Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Zimbabwe: Driving Out the Rubbish

Government sells its massive demolition programme as regeneration, but many believe it is designed to remove populations from “disloyal” urban constituencies.
By Dzikamai Chidyausiku

Simon Phiri and his wife Tsitsi desperately battle to salvage a few belongings from their shack before a bulldozer sent in by the Zimbabwean government razes it to the ground.

With a bit of luck and the help of their four children, Simon, 39, and Tsitsi, 32, manage to save the family’s most essential items - a bed, blankets and kitchen utensils - before the bulldozer crushes their home.

The shack, made from corrugated iron, cardboard and plastic, was where the Phiri family have lived for the past 12 years. Simon built it in the densely populated township of Mbare, just outside Harare, in 1993 and all his four children have been raised there.

With Zimbabwe’s new Chinese-made warplanes occasionally sweeping overhead, President Robert Mugabe’s police and demolition squads have turned Mbare into a battleground, leaving houses and makeshift shelters flattened in street after street.

Families carrying their remaining possessions on their heads or in carts - wooden planks, sheets of tin, pots wrapped in blankets and plastic - are on the march like refugees in some terrible war, after the mass demolition of their homes in Mugabe’s “Operation Murambatsvina”, which translates as “Operation Drive Out the Rubbish”.

It is a scene of desolation and despair, and one that is being repeated all across the country in an apparent bid to drive hundreds of thousands of people from the towns back to rural areas. This new Mugabe strategy is being compared by critics to that of Cambodia’s Pol Pot, who in his “Return to Year Zero” forced the inhabitants of cities into the countryside in the late Seventies.

Miloon Kothari, the United Nations special representative on housing for the poor, told reporters in Geneva that he feared Mugabe planned to drive between two and three million Zimbabweans into the countryside in Operation Murambatsvina, launched two weeks ago when police began sweeping street traders from the pavements in Harare and the northern resort town of Victoria Falls. The operation subsequently spread throughout the country.

“We have a very grave crisis on our hands,” said Kothari.

An added concern is that the land is no longer able to feed the people who live on it – let alone extra hungry mouths. A recent report by the Famine Early Warning System Network, a UN agency, said most rural homes have run out of food. It warned that around five million people could starve if the government does not allow international donors to bring in aid.

President Mugabe, in a speech to the central committee of the ruling ZANU PF party, explained the demolitions as a necessary part of urban regeneration, “Our cities and towns had become havens for illicit and criminal practices and activities which just could not be allowed to go on. From the mess should emerge new businesses, new traders, new practices and a whole new and salubrious urban environment. That is our vision.”

Zimbabwean local government minister Ignatius Chombo used the same utopian language, saying, “This is the dawn of a new era. To set up something nice, you first have to remove the litter, and that is why the police are acting in this way.”

The independent Standard weekly newspaper hit back with an editorial saying, “Chombo’s explanation is nonsensical and an insult to the intelligence of the people of this country. The government should not delight in the suffering of people when it does not have a ready-made alternative for them.”

As well as his home, Simon Phiri also lost the trading stall where he sold secondhand clothes at Mbare’s colourful Mupedzanhamo market, the biggest in the country and recommended in the tourist guidebooks.

As clouds of tear gas mixed with smoke from burning shacks wafted about him, he said, “They have destroyed my house and my small shop at the market. I have nowhere to go. I was born and grew up in Mbare. This is the only home I know.”

Phiri is only one of the countless thousands of Harare residents who have been rendered unemployed and homeless after police and other state agencies destroyed their homes and stalls as part of what President Mugabe describes as a “clean up” campaign. In Harare alone, some 30,000 informal traders like Simon have been driven out of business. The police say the aim is to rid the capital of “criminals”.

Victoria Muchenje, another Mbare resident whose shack was destroyed, said, “We are suffering, we have nowhere to go. Our children are not going to school, we are sleeping outside everywhere. If you walk, everywhere you see people sleeping in the road.”

Wellington Murerwa, was also in tears, as he watched his home burn. “I have lost the only source of income that I had after my vegetable stall was destroyed,” he said. “Since 1981 the only place I have known as a home with my family was a backyard shack, and I cannot start all over again.”

Shacks and other "illegal" structures in other Harare townships such as Highfield and Glenview have been destroyed, ostensibly to "decongest the city".

As police in full riot gear moved in to torch shacks using petrol, many residents tore down their own homes to salvage some of the building materials. Many burned furniture they could not take with them.

As well as the mass destruction of housing, more than 23,000 people have been arrested in the continuing campaign.

The assaults have left huge numbers homeless and without a source of income. Whole families are now sleeping in the open as Zimbabwe’s mid-winter night temperatures dip to freezing point. Others are battling to find scarce transport to take them to relatives’ rural homes.

About half of the poor in cities like Harare, Bulawayo, Mutare and Gweru live in shacks.

Most of them came to the cities because of the failure of education, health services and agriculture in the rural areas, where AIDS deaths are also wrecking traditional social support mechanisms.

In all, it is estimated that some 2.5 million people live – or did so until late May – in makeshift urban accommodation without adequate sanitation or clean water, the only kind of housing they could afford.

With no access to mainstream jobs, given the imploding economy and unemployment at 80 per cent, such people have taken to the pavements and alleys - cutting hair, mending shoes, weaving baskets and chairs and selling fruit, vegetables and flowers in an attempt to earn a living.

The assault has been seemingly indiscriminate. In Victoria Falls, for example, police burnt a six-mile long line of curio stalls that have catering to tourists for as long as anyone can remember.

Even squatter camps set up by veterans of the war of liberation against the former white government were destroyed in the police rampage, including two named after war heroes Joshua Nkomo and Josiah Tongogara.

Many entirely legal properties have been destroyed in the mayhem.

Irish missionary Sister Patricia Walsh, of the Catholic church’s Dominican order, was lost for words when she saw that bulldozers had demolished a clinic in the Harare suburb of Hatcliffe where for the past ten years she and Zimbabwean-born nuns had run a crèche for 180 AIDS orphans and distributed anti-retroviral drugs to about a hundred HIV-positive women.

“I wept. Sister Carina was with me - she wept,” recalled Sister Patricia. “The people tried to console us. They were all outside in the midst of their broken houses, furniture and goods all over the place, children screaming, sick people in agony.”

The nun asked, “How does the government say that Peter, aged ten, and his little brother, John, aged four [not their real names] are ‘illegal’? We provided them with a wooden hut when their mother was dying of AIDS. She has since died, and these two little people had their little home destroyed in the middle of the night. We get there - they are sitting crying in the rubbish that was their home. What do we do with them?

“Anne, whose house was destroyed, delivered a baby a week ago. She is critically ill and on the verge of death. What do we do with her? We give her painkillers, we give her blankets, we give her food which she is unable to eat. What is going to happen to the baby?”

Many believe Mugabe’s plans have little to do with regeneration, but are rather a social engineering project designed to force potentially restive urban communities back into the countryside, where his government has more levers of control.

According to Brian Raftopoulos, Professor of Development Studies at the University of Zimbabwe, “It may well be that the ruling party [ZANU PF] is looking to remove ‘surplus’ elements of the urban population ahead of the next presidential election by drawing them into more controllable rural political relations.”

He concludes, “The long-term implications of this process do not bode well for democratic politics.”

Many Harare residents believe they are being penalised for electing members of parliament from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, in the March election.

ZANU PF lost all but one seat in Harare province in the polls.

“I don’t know the purpose for this madness. We think they are punishing us because we did not vote for them,” said Norman Mateko, whose small brick house was razed in Hatcliffe, where middle- and working-class housing overlaps. “First they chase us out of the Central Business District, confiscate our goods and then destroy our stalls. Now they are coming for our homes. It’s not fair.”

For the MDC’s shadow justice minister, David Coltart, there is a deterrent element to the government’s policy, “The truth is that this campaign of retribution has everything to do with Mugabe’s and ZANU PF’s fear that these same people will rise in revolt against a regime that has been responsible for the destruction of the lives, hopes and dreams of millions of Zimbabweans.

“It has everything to do with instilling fear in the hearts and minds of these people before they rise up.”

Some analysts believe Mugabe could be deliberately goading the population to revolt – allowing him to declare a state of emergency and abolish what is left of Zimbabwe’s civil liberties and rights.

The draconian Land Tenure Act passed by the white-run former Rhodesian government prohibited black citizens Zimbabweans from having permanent homes in the major cities and towns. Forty years on, black Zimbabweans are being forcibly removed from urban centres and ordered by police to go back to poverty-stricken rural areas.

Memories of the brutal policies of the past white regime in neighbouring South Africa are uppermost in the mind of Vincent Kahiya, editor of the weekly Independent newspaper.

“I believe only the survivors of South Africa’s apartheid-engineered forced Bantu removals would be able to appreciate the scale and ferocity of this operation,” he said. “The police are going about the rapine with gusto, destroying everything deemed illegal – never mind that the police carry no papers from any recognised court of law.

“There can be no worse lawlessness than the callous operation going on in Zimbabwe’s urban areas.”

An added bonus for Mugabe, say some analysts, is that a politicised crackdown on “illegal” homes and traders offers a distraction from the immense problems the country is really facing – a crippling fuel crisis, shortages of maize, bread and other basic commodities, and a general economic meltdown which has seen Zimbabwe’s gross domestic product decline for seven years in a row.

Most people now spend more time in fuel and food queues than at work, while thousands of commuters have had to walk distances of ten or more miles because of the various crises.

The MDC’s Coltart is certain the demolition project will make life even tougher.

“What is particularly outrageous, sinister and callous about this pogrom is that it has been done at the commencement of winter and at a time when millions are already facing starvation and are affected by AIDS and have no access to medication,” he said. “The sudden removal of a source of income and a warm bed will condemn many to death in coming weeks and months.”

MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai has said that within just a few days, Zimbabwe has turned into a massive internal refugee disaster, with more than a million people displaced in Harare alone.

The crackdown is cranking up emotions against the Mugabe government. But the resentment is unlikely to translate into political action because the MDC appears hesitant about what to do next following the disputed parliamentary election.

Meanwhile, national police commissioner Augustine Chihuri is adamant that the campaign against vendors and housing will continue.

He said, “I warn any miscreants who may wish to show their discontent against the current clean-up operations to stop the daydream forthwith, as the Zimbabwe Republic Police has adequate resources to ensure that peace and tranquillity prevails.”

Meanwhile, the policy is played out on the lives of some of the most vulnerable members of society.

“How can the little ones of the world be brutalised in this way?” asked Sister Patricia. “Their only crime is that they are poor, they are helpless and they happen to live in the wrong part of town, and in a country that does not have oil and is not very important to the West.

“We stand in shock and cry with the people, but we also have to try to keep them alive. When will sanity prevail? Where is the outside world?”

Dzikamai Chidyausiku is the pseudonym used by a journalist in Zimbabwe.

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