January to March is the traditional lean season, when rural households tide themselves over with whatever stores of food they have – or find paying work so they can buy from the market. But as a result of last year’s drought-hit harvest, 16 percent of Zimbabwe’s rural population “will have insufficient means to meet their minimum food needs during the 2015-16 lean season”, according to the UN’s World Food Programme.
If 2015 was bad, this season is set to be even worse. An extreme El Niño is expected to trigger a more intense drought and greater shortages. Government maize stocks are dangerously low, food prices are rising, and the Geneva-based humanitarian assessment outfit ACAPS has warned that “humanitarian food assistance plans [are] underfunded”.
Zimbabwe’s economy is in deep trouble. The government is broke: It was unable to pay farmers for all the maize they produced last year; formal sector unemployment is as high as 90 percent; household incomes remain extremely low; and children are dropping out of school in increasing numbers. A bad harvest will add to the existing pressures on Zimbabweans trying to make ends meet.
Here are some examples of the hardships they are already facing:
1. Lights out
“Is there electricity?” is one of the first questions you ask when you phone home. The state power company ZESA has been rationing electricity to six hours a day since last year, but the blackouts inevitably last longer. The reason is low water levels in Lake Kariba that have reduced hydro-power generation. The government says that if the lake doesn’t get significant inflows of water by the end of February – and the prospects don’t look very bright – then there may be a complete breakdown in electricity supply.
“The looming collapse of the power generation sector will have disastrous consequences for the few remaining productive industries and agriculture in an environment of deepening poverty and lack of jobs,” said the secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, Japhet Moyo.
2. Stolen Christmas
Only the armed forces and the spy agency, the CIO, got their salaries on time in December – civil servants went without until the beginning of January, and pensioners still haven’t been paid. The government also cancelled the traditional December bonus known as the “13th cheque”.
“The bonus will definitely be paid. We just don’t know when,” said Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa. Zimbabweans took to social media to comment bitterly on a “stolen Christmas”.
3. Cost of surviving
The cost of the staple starch, maize meal, is going through the roof. A 20-kilo bag – enough to last a family about two weeks – costs around $9 in urban areas. In the countryside, it’s as high as $12. And in the drier southern parts of the country, worst-hit by the drought, it’s nudging $15 – a huge outlay for poor families.
Esther Marava sells wild fruit along the highway from the southeastern city of Masvingo to the capital, Harare. “Families have run out of maize and small grains and we are surviving on eating and selling wild fruits,” she told IRIN. A lack of money means people are turning increasingly to the barter trade. It’s now not uncommon in rural hospitals for fees to be paid in sheep and goats.
4. Currency conundrum
Remittances from family members working abroad are a lifeline for many households. The huge numbers of Zimbabweans working in South Africa in particular has been a vital channel of financial help – until this Christmas. Zimbabwe does not have a currency of its own, and instead uses a basket of currencies dominated by the US dollar. The collapse of the South African rand against the greenback – down by 25 percent – has made it highly unpopular, and most retailers now no longer accept it. Remittances sent from documented and undocumented workers in South Africa go nowhere near as far as they once did.
5. Increasing unrest
Things are getting tense. This week, seven Harare City municipal police officers were hospitalised after running battles with drivers of unregistered public taxis they had tried to evict from the central business district. In the end, riot police were called in and arrested 43 protesters.
There were more clashes on 6 January in Harare’s dormitory suburb, Chitungwiza, better known as “Chi-town”. Taxi operators were again protesting, this time over the council’s increase in service fees by $100. They then started stoning private citizens picking up stranded individuals. The violence spread throughout the town, sucking in residents and street boys.
It’s been a miserable start to Zimbabwe’s new year.