By Ephraim Nsingo | Sixty-six year old Gogo Lethiwe Ncube gazes at a distant truck cruising towards the Avoca Shopping Centre in Insiza, Matabeleland South Province and starts smiling.
“Why does that vehicle not appear to have a long aerial on it?” she asks, shading her eyes to get a better look at the speeding Toyota. On realising that the truck truly does not have a long radio antenna, the smile on Gogo Ncube’s face suddenly disappears.
The antennas are meant to keep aid workers in touch with their colleagues, but for Gogo Ncube and other residents of rural Matabeleland South, they have another function: they announce that relief supplies have arrived — they are found only on food aid trucks.
One of the people at the shopping centre informs Gogo Ncube that she’s unlikely to see the cars with long aerials in the village before the elections scheduled for the end of June, on the orders of the government.
After several minutes of silence and pondering, she finally opens up and says: “It has been over a month now since we last had supplies from World Vision. They should be arriving any time from now. If they do not come, then I will die. Who will give me food? How will I feed my three grand children? What will I give to the sick girl?”
The list of her worries seems endless. Gogo Ncube lives with her three grandchildren — Themba (9), Mandla (7) and Bongiwe (4). The three youngsters were orphaned three years ago when their parents died of AIDS-related sickness within a month of each other. The youngest of the three, Bongiwe, is also sick from what Gogo Ncube says “is the same as what took my son and his wife.”
Gogo Ncube is one of many villagers in Matabeleland South — a drought-stricken province in the southern part of Zimbabwe — who have been left helpless by the government’s suspension of non-governmental organisations that carry out field operations in rural areas. Most people in this semi-arid region have for the last few years survived only thanks to food aid from agencies like the World Food Programme, Care International, and World Vision. Every month, each household receives 50 kilogrammes of maize, 25 kg of barley, 2 litres of cooking oil, 5 kg of beans and 500 g of salt.
Most able-bodied people of working age have left the Avoca village to try their fortunes panning gold in the Insiza and Umzingwane Rivers, about 25 and 40 kilometres to the west of the village respectively. Others have crossed into South Africa in search of work. Those left behind explain how they have managed to survive on relief food from international humanitarian organisations for the past five years.
Last year, the World Food Programme (WFP) said that more than four million Zimbabweans relied on food aid, and following the failure of the last growing season the number is likely to increase. Zimbabwean civil society organisations, among them Restoration of Human Rights in Zimbabwe (ROHR Zimbabwe) — a human rights organisation established in 2006 and involved mostly in humanitarian work — say more than six million Zimbabweans are currently in need of food following the failure of crops in the last farming season.
But in a circular to non-governmental organisations dated June 4, Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare Minister Nicholas Goche said “a number of NGOs involved in humanitarian operations are breaching the terms and conditions of their registration”.
“As the regulatory authority, before proceeding with the provision of Section (10) sub-Section (c) of the Private Voluntary Organisations Act (Chapter 17:05), I hereby instruct all PVOs/ NGOs to suspend all field operations until further notice.”
Goche was later quoted in the state-run Herald newspaper saying NGOs were using food aid to meddle in Zimbabwe’s politics, and that some of them were campaigning for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai who faces the incumbent Robert Mugabe on June 27 in a run-off presidential election.
The National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (NANGO), which represents both local and international NGOs operating in Zimbabwe, denies the government’s claims.
“Different organisations have codes of conduct. This code of conduct bars an organisation or anyone acting on its behalf to engage in political activities,” said NANGO spokesperson, Fambai Ngirande.
“This will leave thousands of people without any source of food, thereby condemning them to starvation. This is a contravention of the PVO Act that protects the rights of the NGOs. The country at the moment does not have the capacity to feed its population. What is sad is that the ban will affect the most innocent of the country’s citizens.”
But in an interview with IPS, Goche appeared relentless about the ban. “Some of these organisations were capitalising on the plight of our people to campaign for the opposition. It is not true that there is starvation in the rural areas. In fact, the situation has now improved as the government is now handling all food distribution through our local government structures,” said Goche.
Food aid is now being distributed by traditional chiefs and headmen, who are viewed by the opposition and civil society organisations as being mostly supporters of the governing Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU PF).
MDC spokesperson Nelson Chamisa said his party had irrefutable evidence that ZANU-PF was now distributing food only to its supporters. “This is yet another desperate attempt by ZANU PF to reverse the people’s will as expressed on March 29. War veterans and ZANU PF militias have virtually taken over food distribution in rural areas, and our supporters are being forced to first denounce the MDC before they can get aid,” said Chamisa.
The ban could also render hundreds of Zimbabweans jobless. A week after the ban, a Care International official said they had recalled more than 300 of the organisation’s field workers in Chivi, Mberengwa, Shurugwi, Gutu, Zaka, and Bikita.
ROHR Zimbabwe deputy President Stendrick Zvorwadza said the ban on humanitarian aid organisations was unlawful and an attempt by the government to shut out dissenting voices.
“Humanitarian organisations are being closed at a time when people in Zimbabwe need humanitarian aid more than ever. More than 6 million Zimbabweans are in need of food aid; thousands have been internally displaced by ZANU PF violence and homes have been burnt therefore effectively terminating their hopes of livelihood. People living with HIV/AIDS were depending on NGOs for access to anti-retroviral drugs which are not easily available in Government hospitals and clinics,” said Zvorwadza.