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Moses rescues hungry public?

The food situation in Swaziland has become a public emergency due to the scarcity of maize as a result of the continuing drought situation. This is forcing people to defy government’s ban on the importation of maize and mealie-meal by resorting to smuggling. In response, the Minister of Agriculture has invoked Section 37 of the constitution to give the public a temporary reprieve. THEMBELA NKUMANE reports.

The humanitarian crisis in Swaziland seems to have reached its peak following the intervention by the Minister of Agriculture, Moses Vilakati, to declare the food situation a public emergency. 

Earlier on in February, the Prime Minister, Dr. Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini also declared a national disaster due to the effects of the drought coupled with the HIV&AIDS pandemic. Despite the declaration, government spending had not been seen to be responding well to the situation following continued spending on none-emergency items such as the construction of roads, hotels and convention centres. Public spending also resulted in upward salary reviews for civil servants and politicians which included back-pays. 

The food crisis has continued unabated as a result of a worsening drought situation where the country has experienced three years of erratic rainfall which have dramatically reduced agricultural output and exhausted many people’s coping mechanisms.

This is happening against the backdrop of a ravaging HIV&AIDS pandemic where about 40 percent of the population are affected, many of whom are in anti-retroviral treatment and urgently in need of food to survive.

According to Section 37 of the Constitution of Swaziland, government can act outside of Parliament “during any period of public emergency..” to take  “..measures that are reasonably justifiable for dealing with the situation that exists during that period.” The Minister has responded by increasing the amount of mealie-meal that can be imported by individual members of the public from 20kg to 50kg per person at a time. 

The price of mealie-meal in Swaziland is almost double when compared to prices obtainable in neighbouring South Africa. The eroded financial resources at household level were forcing many Swazis, especially those close to the border, to buy mealie-meal from South Africa until the National Agricultural Marketing Board (NAMBoard) imposed a restriction of up to 25kg earlier this year. 

The prices in South Africa range from E180 up to E220 per 25kg bag, depending on the brand or quality of the mealie-meal. Local prices range from E269 to E286.

Maize production has been extremely low since the 2006/07 farming season. Poor rainfall dates back to 2008, and has led to low production over the years. The dry spells during the tasselling and sulking stages of maize development reduced yields considerably, especially in the Lowveld. Many farmers reported total crop loss, particularly in the southern parts of the Lowveld. 

The situation has seen government agencies, particularly the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA, and civil society responding urgently with food aid in worst affected communities, especially in the Lubombo and Shiselwni Regions.

The government, especially NAMBoard and the National Maize Corporation (NMC) have been under pressure from the public to review the restrictions on the importation of maize and mealie-meal as the hunger situation was getting worse in households.

The Minister stated that the review was just a temporary measure which will last for three months until December 14. “His Majesty’s Government has seen it proper to review restrictions of the import and export of mealie-meal as an interim measure in alleviating the drought problem,” he said at a press conference in September.

He then thanked all millers who have kept their mealie-meal prices low during this period. “The Ministry has been informed that millers have committed themselves to continuously deliver mealie-meal to all drought stricken areas at competitive prices during this period,” he said.

At the end of the interim period, the Minister promised to review the situation and consider other initiatives that can fully assist and support the affected communities. The interim measure would only be applicable to individuals representing households and requires them to apply for a permit from NAMBoard. The permits can be obtained at some border posts.

Members of the public voiced their dissatisfaction about the maize importation ban restricting them during the recently held people’s parliament (Sibaya). This issue received widespread media coverage and Members of Parliament also voiced their concern.

According to the ministry, production outlook 2016 for maize yields were estimated to drop to 33 460 metric tonnes for the cropping season resulting in a deficit of about 96 540 metric tonnes. This reflects a supply squeeze going forward until at least the next harvesting season.

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