Food Security in Crisis: Lessons for South Africa from Zimbabwe

By Jos Martens · 19 Oct 2012

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Picture: IRIN/Flickr
Picture: IRIN/Flickr

Once again, Zimbabwe is experiencing a drought with famine affecting at least 1.4 of the 12.6 million people still living in the country. USAID estimates that the country produces just over half the two million metric tons (MT) of cereal needed to feed the entire population. Those most affected are the people in the rural areas located in the drier regions of the country, the estimated 350 000 farm workers and their families, most of whom lost their jobs under Zimbabwe’s “Fast Track Land Reform Programme” and, of course, the urban destitute.

Zimbabwe is no stranger to drought. Since 1980 the country has suffered from insufficient rains no less than 14 times. The central question however is, how was it possible for Zimbabwe to transform from a once self-sufficient, food secure and self reliant country into one that is structurally producing less than it needs and that has to regularly extend a begging bowl to the outside world?

Answering this question may well reveal some lessons for South Africa.

Worldwide, Mugabe’s detractors point at the land reform programme, corruption and incompetence as the causes of Zimbabwe’s food shortages, while his supporters invariably point at drought and the economic boycott by the West as the true reasons. While both parties are partially right, they overlook several other crucial factors that came into play after the country’s independence.

From Food Secure to Food Deprived

In the first 10 years of its independence, Zimbabwe generally managed to meet its food requirements and avert famine despite having to deal with four serious droughts.

Two major factors contributed to this. After independence, the Zimbabwean government redirected its efforts in infrastructure development, credit, research, extension and training services towards the development of small-scale agriculture in communal areas. Consequently by 1986, 60% of the country’s maize was produced by communal farmers, up from less than 10% before independence. The move away from maize to cash crops such as tobacco and horticulture by large-scale commercial farmers was more than compensated for by the increase in maize production by communal farmers. In addition, the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) held over three years of maize reserves and over eight years of small grains.

But the food stability of the 80’s gave way to a decade of dismantlement, as Zimbabwe embraced an IMF/World Bank inspired Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) in 1990 and pressure mounted on the GMB to sell its large reserves, close non-profitable grain depots and drastically reduce its subsidies. Consequently, in 1990 and 1991 Zimbabwe exported a significant amount of its maize reserves.

The timing could not have been worse - 1991 also heralded one of Zimbabwe’s worst droughts, which cut national maize yield down to less than a quarter, forcing the country, which had recently held abundant grain reserves, to import emergency stocks. Nevertheless, for much of the decade, given the dictates of the ESAP, Zimbabwe continued exporting maize even with the occurrence of two more serious droughts in the 90’s. As a result its strategic grain reserves dwindled substantially.

Over the same period, government also introduced export incentives and cash crop stimulus measures and both communal and small-scale farmers increasingly diversified into cash crop production. The acreage under seed cotton increased from 90,000 hectares (8%) in 1980 and 230,000 hectares (20%) in 1990 to 370,000 hectares (26%) in 2000.

Zimbabwe’s Fast Track Land Reform Programme

In the midst of general donor fatigue, which characterised the nineties, negotiations with the British government over finances for land acquisitions collapsed in 1996. In 1998 the Zimbabwean government hosted a land conference in Harare, involving international donors and multilateral institutions. But responses to Mugabe’s “inception phase framework plan” were ambivalent, so the land conference failed. This led to the Zimbabwean government embarking on its Fast Track Land Reform Programme in the year 2000. It did so under pressure of increased land occupations and after a hastily crafted draft constitution had been rejected in a referendum. By 2004 more than 3,000 of the 4,000 white-owned large-scale commercial farms had been compulsorily acquired.

The mainstream debate focused almost solely on the issue of land grabbing by the politically connected elite. This discussion was generally blown out of proportion and obscured the fact that Zimbabwe’s agrarian structure had fundamentally changed. Between 2000 and 2010 about 28% of all land (9,100,000 hectares) was redistributed of which around 60% went to 200 000 small farmers and 30% to 22 700 new middle-size farmers; some 5% was taken by 217 new large-scale commercial individuals. As a result, in 2010 small farmers occupied almost 78.6% of Zimbabwe’s land compared to less than 49.2% in 1980. Large-scale commercial private farms were left with 3.5% of the land compared to 39% in 1980. Middle size farms now occupied 13.4%, up from 4.2% while the remaining 4.5% (down from 7.7%) remained in the hands of corporations, parastatals, conservancies and other institutions. 

While the reform programme thoroughly disrupted and largely crippled large-scale farming, production in the communal areas continued during the first years of the new millennium. National maize yields in the good rainfall years of 2003/04 and 2005/06 were still substantial and the acreage under maize increased. While total yields were well below the national needs, it was not too bad considering that most of the maize now had to come from communal and resettlement famers who previously had produced some 60% of the nation’s harvest.

Only in the second half of the decennium - notwithstanding good rainfall - did maize production drop and remain below the one million MT mark. These were the years that Zimbabwe’s economy truly started collapsing. With hyperinflation beginning in earnest in 2007 and skyrocketing to around 500,000,000,000% by the end of 2008, it was simply no longer viable to invest in inputs like seeds and fertiliser; maize yields per hectare dropped.

Climate change compounded this situation. Zimbabwe’s rainfall became increasingly erratic, evidenced in particular by a disastrous lengthening of the typical dry spell in January – and frequency of failed harvests increased, now even occurring five times in the nine years from 2003 to 2012.

It is crucial to recognise that the “miracle” maize increase by Zimbabwe’s small farmers in the 1980’s was almost fully produced by the top 20% only, i.e. the ones who had easier access to inputs such as seeds, fertiliser and credit and lived in areas with better soil and higher rainfall. Neither government’s pre-ESAP high-input agriculture efforts, nor the free market, private sector thrust of the last 20 years has succeeded in substantially increasing the production of the bottom 80%. It even rendered many of them more vulnerable to drought as mono-cropping, use of high yielding maize varieties at the expense of small grains and the application of fertilisers has increased the risk of crop failure in drought-prone areas.

And yet the Zimbabwean government is touting a green revolution and private sector approach that will further marginalise the million farmer families who live in the drier and more marginal areas of Zimbabwe.

Lessons for South Africa

In South Africa approximately 18,000 commercial grain producers accounted for 90% of all grains produced in 2005, while up to three million subsistence farmers, who produce for household use, accounted for the remaining 10%.

The ANC government has until now failed to substantially redistribute the land. Instead it has continued to pursue a green revolution strategy based on high levels of artificial inputs (including GMOs), decreasing labour costs, a consolidation of landholdings into larger units of ownership and production, privatisation of an increasingly multinational agro-industry and the free market to make it all happen.

It ought to be clear from Zimbabwe’s experience that this approach has not and will not bring benefits to either South Africa’s decreasing number of farm workers, its subsistence farmers, the landless or the urban poor. Instead, with increasing speculation on the food futures markets, the production of bio fuel and an increase in land grabbing, South Africa might well be in danger of losing both its national and household food sovereignty and security.

For both South Africa and Zimbabwe, the answer has to lie in an agricultural policy that aims to prevent widespread hunger and famine. It will have to focus not only on issues of national food security, but first and foremost, at pursuing food security at the local level, for the below-subsistence level farmers in agriculturally marginal areas.

This will entail a completely different type of site-specific, sustainable, ecological form of agriculture, spearheaded by local farmers themselves, organised along cooperative principles and directed first and foremost towards the rehabilitation and conservation of land and agro-ecosystems in order to increase local food security. Support of urban agriculture will also have to be a critical part of such an alternative policy.

Martens is an agriculturist who has worked and lived in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa since 1984. He works for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

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Rory Short
19 Oct

Food Security

I agree 100% with this - 'This will entail a completely different type of site-specific, sustainable, ecological form of agriculture, spearheaded by local farmers themselves, organised along cooperative principles and directed first and foremost towards the rehabilitation and conservation of land and agro-ecosystems in order to increase local food security. Support of urban agriculture will also have to be a critical part of such an alternative policy.'

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Zea Maize
22 Oct


Brilliant! And sad, surprising, credible. Where does all the manipulated information come from that the rest of the world was indoctrinated with? I understand this article as not being about the gigantic mistakes and the dictatorial rule of Mr. Mugabe - but about about some true roots of the food and health misery in the country that go beyond failed policies and corruption of the present. They are based on an ongoing interest of big international firms and their politicians in establishing an input-intensive, world market focused agriculture, that is not sustainable and, cynically, even increases hunger and that they love to call "Green Revolution", because most people do not know what that really meant and means...

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