For the past 11 years Zimbabweans have thronged to the National Sports Stadium -or before its construction to Rufaro Stadium- on April 18 to celebrate the country’s independence anniversary.
Even in the drought years of 1983-85 there were heavy turnouts both for the national celebrations as well as at provincial ones. It has usually been double celebration marking another year of consolidating the country’s independence and a good harvest.
This year, however, there is nothing to celebrate. The country is facing the worst drought in living memory which threatens some four million people who have to be fed by the State.
The situation is so critical and so politically volatile that the government this year cancelled the annual independence ball at which some 5 000 government and party officials from the country’s eight provinces feast at the five-star Harare Sheraton, spending about $500 000 on food and accommodation.
President Mugabe has already acknowledged that the drought is now posing a political challenge as the ruling ZANU-PF’s fortunes which are at a very low ebb can only be raised through the efficient handling of the drought situation.
Indeed, a lot will depend on how the government handles the drought because it affects everyone, both rural and urban folk alike.
Urban workers who usually supplement food requirements of their rural families or relatives are not just affected by the drought but have also been hard hit by the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) which has seen the price of mealie meal, the staple food, almost double while the price of other basic commodities is now beyond the reach of many of the low and middle income earners.
Almost all the major urban centres ranging from Bulawayo, Mutare, Masvingo, Gweru to Shurugwi are facing a water crisis. Major mining companies are retrenching thousands of workers because of inadequate water supplies. Farm and other agro-industrial workers are being laid off by the week.
More than 25 000 jobs in this sector, normally the country’s backbone, are reported to be at stake. Boarding schools have been hit not only by water shortage but also by the shortage of maize meal and sugar.
Queues for sugar and maize meal are now a daily occurrence. The police riot squad has even been summoned on occasions to maintain order in the queues.
This is the kind of scenario Zimbabweans were laughing at only a few years ago and even boasting that it would never happen to the bread basket of not only Southern Africa but the continent as a whole. The bread basket has now been turned into one for receiving the bread than dishing it out.
The government has declared the drought a national disaster and has appointed so-called resident ministers to ensure the smooth and efficient distribution of food.
But it appears that it is all they have done. While the move, on paper, is commendable, one tends to agree with up-and-coming Harare East MP, Margaret Dongo.
“What the people need now is not resident ministers. My grandmother requires mealie meal. We seem to be building empires for people who are doing nothing,” she said. Coming from a government backbencher, a war veteran and staunch party supporter, dare anyone say more.
Elsewhere in this paper we quote some politician saying: “Governments tend not to solve problems but to rearrange them.” This appears to be exactly what is happening.
What are the resident ministers going to do that the provincial governors and their provincial administrators cannot do? If the provincial governors are so incapable of handling problems in their areas why keep them?
What is the role of provincial governors vis-à-vis the drought situation? Are they now just there to sit and watch? Are they now to report to the resident minister, or do they continue to report to the senior minister of local government?
Is this not just another bureaucratic move that will create more confusion rather than solve a simple problem? Is that one minister going to unclog the bureaucratic delays inherent in all government establishments? Since all the resident ministers hold government portfolios how are they going to separate their two roles?
One can pose several other questions which will obviously go unanswered. The big question is if there are so many unanswered questions can the system really work?
People are already talking that the present drought has nothing to do with the present shortage of mealie meal. It is just a coincidence and quite a plausible excuse that the government can now use.
Looking at the situation in its proper perspective, one tends to agree with this. Even in a normal year, people would not be using the current season’s harvest.
The government and the Grain Marketing Board denied the whole of last year that the country was running out of maize. Today the government continues to assure the nation that there is enough maize to feed the people.
It says more than 600 000 tonnes have already been ordered. Yes, it may all be true but how can you convince someone who has been sleeping outside a shop for a week that there is plenty of food, there is no need to panic when that person has not seen a bag of mealie meal for a week?
How can you convince a person that a resident minister will solve problems in Masvingo, Manicaland, Matebeleland South, Matebeleland North, Midlands, Mashonaland Central, Mashonaland East or Mashonaland West when the entire government cannot solve the problem in Harare or Bulawayo alone?
How long can Zimbabweans be expected to shoulder this burden simply because of fears of a split within the ruling party?
There maybe no coherent opposition party to challenge the ruling party at the moment but it is quite well known that a hungry man is an angry man. And as stated in this issue: “It is only governments that are stupid and not the masses of people.”