WORLD

THE POLITICS OF DROUGHT

BRUCE WALLACE March 30 1992
WORLD

THE POLITICS OF DROUGHT

BRUCE WALLACE March 30 1992

THE POLITICS OF DROUGHT

Once again, Africa is haunted by desolate images brought on by drought. Birds drop from the sky, buffalo carcasses rot in the searing heat, and the normally swift impala are so weak from hunger and thirst that boys can run quickly enough to catch them. In some rural areas, teachers are saving food scraps for malnourished students. But this year, those scenes are from Zimbabwe, one of the few African countries normally able to feed its people. The deadly grip of famine is reaching beyond the arid Horn of Africa into southern Africa, where meteorologists predict that this year’s drought may be the céntury’s worst. Crops have failed even south of Zimbabwe, on the usually lush cotton and com farms of the Transvaal in northern South Africa.

Coupled with last week’s referendum signalling the impending end of white rule, the drought has created a sense of crisis for whites in the Transvaal. A largely rural region, it is one of the last remaining bastions of the apartheid mentality. The northern Transvaal was the only one of 15 electoral regions where a majority of whites voted against endorsing the move towards sharing power with blacks. Some observers suggested that many Transvaal Afrikaners, battered by drought to nearbankruptcy, have become fatalistic about their prospects. White farmers ruefully joke that the banks will repossess their land anyway, long before a black-led government could take it away.

But the drought also accentuates the desperate conditions affecting South Africa’s disenfranchised rural blacks. More than half of the country’s 28 million blacks live outside the cities—a potent political force when they acquire voting rights—and many live in poverty on the marginal farmland set aside by Pretoria

as black homelands. Operation Hunger, a relief organization that feeds 1.8 million South African blacks daily, claims that only eight per cent of the rural blacks are selfsufficient.

The drought means that South Africa, which is normally a grain exporter, will import more than four million tons of com this year. In Zimbabwe, where food stocks are expected to run out in April, black marketeering is already rampant. The region’s poor road network hampers effective aid distribution, and there are widespread fears that the crisis will ignite violence. Zimbabwean businessman Eddie Cross warned that the government “will have to put armed men on the trucks delivering meal to our people.” The drought was a reminder that southern Africa’s challenges go far beyond politics.

BRUCE WALLACE

HEATHER HILL