"The distribution of the first batch of maize, small-grain seed and fertilisers that arrived in the country recently has intensified, with farmers accessing it from the 84 Grain Marketing Board (GMB) depots countrywide," the state-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) reported on 14 January.
Nelson Chamisa, national spokesman for the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), commented: "We are absolutely in the dark – all we know is that the aid has disappeared in ZANU-PF [the ruling party] structures and its machinery. It is out of our control."
The GMB is the state-owned monopoly for the purchasing and distribution of all grain in Zimbabwe, and has long been accused of denying access to food deliveries to perceived opponents of the government.
Eldred Masunungure, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe in the capital, Harare, told IRIN: "To us here it’s black and white – the assistance has already been distributed." He noted that it would be difficult to insulate the aid from partisan considerations.
The agricultural inputs package was initially envisaged to be released in cash on condition that a power-sharing government, agreed by ZANU-PF leader President Robert Mugabe and both factions of the opposition MDC, would be formed.
Distribution was to have been overseen by the Zimbabwe Humanitarian and Development Assistance Framework (ZHDAF), a concept launched in Harare on 21 December 2008 by the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
The framework mechanism would include representatives of the Zimbabwean government, UN agencies, religious groups, donors and farmers’ organisations.
"The R300 million agricultural assistance package announced in September  was conditional on the formation of inclusive government to ensure that the assistance reached the intended beneficiaries," said a South African government statement, released on 23 December 2008.
South Africa agreed that the ZHDAF was the appropriate "non-partisan coordination mechanism" through which its "agricultural and humanitarian assistance to Zimbabwe" would flow, according to the statement.
|This was done in a panic. These inputs have come far too late|
However, as Zimbabwe’s political stalemate continued and its humanitarian crisis worsened, South Africa appears to have sidestepped the ZHDAF and released the aid directly to the government, which has used the GMB as the sole distributor.
"In light of the delays [and] the worsening food shortage … South Africa committed … to provide humanitarian assistance, including essential agricultural inputs," the South African government statement said.
On its way
South Africa’s presidential spokesman, Thabo Masebe, told IRIN: "It has all been done. The South African department of agriculture was responsible for the procurement of the material. The package consisted of agricultural inputs, in material goods, not cash," he said.
At least 5.5 million people – over half Zimbabwe’s population – are in need of food aid as a result of a series of poor harvests and an economic crisis that has robbed farmers of the ability to afford seeds, fertiliser and fuel.
Masebe maintained that "everything has been distributed to the people who need the assistance through the SADC mechanism."
But in a statement on 13 January, the SADC announced the launch of the "All stakeholders working committee for the implementation of the ZHDAF", and that "the first meeting of the Working Group is expected to take place before 16th January 2009."
With the ZHDAF still under construction, it remains unclear how distribution of South Africa’s aid has been taking place, and whether there has been any ‘nonpartisan’ monitoring.
Chamisa noted: "This is very worrisome, because there is a complete lack of transparency [as to the distribution and destination] of this assistance. Any attempt or effort to work outside a [power-sharing] transitional government is a useless effort."
A senior Western donor representative in Zimbabwe, who preferred to remain unnamed, said regional efforts, such as South Africa’s, to assist Zimbabwe should be encouraged, but "how to distribute it, that is the point. The problem is that this [aid] could end up in the hands of farmers championed by the government."
There were also rumours that part of the fuel component of the package, meant to support distribution, had not been used for its intended purpose.
The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Ngoni Masoka, told the ZBC that the inputs would target mainly smallholder farmers and small-scale commercial farmers in Zimbabwe.
Questioning whether the agricultural inputs would bring about the intended benefits, one humanitarian aid worker said, "This was done in a panic. These inputs have come far too late." Zimbabwe’s planting season starts in October and runs through January, with the main harvest period in March/April.
But according to Sam Moyo, a Zimbabwean social scientist and director of the African Institute for Agrarian Studies in Harare, "From a planning point of view it would have been ideal to have had everything by October . Provided it’s the right combination [of inputs], it is still quite possible to put this to good use."