BY GEORGE T MUDIMU, FREEDOM MAZWI & EDMORE MWANDIRINGA
The month of February was one of the most terrible months to Zimbabwe’s peasantry. Several policy moves and actions that directly and indirectly affect the peasantry were meted on the peasantry without any due considerations of what would become of Zimbabwe’s bulging peasantry. The peasantry, of course, is increasing quantitatively and qualitatively. Following Ricardo Jacobs (2018) path-breaking study on the rise of the “urban proletariat with peasant characteristics” in South Africa, we opine the same schema could be applied to Zimbabwe. In recent days, there is a rise of the urban poor who to a large extent, exude peasant characteristics. But again, this is a digression, our aim here is to highlight some of the recent policy announcements and actions that affect the peasantry, based in the countryside. Some of these announcements also affect the ‘new peasantry’ that is located within the major cities of Zimbabwe.
The government recently announced that it had increased the maize producer price from
$4 000 to $6 958. This new producer price is equivalent to US$198 at the prevailing market rate of
$3 500 to US$100. The state’s reviewed the maize producer price to encourage farmers to deliver grain to the Grain Marketing Board and replenish the national grain reserves. However, there is a high likelihood of a continuation of side-marketing and subsequent smuggling of maize into neighbouring countries by some middleman. The new price is lower compared to regional prices that average US$220 and worse still, it is lower than what the government is paying to import maize from regional neighbours. For instance, recently the government imported 19 726 tonnes of maize from South Africa at a reported price of US$250 per tonne. The new producer price of $6 958 is barely enough to cover for the production of a tonne of maize that experts estimate to be around US$350. It has come to be generally accepted that agriculture is a forecast based sector, yet, the present policy positions provide little if any information regarding prices, thus in the process throwing into the jeopardy planning process for family and capitalist oriented farmers. Maize growers are no exception. Anxiety and uncertainty are bigger detriments to the peasantry’s cropping plans. Also, information available to date is that the government barely consults farmer groups when it sets the producer prices. While the Zimbabwean producer price appears lucrative, it is, in reality, some form of monetary illusion. Inflation is likely to erode the amount before harvesting in April. According to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, month on month figures, inflation fluctuated from 480,7% in November, 521,2% in December and dropped to 473,1% in January. We have argued elsewhere that the current hyperinflationary environment is a threat to the country’s agricultural productive capacity and the economy in general.
Not only do the challenges end with producer pricing, but they are also sector-wide as shown by the rise of cartels. Evidence provided by the Grain Millers’ Association (GMAZ) at a recent parliamentary portfolio committee on agriculture confirms the fears we raised in January that more and more cartels will rise and these are bent on rent-seeking with little benefit for the family farmers whose livelihoods are dependent on maize production and its marketing. The cartels have captured the maize value chain to the extent that they now determine what is paid to the peasantry, how and when. As stated by GMAZ, some of them have names such as “Drotsky” which have never heard in the industry before. The failure of the state to put in place attractive producer prices has led to the rise of “middlemen”, also known as “makoronyera” to wreak havoc in the countryside. We also contend that due to these poor policies and hostile economic environment, barter trade in various crop commodities is on the rise in rural Zimbabwe.
At the same time, the marketing challenges are not only in the maize industry but also extend to the tobacco sector where some uncertainty is looming in one of the most important sectors of the economy. The number of registered tobacco producers has dwindled from 171 269 for the 2018/2019 season to 147 528 for the current season. The majority of these farmers (140 970) are peasant farmers who belong to the A1 and communal area settlement models. The farmers are yet to be informed of how they will be paid their earnings from the tobacco sales under this hyperinflationary environment. Given the hyperinflationary environment and policy inconsistency that has been prevailing over the past two to three years, we posit that the number of contracted tobacco growers is likely to increase when compared to the previous agricultural season as most farmers cannot afford to purchase inputs from the open markets given their already eroded incomes. Generally, macro-economic policies have over the past few years had an effect of squeezing the peasantry thereby limiting possibilities of farm reinvestments
The government recently announced the introduction of a 2.5% tax on the civil service and a Government Employees Mutual Savings Fund (GEMS Fund). Purportedly, these two facilities are meant to cushion civil servants through the establishment of cheaper grocery shops and a mutual savings fund. Although noble, these facilities disenfranchise the peasantry that also lives in the same space as the civil service. They buy from the same shops but no facility has been put in place to service the peasantry. Yet the peasantry constitutes more than 50% of the country’s population. At the same time, similar schemes are also run in the tobacco industry, in the tobacco marketing, the peasantry is subject to various taxes that end up taking close to 10% of the peasantry’s earnings.
Structural issues require long-term solutions. Below are solutions that we think could help to reduce peasant distress. The starting point is a radical departure from the current neoliberal economic trajectory which places the interests of international capital at the forefront to a pro-poor development path. This path recognises that both the agrarian underclass and capital are key drivers of an economy and the state should thus play a role of protecting the interests of weak and vulnerable members of society. As argued in our previous piece, there is an urgent need to avail rural finance and inputs to the peasantry if the country is to enter into a path of economic development. The current maize import bill is unsustainable and if half of that amount were to be channelled to supporting the peasantry base, food security and incomes for the majority of the household would be greatly enhanced thereby having a positive effect on the national economy. There is an urgent need to resuscitate and establish irrigation infrastructure. We again draw your attention to the fact that agriculture was allocated 4% in the national budget compared to the minimum 10% agreed Maputo Declaration threshold. The government must at least start to consult and announce the producer price(s) for the 2020/2021 agricultural season to enable the farming community to make decisions. Without a doubt, Drostky and partners should be left to their roles as entirely business entities and they should not be allowed to play quasi roles in grain procurement and maintenance of granaries. Maize producer price has to be renegotiated to reflect the production costs involved or at least match regional prices. In the tobacco sector, the heavy tax regimes have to be scrapped as well as robust payments form and mechanism have to be formulated and implemented. Peasant-friendly tobacco earnings schemes have to be devised, for instance, paying a bulk of the tobacco sales in cash at the auction floors would go a long way in meeting the peasant needs and reducing their current cries for better treatment and recognition.