Africa Watch

A perfect storm is brewing in Zimbabwe

Failing harvest in Zimbabwe
Zim harvest.jpg

The illegal hunting of a well-known lion in Zimbabwe, together with the furore that followed, is confirmation that very little is well in Zimbabwe and that a perfect storm is brewing.

The killing of Cecil the lion by an American crossbow hunter provoked worldwide outrage and started a heated debate on the issue of trophy hunting and hunting in general – a highly emotive issue in recent years. Accusations are flying around that the hunting sector is infested by large-scale bribery and corruption, law breaking and unethical practices.

If media reports are correct, the American dentist who killed Cecil and his Zimbabwean guide is guilty and must face the consequences.

Controversial land policy

The incident not only placed Zimbabwe’s hunting industry under the international spotlight, but also the Mugabe government’s controversial land policy, introduced  in 2000.

Ian Scoones, an academic and expert on Zimbabwe, says Zimbabwe’s extensive game ranches and conservancies were mostly subjected to land reform, or land grabbing, to be more correct. Most of the former (white) owners were evicted, often violently, along with their safari operations.

Unlike most of the agricultural land in the country, these concerns did not pass on to land-hungry peasants or unemployed urbanites. It went to elites with the right political connections.

According to Scoones, “the list of these beneficiaries reads like a who’s who of the Zanu-PF political-military elite”.

Initially the popular view was that conservation areas were not to be part of the land reform. A separate wildlife-based land reform was to be instituted under the control of the Ministry of Environment, and not the Ministry of Lands, to supposedly guarantee the sanctity of wildlife estates as a good source of revenue – from hunting and, more especially, tourism.

This soon got overridden by politics and many of the conservancies and game farms were allocated as part of A2 (medium- to large-scale) land reform, which typically saw properties ending up in the hands of well-connected individuals.

Included in this elite group was Honest Trymore Ndlovu, owner of the land where Cecil was killed and now co-accused as an accessory to an illegal hunt.

Zimbabwe’s government, like many others, claim strictly controlled and managed hunting raises revenues contributing to conservation and the upliftment of local communities.

Theoretically this is correct, but reality often paints a different picture.

Scoones is correct in his opinion that, “knee-jerk reactions resulting in bans on hunting or trophy imports will not solve anything. Past bans elsewhere have made things worse, with a rise in poaching, and decline in conservation protection. Zimbabweans, and for that matter South Africa and countries in a similar situation, should look harder at who benefits from wildlife. If revenues are to be generated from hunting quotas, they should not just benefit narrow elite.”

Famine threatens

The notorious hunt on Cecil also refocused attention on Zimbabwe’s precarious land reform policy as the underlying reason for Zimbabwe, yet again, facing a famine of epic proportions.

This year’s maize harvest is expected to fall by 35% compared to 2014 with a shortfall of more than a million tonnes in the country’s staple food, forcing Zimbabwe to import about half the maize it requires.

Adverse climatic conditions played a role, but the Mugabe government must take much of the blame.

Under a continuous economic downward spiral government support declined for indigenous farmers who benefited from the land reform policy, being allocated small pieces of land. The effect was devastating.

During the 2013-14 growing season, government pumped US$161 million in the form of free maize seed and fertiliser into 1.6 million household farms. However, the agriculture ministry’s budget fell by more than 50% from US$390 million in 2013 to US$174 million. It left less money for support to small-scale farmers.

The Mugabe government accuses the country’s commercial banks of reluctance to offer cheap loans to farmers to help bridge the shortfall, but most of them do not hold title to their land, preventing them from accessing bank loans.

Irony

Ironically some of the former forcefully evicted white Zimbabwean farmers moved to neighbouring Zambia, where – with their experience and knowledge – they are an asset to agriculture and food security. They will help Zambia, also facing dramatically lower yields due to the same drought experienced in Zimbabwe, to produce an estimated export surplus of 876 000 tonnes of maize – some of which will certainly find their way to Zimbabwe to help alleviate an expected food crisis.

To add injury to insult, Britain, the much-reviled old colonial power, the EU and the US will also be asked, as in the past, to make financial contributions to help feed the starving millions in Zimbabwe.

Reluctant confession

In what can be termed a reluctant confession of the failure of the land reform policy, the Mugabe government earlier in the year for the first time suggested it may give official permission to some of the remaining 300 white farmers to stay on their farms if they are deemed to be “of strategic economic importance”. Since 2000 some 4 000 have been evicted.

This unexpected move is indicative of Zimbabwe’s desperate situation. Not so long ago Mugabe still told supporters: “Don’t be too kind to white farmers. They can own industries and companies, or stay in apartments in our towns, but they cannot own land. They must leave the land to blacks.”

Last year he still vowed whites would never be allowed to own land in Zimbabwe again and promised to “clear the last remaining white farmers off the land”.

As another sign that the consequences of the land policy is hitting home, it was recently reported that government is considering new land laws which will require former beneficiaries – including political heavyweights and other “weekend farmers” – now owning some of the best of the formerly white-owned farms, to pay rent for that land. The funds collected would be used to start a process of compensation for evicted white farmers.

George Charamba, President Mugabe’s spokesman, was surprisingly blunt in an interview with a British newspaper, saying the review would be “founded on productivity” and beneficiaries would be subjected to a “use it or lose it” rule.

“Not many have made land reform work and they will not hold on to it if they are not making it sweat. There will be tears, black tears this time,” he said.

In another indication of some change of heart, President Mugabe hinted during the recent Heroes’ Day celebrations that his government was ready to establish a body to spearhead the repealing of laws scaring away investors.

Imploding economy         

Besides the expected food security crisis Mugabe is also confronted with an imploding economy. Hundreds of companies are closing their doors and thousands are losing their jobs.

Against this background a prestigious risk analysis company, NKC African Economics (a unit of the UK’s Oxford Economics), recently added Zimbabwe to a list of unstable African countries.

It declared: “We also believe that the equally extraordinary patience and resilience of the Zimbabwe people is wearing thin.”

An estimated 20 000 workers stand to lose their jobs after a recent Supreme Court ruling confirmed that employers have a right to retrench employees on three months’ notice without paying retrenchment packages.

Mugabe’s only response was that his government was against the loss of jobs, vaguely promising to change the law.  

Adding injury to insult, the minister of finance announced that the government intends to cut its civil service bill by at least 40%, effectively meaning that at least 200 000 civil servants will soon find themselves without a job at a time when unemployment is estimated to be at 90%.

According to a prominent Zimbabwean economist the country’s present employment figures are the same as in 1968 – almost 50 years ago. In his 2013 presidential election campaign Mugabe promised two million new jobs – but very few have realised. Only 700 000 of the present population of 13 million are in formal employment and more than half of them by government.

This must sound very familiar to South Africans!

Perfect storm

A Zimbabwean daily newspaper reported that all the analysts it interviewed on the current state of Zimbabwe placed the blame for an escalating political and economic crisis at the door of President Mugabe and Zanu-PF.

They say the ruling party had more appetite for mindless faction and succession wars than resolving Zimbabwe’s myriad challenges and advancing the lives of long-suffering citizens.

All indications point to an intense, probably violent, power struggle should something happen to the 91-year-old Mugabe. Such a power struggle in a country staggering under a collapsed economy and famine can only spell disaster.

David Coltart, a former cabinet minister in the now defunct Government of National Unity (GNU), recently emphasised the danger. According to him Zimbabwe “never had a situation where you’ve got weapons under the control of so many different entities — Zanu-PF is fragmented, the army is fragmented, the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) is fragmented, the police are fragmented — and there is a leadership vacuum. As a country, as a people, we are at our lowest ebb”.

A perfect storm is brewing and should it blow up, the consequences for Africa, the SADC and South Africa could be critical. 

NKC also concluded that Zimbabwe is increasingly becoming a potential conflict zone, as its economy continues to hurtle backwards — creating a tense and explosive environment in which violent riots and mass demonstrations could easily flare up.

With its own economy under pressure and with a high domestic unemployment rate, the question for South Africans is, how aware is the South African government of the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe and are there contingency plans in place?

by Garth Cilliers

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