measles jab, but they remain poorly fed. This is our main worry,'' says Helen Dube, a nurse monitoring the feeding and vaccination.
Zimbabwe's economic decline has led to the breakdown of the country's health-delivery system. Health care is now characterised by acute shortages of drugs and skilled personnel. This has affected levels of measles immunisation, which is one of the indicators for MDG 4.
In the 2004 progress report, the Zimbabwe government promised that 90 percent of infants will be vaccinated against measles by 2015.
But Stanford Matenda, a researcher and chairperson of the National University of Science and Technology's Journalism School in Bulawayo, says [that] the economic decline has made it virtually impossible for the country to realise this goal. ‘‘I do not see us achieving it.''
‘‘Just recently, government acknowledged that nurses were not going to work. The same goes for medical doctors. Children do not have access to food, care or medication, so it will be difficult to attain these targets,'' argues Matenda.
‘‘When parents are experiencing severe economic and psychological hardships, it will also be quite difficult for children to be healthy,'' he concludes.
Recently, Deputy Minister of Health and Child Welfare Edwin Muguti told striking doctors that the government had no money to meet their demands for salary adjustments.
The lack of resources to meet service delivery needs will also affect remote rural areas. According to health officials in the western border town of Plumtree, the measles-vaccination programme has been slowed down by the unavailability of medicine and medical personnel.
Gertrude Chisale of Plumtree Hospital's documentation centre says [that] there has been a steady rise in the number of deaths from measles, as the government hospital struggles with resources. ‘‘This year alone, we have had at least 15 deaths of children under five, and we expect the number to rise if the situation continues,'' Chisale tells IPS.
‘‘We used to have motorcycles for staff to travel to remote rural areas to do vaccinations. This has been stopped because government says [that] there is no money for fuel or for the maintenance of these bikes,'' says Chisale.
Matenda hopes that international assistance will become available [in order] to help vulnerable groups such as newborn babies.