The South African-registered Solidarity Peace Trust provides a devastating indictment of the increasing militarisation of Zimbabwe as the economy slides further into ruin and the Mugabe regime seeks to tighten its grip to head off the possibility of insurrection.
The detailed report focuses on the impact in Matabeleland of Operation Taguta/Sisuthi or “Operation Eat Well” launched last November when soldiers were despatched to rural areas under a Maoist-style Command Agriculture programme.
“The fact that they (soldiers) have taken away the farmers’ food, which is rightfully theirs – produced by their hard labour – is a hugely immoral issue,” Bishop Rubin Phillip, the Anglican bishop of KwaZulu Natal, told a news conference to launch the report.
Bishop Phillip, who with Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo is co-chairman of the Solidarity Peace Trust, visited Matabeleland at the end of March with another South African prelate, Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg, to investigate the impact of the deployment of military in rural areas.
“As of now they give us 500 cobs (100 kg) of maize (of our entire harvest) and say that’s enough, we have to wait until the next harvest,” said a plot holder in Matabeleland South, who was among farmers interviewed on video recordings played at the news conference. “… we had bought our own seeds and fertilisers from Bulawayo and we hired a lorry to carry it for us, and we planted it before the army arrived.”
The Trust said it had not been able to find much evidence of large-scale commercial farms seized from white owners coming under Command Agriculture. It knew, however, of one commercial farmer who has cut a deal: the soldiers cleared away the settlers and in exchange he grew a bumper crop for the military.
The report mentioned a few instances of Command Agriculture in Mashonaland West and Central, but focussed on Matabeleland.
“It could be that Matabeleland is considered a troublesome rural region as most rural people here support the opposition, whereas in other parts of the country, rural areas are the Zanu-PF stronghold,” said the report.
Among the most shocking results of Operation Taguta/Sisuthi in Matabeleland is what the report calls the “seemingly senseless destruction” of market gardens with lucrative cash crops such including paprika, tomatoes, spinach, sweet potatoes, groundnuts and even banana trees. The soldiers grabbed anything salvageable and ate it.
This, said the report, was either the work of extremely stupid soldiers following a general instruction to plant only maize, or, more sinisterly, the wanton destruction of the villlagers’ food base to keep them subdued. This would be in line with the regime’s repeated use of food as a political weapon.
“Plot holders now have to beg for the very maize they themselves have laboured to grow, and soldiers have the power to say yes or no,” said the Solidarity Peace Trust, adding that the small-scale farmers see themselves as indentured labour.
The Trust said another possible reason for Command Agriculture was to appease poorly paid soldiers by putting them where they can help themselves to food.
The authors predicted that the regime may try to keep the urban population, which could stage food riots, fed at the expense of the rural areas where hunger is likely to result in greater political compliance rather than uprisings.
Above all, the military deployments are part “of the continuing process of closing all remaining democratic space in Zimbabwe,” said the report. “It can be predicted that the presence of the army across the nation, including in rural areas, will intensify over the next few years ahead of the next presidential and/ or parliamentary elections.”
The Trust urged NGOs and the international community to press the Zimbabwe authorities about forced purchase of crops; urged charging the military with violation of the Grain Marketing Board Act, which stipulates that producers can keep sufficient for 12 months; and said the army should be withdrawn immediately from irrigation schemes.
National Security Minister Didymus Mutasa dismissed the report as “lies,” telling IRIN (UN) that the army had been deployed to revive the agricultural sector.
Command Agriculture in Zimbabwe: its impact on rural communities in Matabeleland April 2006. www.solidaritypeacetrust.org.
BY A SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
Soldiers put in charge of villagers in Matabeleland have seized harvests of maize planted before they arrived, ploughed in vegetable crops, ruined crop rotation, beaten up protesting farmers, and harassed school girls, a body headed by southern African church le