Spectrum: Of Annus horribilis and inveterate opportunism

Wilting crops in Tsholotsho  17 Mar 15

Joram Nyathi
THE El Nino phenomenon has arrived with an unusually ominous ring to it. The drought conditions announced their grim presence in the region last week with perhaps the first weather-related casualty in South Africa. Krisjan Kruger, a cattle rancher in the Eastern Cape, reportedly committed suicide because he could not endure the sight of his dry land every morning.

A friend of Kruger told News24 this was the worst drought they had experienced in years. He said of Kruger; “He lived and gave his life for this land and he eventually crashed.”

A grimmer prospect for the region is more likely that there may be more involuntary deaths if people adopt the childish attitude of blaming and pointing fingers such as one sees in Zimbabwe.

Weather forecasts indicate that the El Nino-induced drought conditions will hit a number of countries in the region, including Mozambique, Malawi, Swaziland, Botswana, South Africa, Angola, Zambia and Lesotho. The impact could be devastating and calls on regional governments to coordinate their efforts as it is self-evident the grain deficit will have to be met from outside the continent.

Agriculture minister Dr Joseph Made has indicated that Government has mobilised $260 million to import between 500 000 and 700 000 tonnes to mitigate the effects of the drought. NGOs should be doing the same, so should private operators in the grain milling industry.

The point at the end of the day is to avoid the scramble for grain imports in the region once all countries affected begin to grasp the full impact of the drought and likely famine. It is only human nature that once there is such a stampede, the appetite to charge usurious prices is whetted and only those with huge foreign currency reserves can survive. Unfortunately Zimbabwe is not in the latter country-category.

Zimbabwe will likely feel the effect of this drought more than most countries in the region. All Meteorological Services Department forecasts of normal to above normal rainfall in some parts of the country have been proved wrong overall. The rainy season did not only begin late. It bore more of showers than summer rains. The unusually high temperatures which are normally supposed to be a harbinger of heavy rains went against common sense.

In all other seasons Zimbabwe can depend on the Mashonaland regions to produce more than the low rainfall provinces of Matabeleland, Manicaland, Masvingo and Midlands. This has allowed grain deficit areas to benefit from those who produce a surplus. This year is proving catastrophic. Nature itself appears to have conspired to ensure all that could go wrong went horribly wrong.

Mashonaland West, traditionally Zimbabwe’s main maize producing area, looks disastrous this year. One does not have to drive too far off from the Harare-Bulawayo highway to notice the state of desolation.

Those who planted early to anticipate a short season have had their crops wilt under the sweltering sun. Others are even, in this late hour, in the early stages of land preparation, in the desperate hope that climate change might mean rains coming late and lasting longer in the New Year. Yet another group of farmers have not bothered to venture out to pasture.

The resigned message among all of them is one of forlorn hope: we look up to God to save our nation. It is the most pitiful sight I have ever witnessed since before independence in 1980.

In most western parts of the country and the Midlands cattle have started succumbing to the crippling drought conditions. There is no water. There are no pastures to talk. It is already too late for farmers to try and destock profitably. Thus most of them are giving away their livestock at liquidation prices to purchase food.

Given the gloomy global economic outlook and the scale of the drought across sub-Saharan Africa and Sadc in particular, there is no doubt there will be very few benefactors. Those willing to land a hand will find themselves stretched to the limit, what with a Europe confronted with a deluge of refugees displaced in the Middle East, North Africa, and growing unemployment at home! This is the sobering reality Zimbabweans must accept as they confront this monster drought. We are, so to speak, by ourselves.

Faced with a national emergency of such a magnitude, unprecedented and hard to anticipate, one expects Zimbabweans to put political opportunism and grandstanding aside. It is a time to stand together in finding solutions, not votes. It is time to work towards saving lives, not condemning and celebrating what is viewed as a Zanu-PF problem. Tragedies of such a magnitude know no political affiliation or ideological persuasion. They require unity and maturity.

This is the context in which issues of civil servants’ salaries and bonuses should be debated. Can Government afford bonuses when already recurrent salaries alone take up to 83percent of revenues? Is it a collective position of all Zimbabweans that all the collected revenue can be spent on consumption and forget about investment in schools, hospitals, road infrastructure and agriculture?

Listening to the threats and ultimatums to Government by those who represent its workers, one gets the feeling most of them are either into politics or they simply are not fit to be leaders. We have a greater national crisis than bonuses but there are people trying to whip up public anger for private pockets – itself reflecting a poverty of leadership more than it is a mark of purposeful doggedness. This is worse still when the opening of schools is used as a bargaining tool by use of strikes. Children are being used as pawns and parents being co-opted through emotional blackmail.

Who wants their children to miss class when the cost of education is so high!

When all is said but nothing done yet, two issues emerge which call for urgent attention, and both require collective sacrifice and getting our priorities right as a nation.

The first is that Government must prioritise investment in farming infrastructure. Climate change has become a reality we can only ignore at great risk. Rainfall has become less dependable. There is need for bigger dams in all the country’s provinces to hold enough water to cover more than one drought season. It is dangerous to rely on donors in matters of food security, not to mention the national risks such donations always carry.

The spread of the current drought in the region shows that even with huge foreign currency reserves, importing can be too costly and fatalities can’t be ruled out.

The second issues relates specifically to bonuses in the public service. Opportunistic leaders keep referring to President Mugabe’s comments last year that the annual bonus for civil servants had become a right. That might reflect his desire as part of improving the welfare of government employees but it can’t be guaranteed when a drought hits the whole country and government revenue streams are drying up.

But beyond that, there is an anomalous situation where Government gets its money mainly from taxes and pays bonuses when the private sector which pays the taxes can’t afford to pay its workforce, let alone bonuses. There is need to justify bonus payment. There is no reason why they should be guaranteed regardless of the performance of the economy in a particular year. Civil servants are rational people who should always have this possibility at the back of their minds if they want to retain public sympathy.

This is a particularly bad year for our nation. We need to pull together.

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