ZIMBABWE: No foreign currency, no food

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A R100 (US$13) remittance from a relative living in South Africa was a lifeline to food for Lydia Nxumalo, 36, and her family in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city.

After searching in vain for maize-meal in the shops and supermarkets, Nxumalo, with her five-year-old daughter in tow, eventually managed to buy a 10kg bag of the staple food from a vendor at the bus terminus.

"This bag of mealie-meal [maize-meal] will only last me a week and then I will need to purchase some more to feed my family, but where am I going to get the foreign currency to buy the mealie-meal? It is too expensive," Nxumalo told IRIN.

Maize-meal is no longer available from formal businesses, and for many the only recourse is the informal market, but while the illegal market thrives and maize is available in abundance, it is sold only for foreign currency. The price varies, depending on the dealer, from US$10 to US$13 for a 10kg bag. Officially a 10kg bag of mealie-meal costs Z$15 billion (US$0.40).

Other basic commodities, such as cooking oil, sugar and bread, are also only available on the informal market, but vendors charge for these in the currency of neighbouring South Africa and Botswana.

Since 2000, more than three million Zimbabweans are believed to have left the country in response to the economic meltdown, which independent economists believe now has an annual inflation rate somewhere between one million percent and 10 million percent, and unemployment of more than 80 percent. Zimbabwe's currency is fast becoming obsolete as more and more traders demand foreign currency for their goods.

Ahead of the 27 June presidential run-off vote - from which the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai, withdrew in protest over the widespread violence - the incumbent, ZANU-PF leader Robert Mugabe, promised to import 600,000mt of maize.

Half was said to be sourced from South Africa, and half from Zambia and Malawi; however, the maize does not appear to have found its way to the streets.

Playing politics

"President Mugabe is playing politics with our stomachs. Before the elections he said a lot of maize will be arriving in the country from South Africa and three weeks down the line we are still waiting for the maize. He should stop politicking and make sure the maize comes in before people die of hunger," said Martin Ndlovu, a resident of Bulawayo's Makokoba township.

"We are tired of politicians playing around with our lives. What we need right now is food, and President Mugabe should stop lying to us. If there is no maize and mealie-meal available, he should say so," Ndlovu said.  

For those Zimbabweans who cannot rely on relatives or friends to remit money to them from other countries, a 10kg bag of mealie-meal costs the equivalent of a month's wages for those who still have a job.

"The shortage of mealie-meal is so intense we are spending weeks without eating any sadza [a thick porridge cooked from maize-meal], said Nhalnhla Sibanda, a self employed cobbler. He told IRIN he had last bought mealie-meal two months ago on the informal market, but could no longer afford it.

"People in the townships are now relying on sweet potatoes and vegetables for survival, but the price of those is also going up daily," he said.

"Everyone is charging in South African rands and in Botswana pula for basic commodities - where do these people expect us to get the foreign currency from?" Sibanda asked, hammering at a shoe.

"We are waiting with bated breath for the maize promised by President Mugabe, because if it does not come soon we will all die of hunger. Let us hope it is not one of those campaign gimmicks President Mugabe has used in all elections to woo voters to vote for his party," Sibanda said.

Cain Mathema, the governor of Bulawayo, dismissed the belief that Mugabe's promised maize imports were being distributed to ZANU-PF supporters. "The government is committed to feeding all Zimbabweans, irrespective of political affiliation, and we are currently awaiting maize supplies from South Africa, Zambia and Malawi.

"That maize [import] has been paid for ... We are aware that the black [informal] market is selling maize and mealie-meal at exorbitant prices," he said.

Mathema said the government had introduced a ward-based food distribution programme, in which basic commodities were sold at government-controlled prices, but residents claim the system is only benefiting supporters of Mugabe, who came to power in 1980 after the country won its independence from Britain.

"The ward-based food programme benefits ZANU-PF supporters, and what they sell is not enough for everyone, and supply is erratic," a city resident who declined to be identified, told IRIN.
In the lead-up to the 27 June ballot, the government ordered non-governmental organisations involved in humanitarian assistance, including food distribution, to suspend their activities.

The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP) Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission to Zimbabwe projected in its forecast, released in June 2008, that about 5.1 million Zimbabweans will suffer food insecurity.

"The Mission estimates that 2.04 million people in rural and urban areas will be food insecure between July and September 2008, rising to 3.8 million people between October [and December] and peaking to about 5.1 million at the height of the hungry season between January and March 2009."

Source: IRIN NEWS http://irinnews.org