The government of Zimbabwe says it does not have enough foreign exchange to buy food for more than six million Zimbabweans facing hunger this year. But it says it will not allow private groups that do have the money – including the main opposition party – to import food, either.
To help cope with the food shortages, the government has banned the export of maize, the mostly commonly eaten food in Zimbabwe. It has also given the government-run Grain Marketing Board (GMB) a monopoly in the trading in and importation of maize that it sells to the public. But because of a shortage of foreign currency, the GMB has not been able to import enough of the grain.
In response, the main opposition party – the Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC – set up the Feed Zimbabwe Trust to import maize. The trust has raised Z$50 million locally while foreign donors have pledged food and money.
Earlier this month, the Trust bought 30 tons of the staple from South Africa with the intention of donating it to the hungry in one of the hardest hit districts. But, the MDC did not first request a license for importing food – as required by law. As a result, customs officials seized the Trust’s maize. The grain is now being held in a warehouse at the Beit Bridge border post.
The MDC’s shadow minister for agriculture, Mr. Renson Gasela is one of the trustees. He explains why the Feed Zimbabwe Trust is refusing to apply for a license.
He says, "We are not going to apply for a license because we believe that there is a contradiction where a government says that there is a national disaster and at the same time proceeds to prohibit anybody from bringing in more than seven kgs of maize or mealie meal for their own consumption."
Q. So who is going to benefit if you succeed in bringing the maize into the country?
"This maize will be distributed and given to any person who is in need of food, regardless of their political inclinations."
Q. Who is going to distribute the food?
"We are [planning] to distribute this food through churches. There are churches all over the country and that area that we chose it will be the church in that area that will distribute."
Q. I see you have plans to import more maize but the other lot is still being held by customs. What happens if government says that, no we are not going to allow you to import the maize?
"Let them refuse the food to the people when the food is actually there and the people are starving," he says. Mr. Gasela says it’s quite possible that the government will decide to impound the maize and then have the GMB sell it. Because of this he says he does not see a situation where his organization could co-operate with the government since the idea behind the Feed Zimbabwe Trust is to donate food to those who cannot afford to buy it. He also said that the food could end up being sold to ruling party members. This allegation that has been rejected by numerous government officials including President Mugabe who has said that every Zimbabwean including what they call ‘puppets and stooges’ would be fed.
The government owned daily ‘The Herald’ says that the maize the Feed Zimbabwe Trust tried to import into the country was part of a 100 ton consignment bought by the British government. The paper says the grain was meant for the opposition MDC to distribute in rural areas to prop up its supporters ahead of the March presidential elections. Minister of Agriculture Mr. Joseph Made, at the time of the seizure of the maize re-iterated that the government would not allow any food not imported by the Grain Marketing Board into the country.
Meanwhile the World Food Program is distributing free food to the needy through a number of n-g-o’s throughout the country.
Zimbabwe was at one point a net exporter of food. However, it has been importing food after two bad harvests blamed on drought – and on the governments land reform program. It has seen food and export crop production drop as white commercial farms have been forceably expropriated from white farmers.