Johannesburg — Zimbabwe's decision to seek a loan from neighbouring South Africa has sparked a heated debate in that country. Some have urged South Africa to turn down the request, while others say the loan should be granted -- with stringent conditions attached. They fear a refusal to extend this financial lifeline to President Robert Mugabe would exacerbate Zimbabwe's political and economic crisis.
But even if the money is granted, says David Monyae, a lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the Johannesburg-based Witwatersrand University, it is unlikely to go very far.
"Zimbabwe needs 15 to 20 billion dollars to resuscitate its economy. The one-billion-dollar loan it has requested from South Africa is likely to dry up before Christmas," he told IPS.
"You and I may think that's a huge amount, but it's not. President Robert Mugabe can't survive on this kind of money. He needs money to improve infrastructure, to deliver health care, to improve the education system, and to import food."
Of the 10 million people who need food aid in Southern Africa this year, 2.9 million are in Zimbabwe, according to a joint report by United Nations agencies and the 13-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC), released in June.
"The number of people in need is based upon the Government's announced plan to import 1.2 million tonnes of maize to address food shortages, caused by drought, inadequate access to inputs and limited tillage," the report noted.
"However, if this maize is not made available through the (Zimbabwean) Grain Marketing Board, or if it increases in price, the number of people requiring food assistance could rise substantially. As a contingency, WFP (the U.N. World Food Programme) plans to assist up to four million people in Zimbabwe in the year ahead," it added. (The country's total population is put at about 13 million.)
The food shortages and economic decline that have come to characterize life in Zimbabwe have prompted a mass migration of its citizens.
More than two million Zimbabweans now live in South Africa, according to Daniel Molokela, a Zimbabwean lawyer who works for the Peace and Democracy Project, a non-governmental organisation based in South Africa's commercial hub of Johannesburg. Molokela is involved in organising Zimbabwe's diaspora to work for change in the country.
Political repression in Zimbabwe has also played a role in the exodus of citizens to neighbouring states, and countries further afield.
A crackdown on the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has been underway since 2000. During the parliamentary poll held that year, the MDC presented the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front -- in power since independence in 1980 -- with its most serious electoral challenge ever.
Mugabe has accused the MDC of being a British stooge, a claim the party rejects. He further alleges that Britain, which ruled Zimbabwe before independence, wants to recolonise the country.
The year 2000 also marked the beginning of widespread farm occupations in Zimbabwe, a campaign which saw land seized from some 4,500 white land owners by former liberation war fighters and pro-government militants. While Harare initially claimed the campaign was the result of a spontaneous uprising by black Zimbabweans frustrated at the slow pace of land reform, others saw it as a ploy by the administration to gain votes in the 2000 poll.
The farm occupations are viewed by many has having contributed to reducing domestic food production in Zimbabwe.
"We have now become an empty basket," Jerry Mashamba, an MDC official who is based in South Africa, told IPS Friday.
Shortages of basic commodities such as cooking oil and fuel have also become common in Zimbabwe.
However, Gideon Gono, governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, said the country's fuel crisis should ease by early August. In his mid-year monetary policy statement Thursday, Gono also announced a number of policies to encourage the estimated five million Zimbabweans living abroad to send money home to boost the country's foreign currency reserves.
In addition, he devalued the Zimbabwe dollar by 39 percent. One U.S. dollar now fetches 17,500 Zimbabwe dollars.
In other developments related to Zimbabwe, this week saw the release of a U.N. report condemning the country's slum clearance programme, which the world body said violated international law.
The report called on the government of Zimbabwe to halt the initiative -- known as Operation Murambatsvina (a Shona term meaning "Drive Out Rubbish") -- which it said had affected around two million people.
"This crisis has been allowed to burn itself into ashes," observed Monyae. "I think the report will help South Africa to say something on Zimbabwe."
South African President Thabo Mbeki has been criticized for his policy of "quiet diplomacy" towards Harare -- a strategy which critics say has been ignored by Mugabe.
Monyae urged Mauritius, current chair of SADC, to speak up on Zimbabwe.
Added Mashamba, "The Zimbabwe problem needs a lot of solutions by Zimbabweans themselves. It also needs international pressure."
"It's sad that heroes like Mugabe have now become despots," he added.