By Peta Thornycroft and Basildon Peta
As the spectre of famine stalks Zimbabwe, tens of thousands of tons of emergency food aid are being held up by Zimbabwean red tape.
Tony Hall, the United States food ambassador who is visiting Zimbabwe, said that 10 000 tons of food were waiting in Durban for an import licence and 15 000 tons inside Zimbabwe were held up because permission to distribute had not been granted.
"There is a major problem here if there is no change ," he said at a news conference in Harare after being banned from inspecting a refugee camp on the outskirts of the capital.
He said the rising cost of living, a lack of fuel, "disastrous" policies and drought combined to present a worrying scenario for Zimbabwe's poor. Also being held up is a consignment of food organised by the South African Council of Churches (SACC).
Eddie Makue, the SACC deputy secretary-general, said the Zimbabwean government had failed to issue the council a duty-free certificate for two of three trucks - one containing blankets and the others food - which were supposed to have left for Zimbabwe already.
"The truck with blankets is the one leaving for Zimbabwe this morning ," Makue said.
"The other two trucks have been delayed because the duty-free certificate has not been organised.
"We have intervention from the highest authority, but there is a Zimbabwean official who is delaying the process. Otherwise the trucks are sealed and ready to leave."
The trucks have been standing idle in Johannesburg for more than a week after the Zimbabwean government refused to issue clearance certificates because it feared the maize on the trucks might be genetically modified.
The South African agriculture department intervened to facilitate the necessary paperwork.
The SACC is co-ordinating a relief effort for thousands of people who have been displaced by a Zimbabwean government operation that has seen the destruction of slums and other informal settlements.
Hall, the US ambassador to the United Nations World Food Programme, was also told that red tape prevented him from visiting the refugee camp housing victims of President Robert Mugabe's operation to "clean out the trash".
"We were told we did not come with the proper paperwork. They said I needed permission from the ministry of information and wanted to know why I was taking notes," said Hall who would, an hour later, pledge nearly $51,8 million (R326-million) for food aid in southern Africa.
He said reports coming out of the camp, known as Hopley Farm, were that old people were dying there. About 2 000 people were forced into the area after their homes were flattened in an informal settlement west of the city three weeks ago.
"We cannot address the suffering of these people if we cannot see them and assess their needs," Hall said. This was "the sort of bureaucracy" that Anna Tibaijuka, the UN's special envoy, criticised in her report last month on Zimbabwe's campaign against the urban poor when at least 700 000 had their homes bulldozed and tens of thousands of street vendors were arrested.
Hall, with 25 years of experience in 115 countries, including famines in North Korea and Ethiopia, is widely acknowledged as one of the world's most experienced and senior diplomats on the humanitarian relief circuit.
He said Zimbabwe was "one of the most difficult" countries in the world to work in and distribute aid.
"I have never seen anything like this. There is no place for politics when it comes to feeding hungry people."
Six months before the March general election, Mugabe told relief agencies to stop providing aid as Zimbabwe had grown more than 2 million tons of maize and was "choking" on food.
Mike Sackett, the World Food Programme's regional director, said this week that an appeal had gone out for 300 000 tons of food for the region, with 40 percent destined for Zimbabwe.
Meanwhile, Joaquim Chissano, the former Mozambican president, is preparing to visit Zimbabwe on an official mission to try to persuade Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF party to negotiate with its opponents to map a way out of the country's crisis.
The African Union (AU) recently appointed Chissano to the job in the hope that he may succeed where others - including President Thabo Mbeki - have failed. They hope he will persuade Mugabe to engage in real dialogue with his chief political opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and civil society.
Welshman Ncube, the secretary-general of the MDC, this week said that Chissano had contacted the MDC to lay the groundwork for his mission. He understood that Chissano had also contacted Zanu-PF.
Ncube said: "As long as South Africa, Nigeria and other African countries keep on giving succour to Mugabe and protecting his regime, he (Mugabe) will not agree to negotiations."
Lovemore Madhuku, a political analyst and chairperson of the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), doubts Chissano can succeed.
"Mugabe is not eager for any talks that in his view may amount to negotiating himself out of power," said Madhuku. Mugabe would budge only under pressure, he said, suggesting that South Africa should refuse to give Zimbabwe a loan unless Mugabe opened negotiations with all the democratic forces in his country.
Zimbabwe has been negotiating with South Africa for a lifeline loan of about $470 million (R2,9 billion) to avert expulsion from the International Monetary Fund.