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Southern Africa’s invisible crisis

Published Feb 21, 2020


South Africans may be transfixed by our own domestic crises of load shedding, deepening unemployment, stagnant growth and a bankrupt national airline, but across our border in Zimbabwe half the population is facing acute hunger. According to the World Food Program (WFP) 7.7 million Zimbabweans are facing the worst hunger emergency in a decade.

Sources on the ground tell Independent Media that the situation has not yet reached the catastrophe of 2007 where people were dying of starvation and there was no food in the shops, but the staple food maize meal ran out last month, and many households are lucky if they have one meal a day. The Red Cross had confirmed the gravity of the situation with its head Dr Michael Charles saying that he has seen people going for two to three days without food, not only in Zimbabwe but also in Zambia.

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In Harare it has become common place for fights to break out in grocery stores for what little maize may still be available. It is now commonly reported that bread is hard to find in the shops, and when bread is available it costs R20 a loaf, which is beyond the reach of the vast majority of citizens. Inflation in the country is over 490%, the highest in the world after Venezuela.

The shocking finding of UN Envoy Hilal Elver is that the country is on the verge of manmade starvation. An astounding 90% of infants are malnourished and have stunted growth. Elver came face to face with severely stunted children in the informal settlements of Harare, as well as in rural Masvingo and Mwenezi. Many infants are being deprived of breast feeding as their mothers lack access to food.

The WFP says that the number of Zimbabweans who are food insecure has doubled since August last year, and it is urgent that donors are made aware that an additional 1.1 million people are facing acute malnutrition. The situation has become so grave that women are increasingly turning to prostitution in order to keep their children alive. Many children have been separated from their families, or forced out of school so they can take on menial work. Official unemployment in the formal sector is at 90%.

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Aid agencies have reported that young girls in Southern Africa are selling sex sometimes for less than the cost of bread in order to survive a hunger crisis ensnaring tens of millions. World Vision's Emergencies Director in Angola, Robert Bulten, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that a girl might get $1 or R14 for sex - enough to buy about a kilo of beans or two kilos of maize. According to World Vision, in Angola girls of 12 sell themselves for as little as 40 cents to feed their families, as the south of the country faces its worst drought in four decades.

Drought has been a primary cause of this catastrophe. In Zimbabwe there were poor rains in the 2018/19 agricultural season, and similarly, there was no rain in the planting season last year which usually takes place between September and December. The rains only started last month which is too late to ensure a decent harvest. Only three percent of Zimbabwe’s agricultural areas have access to irrigation. WFP’s Country Director for Zimbabwe Eddie Rowe estimates that there is a 60% chance of another failed harvest this year.

This is the most under reported and neglected crisis facing our region, and as a result the international donor community and regional leaders are not being spurred into action to address starvation on our doorstep. There seems to be no public awareness of this crisis, minimal news reports, and South African politicians claim to be unaware that this is the situation Zimbabwe finds itself in. We all seem to be so engrossed in our own navel gazing that we are not even cognizant of what is going on around us.

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But the crisis goes well beyond Zimbabwe, extending to the entire Southern African region. As a result of drought, widespread flooding, and economic problems, 45 million people in Southern Africa are currently facing food shortages. WFP’s Regional Director for Southern Africa Lola Castro has said, “The hunger crisis is on a scale we’ve never seen before and evidence shows it’s going to get worse.”

Central and Western SADC have been hit by the worst drought in 35 years during the growing season. Last year Botswana, Lesotho, and Namibia all declared drought emergencies. In Angola 2.4 million are affected by food insecurity, where children are barely eating one meal a day. World Vision staff in Angola report that they have never seen hunger and malnutrition on this scale. In Zambia 2.3 million are facing acute hunger, and in Eswatini 24% of the population are suffering food shortages. Similarly in Lesotho 20% of the population is food insecure.

The Southern African region has only had one normal rainy season in the past five years amid cyclones and flooding. The WFP has attributed the crisis of recurrent droughts to climate change. SADC has been identified as a climate hotspot by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The severe drought cycles are trapping people in a vicious cycle of poverty which ultimately could cause increased social unrest and even violent clashes with authorities. This is what happened in Zimbabwe in August last year when protests against spiralling prices led to a violent reaction by the police.

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If food security is national security, which is what most governments in the region believe, then there needs to be a regional strategy on how to address the chronic challenge of climate induced food shortages. Over the past three years almost half Zimbabwe’s strategic plan has been aimed at mitigating the impact of climate crisis, but the country still finds itself in an impossible situation.

It is also true that gross levels of corruption and mismanagement persist in the country, where predatory elites continue to enjoy the spoils of wealth accumulated under the Mugabe and current administrations, with no prosecutions undertaken of those guilty of corruption.

Zimbabweans continue to suffer a lack of very basic services, with electricity in the urban areas often only on for five hours a day. In September last year Harare ran out of convertible cash to purchase chemicals to purify the remaining public water supplies. The result was that public water supplies were shut down, ending access for 2 million residents of Harare to clean water. It is this type of economic mismanagement that has caused the service sector across our border to collapse.

If we don’t start treating the crisis in Zimbabwe as a crisis of the region which affects us all, our own economy will never recover from the consequences. It will lead to thousands more Zimbabweans streaming across our borders one way or another in a desperate attempt to survive. If we truly believe in Ubuntu, we have to work together as a region to address these seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Shannon Ebrahim is the Foreign Editor for the Independent Media Group.

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