The Use of Food and Essential Needs as a Political Weapon

When the struggle against Zapu was at its height in the mid 80’s,the Zanu PF regime here used the distribution of food as a political weapon for the first time. I recall it well because we were in a severe drought and there was widespread shortage of food supplies from traditional sources. The 5th Brigade was doing its 'thing' in Matabeleland and although we knew all was not well, we had scant idea of the full extent of that genocidal campaign.

In that year, the government cut off supplies from State controlled sources and effectively said to the Ndebele people - if you continue to support Zapu, one way or another you will die. This was no idle threat - they killed at least 20 000 people in the campaign, more than had died in the liberation of the country over many years and they controlled the basic staple foods almost completely.

They did this by erecting roadblocks on all roads leading into the rural areas in Matabeleland; these had instructions to stop the entry of media practitioners and also all forms of basic foods. Relatives in the urban areas and in South Africa could not reach their families with aid when requested and no publicity of the operation was allowed.

In 1987, after 5 years of murder, mayhem and hardship, Zapu capitulated and was absorbed into Zanu PF. There was little else they could do if their people were to survive. The record of this savage political campaign is published in the report 'Breaking the Silence' now in book form.

At that time there was no threat to the hegemony of Zanu PF in Zimbabwe. They dominated the political scene and held an overwhelming majority in Parliament. Mugabe wanted more - he wanted a one Party State. He could not tolerate any opposition.

Since then many new opposition voices have come and gone. One by one they were eliminated by effective but less bloody techniques - infiltration, subversion, bribery, threats and a media black out with propaganda. When necessary they used violence - targeted and ruthless, or their economic muscle to force leadership to leave the field or retire hurt.

Then came the MDC, a new labour based political movement with strong grass roots support. Initially confident that the same lethal mix that had poisoned the ground for opposition parties in the past would do the job again, Zanu PF simply ignored the threat leaving it to the security agency that held responsibility, to 'fix' the problem.

When they finally woke up the morning after the referendum in February 2000, they suddenly knew they were in a real fight - this time for power itself. MDC had won the referendum even after those responsible for the vote had ensured that it would be rigged by 15 per cent and had assured them that they would win the vote quite easily.

The response by the regime to this electoral shock was predictable. Mr. Mugabe gave a vintage performance on National television saying that he accepted the decision of the people, but behind that cold façade was a ruthless and cruel determination to use every tool in the Zanu PF tool kit against these new usurpers.

In the intervening 7 years, Zanu PF has been forced to gradually intensify its campaign to retain power, in the process losing its democratic credentials and its standing in the world community. Now Zanu faces its most serious threat since 1980 South Africa has forced the next election back to March 2008 and the SADC is demanding that Zimbabwe fulfill its obligations as a member and adhere to the SADC norms for free and fair elections.

The strategy evolved by those doing this sort of thing in Zanu PF and government itself, called for acceptance of changes to the actual voting procedures on the day, but was intended to deliver a broken, bloodied MDC and a radically changed electoral pattern to the poll. So we have seen renewed attacks on MDC structures - across the country, renewed use of imprisonment, false accusations, torture and savage beatings, all designed to drive activists out of the country and to ntimidate those who remain.

Then the operation, like Murambatsvina in 2005, designed to close down business in urban areas, take over major export industries and drive out of the country another 2 to 3 million urban inhabitants. This is well under way and I estimate that half a million urban residents have already left the country for other countries - most going to South Africa. Millions more are preparing to go and will move as soon as their plans are made.

As part of this integrated strategy the regime here has increased control over basic food supplies. They are systematically denying the urban areas food - there is now no maize meal, no rice, no bread, no meat or beans, in urban areas. People are scavenging for food and the struggle to feed families and the elderly is becoming well nigh impossible. Couple this to water rationing or no water at all, water borne disease and fuel at Z$400 000 a litre and the local mini busses charging Z$100 000 per trip to town and you have a situation that is simply intolerable.

This situation is being creating deliberately - fuel is supposed to be selling at Z$350 per litre - the actual street price is Z$2 million for 5 litres. Maize meal is supposed to be sold at Z$5 000 a kilo - the actual price is Z$25 000 a kilo. Meat is supposed to be sold at Z$240 000 a kilo but the market price is not less than Z$1 million a kilo. The real rate of inflation for the ordinary worker is probably about 20 000 percent and his wages and income are rising slowly - controlled by government.

The plan was that by the time of the election in March 2008, the Cities would be a shadow of their previous state, population down by half and those that remained, hungry and dependent either on Zanu PF employers or the State for survival. The MDC would also be reduced to a shell and a broken one at that! In the rural areas it was Zanu’s calculation that their hold over traditional leaders plus food control would deliver the vote.

This use of a mix of manipulation of the vote using the voters roll, the delimitation process in determining voting districts and then exercising physical control over voters on the day, has enlisted the support of the donor community who pour hundreds of millions of dollars into humanitarian assistance each year. The agencies involved allow themselves to be co-opted by the State for this purpose by only doing what they are allowed to do in this field and supplying food through official channels. NGO’s are seen as extensions of government liable to be denied access to communities at the whim of local political authorities. Often Zanu PF is allowed to even direct food aid operations. The UN Agencies are all guilty of such actions.

Breaking the hold of Zanu PF over the electoral system is only one half of the equation we require to secure our rights as a people. Their hands must also be taken off the price controls and the availability of food and jobs. If we are going to get anything like a free and fair vote in 2008, this latter aspect, which is very much under the control of foreign donors and investors, needs urgent attention.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 19th September 2007