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Mass evictions in Zimbabwe

About the author
Bev Clark manages the Zimbabwe civic and human-rights website, www.kubatana.net. She helped form Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe in 1989. Her diaries were voted best of Slate in 2003 .

The horror stories just keep on coming: a granny living in Budiriro, a township in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, has a stroke after watching her home being razed; a two-year-old child dies trapped in a house being bulldozed; a cleaner in Harare now sleeps in the electricity meter room at work after being made homeless.

How do you continue to be shocked by these stories that illustrate the brutal behaviour of Zimbabwe’s government? How do you resist becoming numb to the pain and despair that has affected so many Zimbabweans during these mass evictions?

And, the other question on everyone’s lips: why?

Many theories have been thrown into the pot. One is that the evictions are retribution for those who voted for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in the 31 March parliamentary elections. The MDC draws most of its support from the urban populace. But the evictions haven’t been very selective and many members of the police, army and other civil servants have also been caught up in the mayhem. Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, has turned many of his followers against him during this brutal exercise.

Also in openDemocracy’s “what future for Zimbabwe?” debate:

Andrew Meldrum, “Who won Zimbabwe’s election?” (April 2005)

Emily Barroso, “A Zimbabwean life” (April 2005)

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A second theory is that Mugabe is fearful of an urban uprising. The desperate food crisis and the political climate in rural areas have created barren and hostile wastelands. As a result Zimbabwe’s cities have burgeoned. But few jobs are available and the unemployment rate is more than 70%. That means an awful lot of people hanging around doing nothing, and potentially getting angry – or perhaps, as Mugabe sees it, plotting against him. In this perspective, Operation Murambatsvina (a Shona term meaning “drive out the rubbish”) is a method of diluting potential urban resistance.

But even in these terms the policy makes little sense. As one working-class Zimbabwean argued, why send people back to rural areas where they will tell everyone how badly Mugabe is running the cities? To make things even more complicated, chiefs and headmen in farming areas, generally known as staunch Mugabe supporters, have apparently been told not to allow urban evictees to settle in their areas.

Repression, but a crisis of resistance

There is some truth in Mugabe’s statements that Harare and other major cities and towns need to become neater, cleaner and more orderly. But not in this violent, ill-thought and haphazard manner which echoes the devastating land-reform programme. Mugabe seems to have ignored the fact that there is simply not enough housing for Zimbabweans living in urban areas who are desperately looking for work. With the agricultural sector pretty much non-functioning only the cities provide what meagre employment opportunities there are.

To compensate for the lack of formal employment, Zimbabweans have displayed an incredible degree of entrepreneurial skill in order to make a living. Mugabe should have lauded their resilience and ability to survive under enormously exacting circumstances. Instead, a ruthless clampdown on vending has made hundreds of thousands of families truly destitute.

It is all the more astounding that this assault on human rights has come at a time when Zimbabwe needs to import food aid.

Zimbabweans have not taken the campaign lying down. To demonstrate their opposition to the mass evictions and intimidation of vendors, the Broad Alliance – a coalition of civic organisations including the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, the MDC, the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition and the National Constitutional Assembly – called for a nationwide two-day “stay-away” on 9-10 June. The protest coincided with the opening of parliament, which in a rare show of opposition solidarity and unity the MDC chose to boycott.

The strike, however, had very little impact. There are a number of reasons why. The government had threatened to victimise employers if they shut down in solidarity with the stay-away, people who do have jobs are very afraid of losing them by engaging in industrial action, and the many unemployed have nothing to “stay-away” from.

But the primary blame for the protest’s failure rests with the Broad Coalition’s poor organisation. The obstacles to communication with ordinary Zimbabweans are high enough without daily access to mass media, but the coalition still did not have enough of an outreach programme to secure widespread support for the protest. There is no doubt that pro-democracy activists and NGOs in Zimbabwe are running on empty, devoid of any new and creative ideas about how to challenge Mugabe.

The real reason for this latest assault by Robert Mugabe on the human rights of Zimbabwe citizens is possibly the most cynical: it is at its core simply an assertion of power. After the relatively peaceful parliamentary election he just didn’t want anyone to get the impression that he’d gone soft.


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