SO PRECIOUS are the last grains of mealie meal in Rosina Mpovu’s hut that she sleeps with the bag under her bed. It’s enough for one meal for her, her daughter and the six grandchildren she looks after.
There is nothing else: no salt, cooking oil, tea or sugar. Apart from cups and plates, the only thing on her shelves is a plastic shark. A skeletal yellow dog lies under a tree.
The family have eaten nothing for more than 24 hours and do not remember when they last ate meat. Their maize crop failed when no rains came and a second crop looks to be heading the same way after the driest season in decades.
The little money that Mpovu, 78, used to earn from weaving mats from reeds has dried up because of the milky cataracts in her eyes that now obscure her vision. She cannot afford the bus fare to town to see a doctor.
Peering at the dry stalks poking up from the barren field, she shakes her head. “We have no plan B,” she says.
Like many villages throughout Zimbabwe, Bezwa in southern Matabeleland has no young men. Some have died of Aids; others have gone to towns or, with unemployment at 95%, to South Africa, leaving children and the elderly to fend for themselves.
At the primary school, the headmaster J Mtemeli said: “It’s hard to teach when children come on empty stomachs and hunger looms over everything.”
Hunger has long been a part of life for the Mpovus, who are used to surviving on one meal a day. But now they, along with a quarter of Zimbabwe’s population, face famine.
On Friday, the government declared a “state of disaster”, warning that the driest season for decades has left more than 2.4m people in desperate need of food aid.
“This is a very serious situation and it’s not unlikely people will starve to death,” said Jan Vossen, country director for Oxfam.
“People have nothing, their neighbours have nothing, the community has nothing, the next village has nothing. We have to act very quickly.
“We are even seeing people tearing off the thatched roofs of their huts to feed their cattle. More than 16,600 cattle have been slaughtered and a cow which usually fetches $300 is selling for as little as $30.”
President Robert Mugabe blames the crisis on climate change combined with western sanctions on his government for human rights abuses. A drought exacerbated by the El Niño phenomenon has wiped out crops and cattle across southern Africa.
In reality, a country once known as the breadbasket of Africa would not be facing starvation if not for a violent campaign pursued since 2000 to evict white farmers from their land, which has decimated commercial farming.
“This hunger is 100% a result of farm invasions,” said Charlie Taffs, chief executive of African Farming Solutions, an agricultural development company based in Harare.
“Rainfall over the past 10 years was actually higher than the previous 10 years, but no one starved in the 1990s.”
Just 300 or so of the original 5,000 white commercial farmers remain. Of these fewer than 100 are fully operational.
Most of the farms were given not to landless peasants but to Mugabe’s cronies, who have left them lying fallow.
Before the farm invasions Zimbabwe produced 3m tons of maize a year, far exceeding its needs of 1.8m tons. This year it is expecting 600,000 tons.
According to Taffs, crop yields have fallen by half and 140,000 hectares of irrigated land on the seized farms are not being used.
So ludicrous is the situation that while Bezha and other villages starve, a nearby farmer was forced to sell his dairy herd 10 days ago because he had no water to give them, though a nearby dam is 60% full.
Mike Conolly, 49, in Figtree, can no longer access the water as the pump station is on the next-door farm that belongs to his elder brother, Dave. That farm was seized last September by Ray Ndhlukula, deputy secretary to Mugabe, despite a court ruling ordering him off.
Dave Conolly spent $30,000 on a protracted legal battle to get the order after Ndhlukula first showed up in May 2014. But when he produced it, Ndhlukula replied: “You have white skin and you have the temerity to take me to court. Don’t you know who I am?”
By the end of this month the brothers will have to sell the rest of their cattle — the last remaining pedigree Herefords and Senepols in Zimbabwe.
The animals were part of a herd brought from Britain by the brothers’ father more than 80 years ago. A proud family photograph shows the late Queen Mother awarding a prize for best bull to one of the herd in 1953 in Bulawayo.
“They have huge sentimental value but they were also an irreplaceable gene pool for Zimbabwe,” said Mike Conolly. “There used to be 56 Hereford breeders, and now I’m the last.”
He thinks his own days are also numbered. “They have already come and told me I must get off,” he said.
Last week he cut his workforce to three. “One greedy person has ruined not just us but 150 people and their families,” he added.
Despite the food crisis, the farm seizures seem to be stepping up again.
“They will not rest until the last white farmer is off their farm,” said Ben Freeth, who was badly beaten along with his father-in-law when they took Mugabe to court for seizing their farms. “Just this week two more farmers were told to go. Those remaining are in limbo.”
Ten days ago Philip and Anita Rankin were woken at 5am on their farm in northern Zimbabwe by 20 police and men armed with AK-47s who demanded they leave.
The men told them their farm, Kingston Deverill, now belongs to Sylvester Nyatsuro, who runs an NHS clinic in Nottingham, and his wife Veronica. The couple, who were given asylum in Britain, are reported to be connected to Mugabe’s wife, Grace.
The Rankins’ eviction was the culmination of a 100-day siege that began on November 6 when Nyatsuro arrived at the farm with men demanding the Rankins hand it over. The couple initially refused to go but were finally driven out when the gunmen returned with police trucks.
“While I was in the truck I prayed it would have an accident and be killed instantly so this would be exposed for what it was,” said Rankin.
He was later released and now lives, along with his wife, with relatives in Harare. “I am kicked off my farm with just my shirt and debt for some wealthy British doctor. What does he want my place for?”
The British embassy sent two diplomats to the farm and the Home Office is investigating on what basis Nyatsuro was granted asylum, as calls mount for him to be stripped of his British citizenship. Nyatsuro has declined to comment.
Some see such seizures as a division of the spoils in the dying days of empire. Mugabe, who will be 92 on February 21, recently insisted he will not leave office until God calls.
Recent weeks have seen unprecedented public warfare in the ruling Zanu–PF party between potential successors: Grace Mugabe; the vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa; and the former vice-president Joyce Mujuru, who was expelled just over a year ago and is launching her own party.
The current famine may be Robert Mugabe’s final legacy, but there is one place that will not be short of food. A lavish party is being planned for his birthday for which his supporters hope to raise $800,000.
Title: Zimbabwe today: no food, no plan B
Author: Christina Lamb
Source: The Sunday Times