AFRICA: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Zimbabwe's agriculture, industry face meltdown
, July 13, 2002
Once one of the most prosperous countries in Africa, Zimbabwe has fallen steadily since Robert Mugabe took over the country with the promise of establishing a multi-racial democracy in 1980.
The country previously had a turbulent history, with independence following 14 years of international isolation, when the country was ruled by its minority white population.
Since the 1980s, Zimbabwe has gradually fallen further under the despotic control of Robert Mugabe who in recent years has proceeded to try to expropriate the land of the few thousand white farmers who continue to produce much of the country's commercial crops, while inflation is rampant, and unemployment in the cities has soared to around 60 per cent.
Land issues have long bedevilled Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), as much of the best farmland was taken from blacks early in the 20th century, and the blacks became labourers on the land which had once been their own.
However, Mugabe has tried to resolve this issue by forcing the current white farmers off the land, and redistributing it to so-called "war veterans", usually functionaries of Mugabe's party, ZANU (PF).
Many white farmers have been murdered on their farms over recent years.
The latest in a long sequence of actions is that thousands of white farmers in Zimbabwe have been given an ultimatum to leave their land.
The Commercial Farmers Union says 2,900 farmers are legally obliged to stop working their land, and they have less than two months to dispose of their assets and leave their properties for good.
The country's economic problems are compounded by the crisis of AIDS, which is more extensive in Zimbabwe than anywhere else in Africa.
According to official reports, there were an estimated 1.5 million of the country's 11 million people with HIV/AIDS in 1999, and deaths from the disease were 160,000. Some 25 per cent of the adult population suffers from the disease, the highest proportion in Africa.
The country's problems were compounded by Mugabe's victory in Presidential Elections early this year - in an election which international observers said were rigged.
Drought has further ravaged the country, making it heavily dependent on imported food.
However, major food donors have threatened to suspend aid to Zimbabwe unless government removes constraints preventing the private sector from importing grain to feed over six million Zimbabweans facing starvation.
Diplomats said donors have started to question government's commitment to stave off hunger when it was deliberately stifling private-sector participation in food imports. They said suspension of supplies was now a real possibility.
The Mugabe government last year gave the Grain Marketing Board a monopoly to import grain.
The country is on the brink of starvation as government has failed to import adequate stocks of food while relief agencies which have moved in to assist have not been allowed unfettered access to targeted population groups.
A World Food Program (WFP) spokeswoman, Makena Walker, said the United Nations body had so far brought 57,000 tonnes of food into the country but had only been able to distribute 13,000 tonnes.
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which co-ordinates international aid in the country, said Zimbabwe would need to import 1.5 million tonnes of maize this year.
With limited foreign currency to finance government-led commercial food imports, Zimbabwe needed to engage private-sector participation in grain importation and to maximise erratic food-aid supplies from donors.
The food crisis, exacerbated by drought which is affecting other parts of southern Africa, comes on top of on-going political crises. Mugabe has been under strong challenge by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by former trade union leader, Morgan Tsvangirai.
International observers at the recent Presidential elections in Zimbabwe reported that there had been widespread fraud in the elections which the 78-year-old President Mugabe comfortably won.
However, most international observers believe that had the elections been free and fair, the MDC leader would have won. In response to the election scandal, Zimbabwe was effectively suspended from the Commonwealth for a year.
After the election, Morgan Tsvangirai was charged with treason, after Australia's SBS TV showed sections of a secretly-recorded video, in which Tsvangirai discussed the prospect of Mugabe being removed.
The charges incensed the international community, with condemnation coming from many quarters in Europe, the US and Australia, whose Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says the charges were baseless. The charge of treason carries with it the death sentence.