HARARE - Zimbabwe's wealthier neighbour, South Africa, is readying a R300 million fund to help lift the country's collapsed agricultural sector but analysts say this may be too late to save a disastrous 2008/9 farming season and that the money would be better used stockpiling food to prevent famine.
South African Finance Minister Trevor Manuel announced the plan on Tuesday as Africa's economic powerhouse tries to help revive Zimbabwe's ailing farming industry, once the country's economic backbone before President Robert Mugabe unilaterally seized, often violently, white-owned productive commercial farms to resettle blacks.
Zimbabwe is lagging behind in preparations for the summer cropping season - already underway in some districts or due to start in the rest of the country in less than four weeks time - with inputs such as seed, fertilizer and fuel in short supply.
Official figures show that the country has less than 30 percent of national seed requirements and farmers were forced to reduce their maize hectarage to 500 000 from a targeted one million hectares.
"South Africa's intentions are very good but time is not on our side, we are already looking at another disastrous agriculture season," said John Makumbe, a University of Zimbabwe lecturer, who is critical of Mugabe's government policies.
"What would make sense is to use the money to purchase food for millions of people who are starving or buy farming inputs for next year (2009/2010 season) because the agriculture season is already upon us and we have been caught wanting again," said Makumbe.
Makumbe said the money was unlikely to be released until there was a new government, whose formation has stalled despite a power-sharing deal reached last month between Mugabe, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara, who heads a smaller rebel MDC faction.
Even if South Africa was to immediately release the funds, procuring inputs, transporting them to Zimbabwe and distributing the inputs among farmers could take more than three months, which would be too late in the farming season.
Mugabe and Tsvangirai are locked in a dispute over the control of powerful ministries, which is threatening to derail the September 15 deal that raised hopes among a battered population that nearly a decade of economic meltdown may be coming to an end.
However, while the politicians quarrel over positions, a majority of the country's impatient farmers is waiting for farming inputs. The first of summer rains have already fallen in some parts of Zimbabwe but farmer organisations say many farmers are yet to prepare their land, let alone have inputs.
"Preparations for this agriculture season are lagging behind and any funding should be used to acquire inputs for next year, that will be a starting point," a spokesman for the Commercial Farmers' Union said.
Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander Constantine Chiwenga is leading a committee, dubbed Champion Farmer, to distribute inputs to farmers but the seed and fertilizer are in short supply. The committee this week pleaded with farmers to help with transport to move available inputs to the country's 10 provinces.
Once a net food exporter, Zimbabwe has seen its agriculture fortunes plunge along with an imploding economy largely blamed on Mugabe's populist nationalist policies such as the land seizures and plans to forcibly grab major shareholding in foreign-owned companies, especially mines.
But the ageing Mugabe, who has held power since independence in 1980 instead blames Zimbabwe's misfortunes on bad weather and Western sanctions he says have crimpled the importation of fertilizers, seed, and other farming inputs.
His critics say there is no need to import inputs but that the government should radically change its economic and political policies and help local manufacturers.
Manuel said the R300 million was "subject to acceptance of an appropriate role for international food relief agencies by a recognised multi-party government", meaning that Mugabe has to form a joint Cabinet with Tsvangirai's MDC - something no one is sure will happen anytime soon.