Zimbabwe's Tragedy Is Africa's

Roger Bate, Richard Tren & Archbishop Pius Ncube | 20 Jul 2005
Embassy Magazine
When Robert Mugabe became the first president of the newly independent Zimbabwe in 1980, his conciliatory approach and apparent commitment to nation building generated worldwide confidence. Numerous countries came forward with support, hoping to ensure the country developed peacefully and prosperously. Apart from his ordering the largely unpublicized and tragic massacre of between 20,000 and 30,000 ethnic Matabele people in the early 1980s by the notorious North Korean-trained 5th Brigade, Zimbabwe was relatively stable. The Mugabe government invested significant amounts of money into improving health care delivery and educational standards, and achieved the highest literacy standard in Africa.

In time, however, large-scale corruption, economic mismanagement and the increasingly vocal disgruntled war veterans began to undermine Mugabe's popularity. An attempt by Mugabe to change the constitution and further entrench his power was thwarted in a popular referendum held in February 2000. Just days later, the government-instigated farm invasions began, leading to the collapse of the commercial farming sector. In the face of growing unpopularity, his regime responded by clamping down on opposition politics and the free press. Sham elections were held and property rights, together with any credibility in the rule of law, were destroyed. Wide scale abuse of basic human rights took place. Torture as a means of suppressing opposition escalated dramatically. The Zimbabwean economy has been in freefall for several years with rampant inflation and unemployment (even prior to Operation Murambatsvina) approaching 80 per cent. A combination of price controls, politicized state distribution of maize meal and a lack of foreign currency meant that nearly every basic necessity was in short supply. An estimated 4 million Zimbabweans have been forced to eke out a living in the informal sector (such as street traders), supporting further millions, and it is these people who were targeted by Operation Murambatsvina as 'economic saboteurs'. According to Mugabe, they, along with western imperialists, are causing the economic crisis.

Operation Murambatsvina

Described as "Operation Restore Order" by the government, Operation Murambatsvina is claimed to be a clean-up of illegal businesses and housing in Zimbabwe's towns and cities ­ Harare, the capital, in particular. It is more accurately translated from the Shona language as "Operation Drive out the Filth" and lacks legality in not having properly served notice to owners, in not offering compensation and in not providing alternative accommodation. In many cases, residents have been woken by police raids, and ordered to remove what belonging they could before their homes were demolished. Back garden cottages and extensions have been razed; stallholders arrested and fined and their goods confiscated or burned. Plots used to grow vegetables for home consumption or for sale have been grubbed up.

This theft and destruction were justified, according to the state, because black market operators were making the city centre unsightly, dealing in increasingly scarce staples such as maize meal and sugar, and worse, creating the foreign exchange crisis through illegal currency transactions. However, the seized goods mostly included new and second-hand clothing, domestic appliances and foodstuffs. Even curios in tourist centres were destroyed. Within three weeks an estimated 46,000 street vendors and flea market traders had been arrested. Mugabe justified the demolitions in a speech to the central committee of the ruling Zanu-PF party: "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."

Further endorsements came from the police. On June 16, 2005, Police Commissioner Augustine Chihuri said that Operation Murambatsvina was meant to "clean the country of the crawling mass of maggots bent on destroying the economy." He went on to thank the people who had their homes destroyed "for not going wild during the exercise." Police spokesperson Whisper Bondai informed the state-controlled Herald newspaper that criminal activity in Harare had fallen by 16 percent in May compared with the same month last year. "This shows that the operation, despite being condemned, has started bearing fruit," he said. However, to quell rioting that broke out in some areas, the Zimbabwe National Army was deployed to help police repel attacks from angry urban residents.

The "Clean-Up" Spreads Rapidly

By May 28 when the devastating clean-up had spread throughout townships surrounding Harare, police commander Edmore Veterai gave a briefing to over 2,000 police officers assuring them of Mugabe's full support for the operation. Veterai went on to say: "From tomorrow I need reports saying that we have shot people... You should treat this operation as a war."

One of the worst hit areas was Hatcliffe Extension, which had been an informal settlement until it was recognized unanimously by the last Parliament. It was recently supplied with water and sewerage services through World Bank funding, but on June 3 the residents were given 24 hours to demolish all structures, including the crèche, clinic and orphanage run by the Dominican Missionary Sisters, which had provided antiretroviral treatment and home-based care for AIDS patients and cared for many AIDS orphans. Sister Walsh of the Mission wrote, "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? How can the little ones of this world be brutalized in this way?"

The evictions and demolitions have displaced thousands of urban and rural children, leaving them without homes, food, clothing, or a school to go to. A list compiled by directors of education in Zimbabwe's 10 provinces shows that more than 300,000 children have dropped out of school since their homes were destroyed. In November 2004, the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWSNET) had already reported falling school attendances as desperate parents took their children out of school to work in fields or find food.

Echoes Of Pol Pot

The displaced and dispossessed people are being forced into the countryside either physically, by being trucked to holding camps, or by attrition, as aid agencies and churches are being aggressively dissuaded by the police from offering assistance. The elderly, sick and young children were loaded onto trucks with no food, clothing or personal possessions. Many residents were taken to Caledonia Farm, a holding camp outside Harare with only one toilet for more than 3,000 people. Church workers have revealed that those inside are being subjected to political re-education, forced to shout party slogans and warned that they will not be given new plots for homes or licenses for market stalls unless they join Mugabe's Zanu-PF party.

The operation has left vulnerable groups exposed to death from starvation and disease, triggering outrage from numerous human rights organizations and the international community. The police also forced Muslims at gunpoint to demolish a mosque which could have provided shelter for homeless people. Priests and aid workers have been warned by the government that they will be treated as "Tony Blair's dogs" if they provide assistance.

Catholic priests in Harare have reported that many of those seeking refuge have appeared with documents forced on them by the police ­ bills for water, sewerage and electricity on their destroyed homes and businesses, complete with substantial penalty charges.

Demolishing Lives

"Getting rid of the trash" has directly caused several violent and totally avoidable deaths that we know of. Two-year-old Charmaine Nyika died on June 8 after a wall that had been partially razed collapsed on her in Harare's working class suburb of Tafara. A few days later, in Chitungwiza, outside Harare, one-and-a-half-year-old Terence Munyaka, the son of a policeman, died of head injuries when the walls of his house came crashing down. On June 30 four people were killed at the sprawling squatter settlement of Porta Farm near Harare. One five-year-old child was killed when he was run down by a police truck and a heavily pregnant woman died when she fell from a police truck.

The operation, which has been conducted in mid-winter, has left thousands of people exposed to the near freezing nighttime temperatures. Several reports have emerged of young children dying of exposure while their parents pathetically try to shield them from the elements.

In the once prosperous and popular tourist town of Victoria Falls, shacks, brick houses and convenience stores were torched by police in a callous raid beginning at 3 a.m. Without warning, shocked residents were ordered out of their beds by armed police before their shacks and possessions were doused with petrol and set alight. The government reported that 3,368 homes, many solid brick or concrete structures, were knocked down and six kilometers of craft stalls were torched and smashed.

The operation has not been limited to the informal sector. In Harare's central business district, formal sector tenants such as stationers, estate agents and tailors were evicted by police claiming the buildings were overcrowded. In some areas, groups of supposed 'war veterans' who had illegally occupied previously productive commercial farms with the encouragement and support of the Mugabe regime were ordered to vacate the farms three weeks after Operation Murambatsvina began.

After Harare, the operation was extended to Matabeleland, a stronghold of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Licensed traders at the popular Fifth Avenue market in Bulawayo had to watch the destruction of not only their wares, but the entire complex. In one of the cities' oldest suburbs, Makokoba, police attacked unarmed civilians before demolishing their property. In many areas, small four-room houses built with government approval as long as 70 or 80 years ago were razed with impunity in what people are referring to as the Mugabe tsunami.

By the end of June, virtually every town and rural business centre in the country had been affected and every day the nation awoke to fresh destruction and horror.

Archbishop Pius Ncube, Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe; Dr. Roger Bate, Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute, Washington DC and Richard Tren, Director, Africa Fighting Malaria, Johannesburg, South Africa prepared this report for the Solidarity Peace Trust.