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"Operation Murambatsvina": An Overview and Summary

On 25 May, Africa Day, the Government of Zimbabwe began an operation labelled "Operation Murambatsvina". While Government has translated this to mean "Operation Clean-up", the more literal translation of "murambatsvina" is "getting rid of the filth". The operation has continued throughout the month of June, and has affected virtually every town and rural business centre in the country. From Mount Darwin in the north, to Beitbridge in the south, Mutare in the East and Bulawayo in the west, no part of the nation has been spared the impact of what could be termed a slow-moving earthquake; every day the nation awakes to find more buildings have fallen around them, more families have been displaced. Families are often having their homes and possessions ruthlessly burnt to the ground, or are given a few hours to remove what they can save before bulldozers come in to demolish entire structures.

Destruction of the informal sector

Zimbabwe is a nation in dramatic economic decline. It is estimated that no more than 20% of the adult population is currently employed in the formal sector. Approximately 80% of adults in Zimbabwe therefore eke out an existence in the informal sector, either through subsistence farming or through informal employment in towns. By this means, they pay their rent, buy food for their children and send them to school. As many as 3-4 million Zimbabweans survive by informal employment, and their income is supporting another 4 million Zimbabweans at least. It is the unofficial backbone of the economy, and in a nation with no free health, housing or education, to remove the informal sector is to reduce Zimbabwe's poorest to a state of abject poverty.

In three weeks since the beginning of this "clean up', estimates of the displaced vary from 300,000 to over a million, and hundreds of thousands more have lost their sources of income in the informal sector. The Government, under the auspices of the Ministry of Small and Medium Enterprises Development, began by arresting 20,000 vendors countrywide, destroying their vending sites, and confiscating their wares. Thousands more escaped arrest, but have lost their livelihoods. This process took one week in the first instance. Harare was among the worst affected cities: police action was brutal and unannounced. Sculpture parks along the main roads, which have been there for decades and feature as a tourist attraction in guide books, were smashed. Beautiful works of art on roadside display, created out of stone, wood and metal some standing up to two meters high, were smashed. Vendors, who have been operating in the same places without complaint or interference for their entire working lives, were confronted with riot squads without any warning, were rounded up, arrested, and watched helplessly while their source of livelihood was destroyed. Within days, bulldozers have moved in to take away remains of these works of art. Other wares were taken by the police, and are being sold off through "auctions" in which the police buy goods worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for a few dollars. These auctions are not open to the general public, and there is no process of highest bidder, but any minor offer is accepted. No records or receipts are being kept during this process. Police have also been reported selling goods stolen by them from vendors directly to the public.

In the City of Bulawayo, there is a well-established system of licensed vendors. There are over 3,000 licensed vendors, operating from vending bays demarcated and controlled by the City Council. The Council police oversee these bays to ensure no illegal practices are going on. These legal vendors pay rates on a monthly basis to City Council. However, in spite of requests from City Council to Government to appreciate that many vendors in Bulawayo are legal, police riot squads totally demolished all legal vending structures and arrested legal vendors. Licensed vendors are currently suing the State for loss of income and unjust treatment, but the High Court in Bulawayo has refused to treat the matter as urgent, and has taken a week to consider what should be done: in that week, goods taken illegally from vendors by the police are being auctioned off for next to nothing.

Vending sites closed down in Bulawayo include Unity Village in Main Street, which was a few years ago officially opened and proclaimed a successful small enterprise development by Minister John Nkomo. Fort Street Market, which was officially opened in a ceremony by Cain Mathema, now the appointed Governor of Bulawayo, was also forcibly closed and people vending there arrested and their goods, including imported electrical goods and clothing, were taken.

Apart from trying to outlaw all forms of vending, the Government has also pursued other small to medium enterprises. Blocks of apartments housing tailors, hairdressers, plumbers etc have been raided, tenants turfed out and their enterprises shut down as illegal.

The informal housing sector

However, it is the destruction of housing that has caused the most immediate and unrelenting hardship. Literally thousands of dwellings have been bulldozed during the last three weeks, displacing people on a massive scale. Not even in apartheid South Africa were close to half a million people ever forcibly relocated in the space of a few days. There is no precedent in southern African for such a movement of people in a nation supposedly not at war with itself.

As houses and dwellings continue to fall at this time, final numbers of people affected are growing daily. It is difficult to estimate how many houses have been knocked down, but in Harare, entire suburbs have disappeared, including Hatcliff Extension, Mbare, Joshua Nkomo, and White Cliff Farm. In addition, in every street of every suburb, cottages and structures in back yards have been taken down, leaving lodgers without accommodation.

In Victoria Falls, the Government press reports that 3,368 houses were knocked down, and photographs and interviews by independent observers show that in most cases these were not casual dwellings but proper houses built out of concrete blocks with corrugated iron roofs. Six km of vending stands that have been used to sell carvings to tourists for the last three decades, have also been torched to the ground. This is estimated to have displaced more than 20,000 people, in a tiny town with fewer than a 100,000 residents.

In Beitbridge, more than a 100 dwellings have been knocked down, again a substantial proportion of this small town, and again, vending stands have been destroyed.

Across the width and breadth of Zimbabwe, families are now to be seen sleeping under trees or on pavements, trying to protect small children, the elderly and the ill from winter weather and thieves, with no access to ablutions, and nowhere to cook or store food properly. Tiny babies, days old, and people on their deathbeds alike are sleeping at the mercy of the elements. Bus stations are filled to overflowing with families sitting hopelessly next to furniture and building materials salvaged from the onslaught, waiting in vain for buses prepared to carry the loads to rural areas. Those with trucks struggle to access scarce diesel, which now costs up to Z$50,000 per litre, when the official price is Z$4,000 per litre; those with fuel are charging extortionist rates to move desperate families short distances. It costs Z$200,000 to move a wardrobe by bus - desperate families without this money are selling their assets off at a tenth of the transport cost in order to raise fares for their wives and children to get home. They will arrive in some remote, starving rural area without a job, without food, without furniture, without a house - and be at the mercy of a ZANU PF dominant rural leadership to whom they will have to appeal for a space to live.

The Government has made no contingency plans whatsoever to move people, or to create new housing for them. The deliberate destruction of homes in a nation that already faces a most terrible winter of unemployment, hunger and collapsing resources, is nothing short of wicked. Zimbabwe has become a nation of internally displaced people, where its own citizens are refugees within the borders of what should be their home.

Retribution and control

Observers have speculated that this latest policy is retributive: most of MDC's 41 parliamentary seats are in urban constituencies, and one aim may be to displace MDC supporters from urban centres into rural areas where they will be forced to tow the line by powerful, ZANU PF supporting traditional leadership, who control access to communal resources. Parallels have been drawn between what is happening in Zimbabwe and the policy of peasantisation under Pol Pot or Ceausescu. The prospect for democracy is increasingly grim.

One theory is that the current operation is part of a strategy to reallocate what is left of Zimbabwe's dwindling resources to those that the ruling party has to rely on to retain control. Already, vendors' licences are being reissued in Harare - but only to those who have a valid ZANU PF card. Similarly, in those areas that have been razed to the ground, such as White Cliff Farm, land is already being re-pegged, and the sites are being allocated to members of the army and police. Furthermore, people from MDC supporting cities are being displaced into ZANU PF strongholds in rural areas, where it is quite simple - those who do not support ZANU PF will not be allowed access to food this winter.

In summary, in the wake of the 2005 election, with ZANU PF enraged by the cities' failure to vote for them, those of unclear or opposition political affiliation are being removed from the informal housing and employment sectors, displaced into impoverished rural areas, and the entire informal urban sector is being reallocated to ZANU PF supporters.

The Government is in violation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which it is signatory. In terms of this covenant, no government can evict people without having made an alternative plan to house them. The international community should be holding ZANU PF accountable for these terrible actions. The people of Zimbabwe have been abandoned and persecuted by the Government that should be protecting them. Who will stand by them? Where is the word of condemnation from the Secretary General of the United Nations, from the Head of the African Union - and from President Thabo Mbeki, whose government has through the last five years, systematically supported the corrupt Mugabe regime?