Food insecurity bites as Zimbabwe’s economy faces collapse

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Zimbabwe is now considered one of the four most food-insecure countries in the world, alongside Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan. It is mind-boggling, given that Zimbabwe was once the bread basket of southern Africa.

The country is now facing widespread starvation, and locals say basic food staples in stores are so expensive that few can afford to buy them, and in certain areas basic goods are scarce.

For most Zimbabweans, meat has become unaffordable; even carrots are a luxury. When Zimbabweans asked President Emmerson Mnangagwa six months ago about the unaffordable price of meat, he said: “If people can’t eat meat, let them eat vegetables.”

That was reminiscent of Marie-Antoinette’s infamous statement in 1789. When told her French subjects had no bread, she said: “Let them eat cake.”

After that comment, she became a hated symbol of the monarchy, which fuelled the French revolution.

With massive unemployment in Zimbabwe, families don’t have disposable income and rely on handouts or what they grow in their own backyards. For Zimbabweans, this is a time of desperation and deprivation, and as soon as they can many will want to undertake the perilous journey and enter South Africa illegally in the hope of finding some income-generating activities just to survive.

I watched a friend pack groceries worth thousands of rand into white hessian sacks at the weekend, which would make the over 21-hour journey on the back of a pick-up truck to Harare to feed her family for the next few months. This is reminiscent of when she sent suitcases of emergency food supplies to Harare in 2007 and 2008, when people were starving and the shelves in shops were empty.

All of this is the product of an economy in a state of collapse, with inflation at 785.6%. The IMF says Zimbabwe has the highest inflation rate in the world; and it estimates that the country’s economy will shrink 10.4% this year, following a 12.8% contraction last year.

At a time of diminishing GDP and skyrocketing inflation, the security forces have seized control of the economy and financial policymaking. On June 26 a Joint Operation Command of security chiefs ordered the government to close the privately-owned Zimbabwe Stock Exchange and to halt mobile money transfers – which host most of the country’s commerce.

As a result, Reserve Bank Governor John Mangudya has banned some electronic money transfer services due to the government’s contention that black market traders and electronic transfers are a key source of currency devaluation. The last time money transfer providers were told to suspend operations was during the unprecedented 2008 economic crisis.

Analysts suggest the economic collapse is the result of the mismanaged reintroduction of local currency after 10 years of dollarisation, which led to widespread fraud and embezzlement. A growing concern is that the Reserve Bank (RBZ) may raid ordinary people’s bank accounts to fund a bailout. The RBZ says local banks have over $1billion (R16.6bn) in their accounts.