Friday, October 24, 2003

Last week I wrote an entry about human rights abuses in Zimbabwe and expressed the view that, in light of the South African government's purported commitment to human rights, its silence on events in Zimbabwe is disturbing. One abuse I pointed to is the distribution of food aid on the basis of political allegiance. This is a clear human rights violation because it amounts to discrimination on the basis of political opinion. Lest anyone be in doubt about the veracity of this claim, you are invited to read the 51-page report 'Not Eligible: The Politicization of Food in Zimbabwe' published today by Human Rights Watch.

In essence, the report details how perceived adversaries to the ruling ZANU-PF party experience difficulty in gaining access to food. The category 'perceived adversaries' encompasses, not only members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), but also teachers, commercial farm workers and urban residents considered sympathetic to the MDC. In effect, without a ZANU-PF party card, a Zimbabwean cannot register for or receive government-subsidized grain. The net result is that 14 million people in Zimbabwe are 'food insecure' (that is, they are unable to obtain sufficient food to meet basic needs).

Given that aid agencies are active in Zimbabwe, and food aid has been poured into the country, how is this happening? One problem is that agencies tend to rely on local authorities to determine beneficiary status, which lends itself to political manipulation. Another factor -- and this is interesting -- is that the aid agencies are themselves politicised. According to the report, many aid agencies are resistant to providing aid to those resettled on former commercial farms under the government's land 'reform' program. This is partly due to political objections, on the part of aid agencies, to the 'reform' program itself. But its also because the government has dragged its heels about providing the needs assessment that would enable the aid agencies to provide assistance. After all, it would reflect very poorly on the government if the farms that have been resettled are unproductive, and the people who occupy them hungry. So there is a resistance to acknowledging the fact that they are.

All of this makes for horrifying reading and should put things in perspective for those interested in South African foreign policy. As noted previously, the factors that motivate Mbeki's 'quiet diplomacy' remain a matter for speculation. I suspect that they are both pragmatic and personal. But, whatever they are, they should easily be outweighed by the brute fact of 14 million needlessly starving people. Years from now, no one, least of all the South African government, can claim that they didn't know what was happening in Zimbabwe. The time has come -- no, the time has long since passed -- for our government to put moral distance between itself and this regime.


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