Zimbabwe: bumper crop, no cash

Despite an abundant harvest, it's difficult to buy the food - and many say it's the president's fault.

There's no jam on the bread Fideous Govera serves her three children each morning, little meat at suppertime, and certainly no treats in their lunchboxes.

"On weekends when I have time to cook, it would be nice to have rice - oh, and chicken would be even better," says the graphic artist.

But hard times mean "now I concentrate on mealie [corn] meal," says the widowed Mrs. Govera as she shops with many of Harare's fraying middle class for bare essentials at the OK grocery store in the center of town.

Last year Dugmore and Rachel Chirere ate meat five, even seven days a week. Now they and their two little ones get by on just two meals per day: tea and toast for breakfast, and corn meal with green vegetables in the evening.

Zimbabwe has just harvested bumper crops of corn and wheat. Yet three days of food rioting broke out Oct. 16, triggered by a 35 percent hike in the price of bread, on top of 20 percent-plus jumps in the cost of corn meal, sugar, and cooking oil.

The riots are indicative of a simmering public frustration with an economy - and a government - that's in deep trouble. With unemployment and inflation soaring, Zimbabweans simply cannot afford to buy the food that is abundantly available in their country. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has issued a "special alert" on food insecurity in the country.

Hunger is not a new menace in Zimbabwe: A lengthy drought threatened the country with famine in 1992. This time, however, the crisis appears man-made, and Zimbabweans say President Robert Mugabe is the man to blame.

"Mugabe thinks the people love him, but we hate him," says a Harare shop-keeper who wouldn't give his own name. "He must go as General Guei has gone, forced out by the people," continues the retailer, referring to last week's street protests in Ivory Coast that pushed coup leader Robert Guei out of power.

About 60 percent of urban Zimbabweans fall below the national poverty line of $159 in earnings per month, according to a report issued this month. However, a family of six now requires about $206 per month to subsist, according to the report. That figure doesn't reflect this month's price hikes.

Unemployment, inflation, and interest rates in Zimbabwe are well over 50 percent. Mugabe has engaged the country in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the cost of which is estimated between $100,000 and $1 million per day. His chaotic land reform program is destroying the commercial farming sector, dominated by the country's white minority. That minority accounts for less than 1 percent of the population, but its agricultural production is 20 percent of the country's annual gross national product.

Violence related to land reform and the June parliamentary elections have ruined the tourist industry - nearly 100 percent of tour bookings were cancelled by mid-year. Political and economic mayhem have exhausted the patience of international lenders and donors.

The Zimbabwean dollar is in free fall: One US dollar equalled Z$18 in mid-1998; now it's Z$53. FAO says in the last year prices have risen 45-100 percent for fertilizers, seed, and fuel. The country's bumper grain crop is stuck in rural areas due to fuel shortages and the fact that until last week the Grain Marketing Board lacked cash to buy the harvest.

"We had a welding business, but we had to stop because of the rising cost of electricity and the frequent power outages," says Dugmore Chirere. Now he is unemployed while his wife earns $3-$6 per day selling vegetables to her neighbors.

"Two years ago I could work lots of overtime and weekends, but that's dried up," says the widowed Govera. "Now, thanks to that old man [Mugabe], we can only buy the basics and even those are very expensive. Now for bathing I use the soap for washing clothes."

The FAO warns that this season's healthy harvests are unlikely to be repeated next year. Planting should begin now that the rainy season is starting.

However, because of Mugabe's land reform, farmers cannot use their land for collateral for bank loans to undertake planting. Also, many white farmers have been threatened, even chased away by those encouraged by Mugabe to take over whites' land. The Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers' Union says as a result production of corn, the national staple, likely will fall by one-third next year.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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