Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Southern Province Hit by Food Shortage

Residents say maize meal from the state grain agency is being given out only to friends of the regime.
By Benedict Unendoro
The food situation in Zimbabwe’s arid southern province of Masvingo has reached crisis point, with many families unable to access even basic foodstuffs.



In early June, social welfare minister Nicholas Goche banned humanitarian agencies from operating in Zimbabwe after accusing them of "breaching the terms and conditions of their registration".



Since the aid agencies stopped distributing food, the state-controlled Grain Marketing Board, GMB, has been the only source of the staple maize meal. But GMB outlets on the ground are unable to meet the demand, and Masvingo residents say that what maize meal is available it is directed only to those with close ties to the ruling ZANU-PF party.



Mugabe has been accused of using food aid as a political weapon. Voters in Masvingo traditionally backed President Mugabe and his party – so much so that it was dubbed the “one-party province”. In the March 29 presidential and parliamentary elections, however, voters here did the unthinkable and backed the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC.



Masvingo accounts for 27 per cent of Zimbabwe’s land area and at nearly two -million people, has the largest population of any province. It is a particularly dry swathe of land which scientists rank in the lowest of five categories for annual rainfall. Even drought-resistant crops do not grow reliably, so the land is suitable only for cattle and wild game ranches.



A miller in Chivi, the most arid district in the province, described how government officials slanted food distribution towards regime supporters.



Licensed millers purchase South African meal from the GMB at the Beitbridge border post, and then have to take what they have bought to the office of the District Administrator or DA, a government agent who records each consignment. The DA invites village heads and ward councillors to submit the names of residents who need the maize meal. These grassroots-level officials decide who should be awarded the meal, and either accept or refuse money from applicants accordingly. The DA then authorises the sale based on the list of names provided, and only at that point can millers release the maize meal.



“The system is fraught with corruption,” said the miller, who did not want to be named. “The headman and the councillors alert only their relatives and friends of the availability of the meal, and those who oppose them or the [ZANU-PF] party never appear on the lists taken to the DA.



“Senior government officials and the soldiers stationed here during the election campaign have become the major beneficiaries of the system. The DA allows them to buy grain from the millers in huge quantities, which they resell at inflated prices to poor villagers.”



These days, villagers are finding it impossible to pay for maize meal even when it is available.



“We normally only get money from selling our produce but we have experienced successive droughts over the past few years so there is no money coming our way,” said one elderly man, showing clear signs of malnutrition.



Across Zimbabwe, an estimated 85 per cent of the population are unemployed, and the problem is especially rife in Masvinga, where the few existing mines have scaled down their operations and there is little else in the way of job opportunities.



“In better times we depended on our children in the towns, but they, too, have been affected and have returned home to live with us,” said the villager.



According to a healthworker in Chivi, “Most children and the elderly are malnourished – they urgently need food aid.”



There has been an upsurge in HIV/AIDs-related deaths here, creating increasing numbers of orphans. Many people are returning from the cities to die at home in their villages.



The healthworker attributed the high mortality rate in the area to malnutrition.



“Aid agencies used to distribute high-protein, high-energy foods which kept opportunistic diseases at bay. Without those foods, people quickly succumb to illnesses,” he said. AIDS orphans and the elderly are the most vulnerable groups.”



Villagers believe that now that Mugabe has won the election, he should allow the aid agencies back into rural areas. The MDC has made the restoration of aid operations one of its preconditions for talks with ZANU-PF. Talks have been taking place since last week in Pretoria on the framework for full negotiations between the two parties.



Many worry that the president is reluctant to allow the agencies back in, for fear that that they will expose high levels of malnutrition and also the extent of the violence unleashed in the run-up to the June 27 second-round election.



Benedict Unendoro is the pseudonym of a journalist in Zimbabwe.

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