ZIMBABWE: Mugabe's 'tsunami'


Bernie Stephens, Harare

The slogan "Go back to the rural areas where you come from" sums up President Robert Mugabe and his government's hatred for the workers and urban poor in Zimbabwe. The government boasts that Operation Murambatsvina ("Drive out filth") is achieving one of the "biggest reversals of rural-urban migration" in history. However, for Zimbabweans, "the tsunami" has overnight made hundreds of thousands of people homeless and jobless.

The wave of repression began in mid-May. The ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) government claims that the aim of Operation Murambatsvina is to "clean up" Zimbabwe's cities and eliminate crime and "economic sabotage".

The Mugabe government's neoliberal structural adjustment policies in the 1990s lifted unemployment to 80%. People survived by developing cottage industries, and buying and selling firewood, food, flowers, furniture — anything. The government, incapable of meeting the demand for housing, also encouraged the building of homes without overly formal approvals.

Realising his unpopularity, and the fact that the cities had become bastion of opposition, Mugabe is using the current operation to try to avert an insurrection similar to those in Bolivia and Ecuador. "Clean streets" are presumably easier for the police and army to control and monitor, and make protests easier to squash.

Police, backed up by the army, have forced residents to demolish their own homes and businesses, and have met any resistance with beatings. Bulldozers have been sent in. Entire suburbs have vanished overnight. Street vendors have suddenly disappeared. With the economy already in a shambles, up to 1 million more people are now homeless and jobless. Famine looms as national food reserves may run out next month.

Their options are limited. To get a trader's licence or a housing plot, people must be vetted by an inter-ministerial committee dominated by the army and police, the Central Intelligence Organisation and the quasi-fascist youth militias. The planning and licensing powers of local councils, mostly dominated by the opposition, have been removed while the powers of unelected regional governors are being strengthened. According to the Catholic Church's Solidarity Peace Trust, "housing plots on White Cliff Farm, where all previous residents have been displaced, are being allocated to members of the army and police force".

The government has even prevented relief organisations and churches from offering humanitarian aid to the thousands of families stranded on pavements and in the rubble of their homes in the middle of winter. People are being forced to move to holding camps before being despatched to remote, rural areas. They have been dispossessed and disenfranchised, and are at the mercy of local ZANU-PF bosses. It seems that, in return for food and shelter, the urban poor are expected to see the light and become agricultural labourers.

Mugabe is clearly running out of options to maintain his rule. As noted by War Veterans Association leader Jabulani Sibanda, once a ZANU-PF ally but now a critic, when a government relies on the "strength of its forces as opposed to support from the masses, people are like a coiled spring: if you suppress it, it comes together and becomes dangerous. They might not rise today, but rise they shall".

However, the masses did not rise during the June 9-10 stayaway job boycott organised by the Broad Alliance, which is composed of the main parliamentary opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), the National Constitutional Assembly, the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition and the Zimbabwe National Student's Union.

The people are reeling under Mugabe's shock and terror campaign. The ZCTU is weak and compromised by its close relationship with the pro-imperialist and faction-ridden MDC. The MDC would prefer dialogue with the government to mass protests.

However, newer forces, such as those oriented to the National Constituent Assembly and the Zimbabwe Social Forum, remain confident. As limited as it was, the stayaway temporarily halted the demolitions and helped attract international outrage. The government has become rattled. While the demolitions are continuing, it now talks about rebuilding the razed suburbs and making more promises it has no hope, or intention, of keeping.

From Green Left Weekly, July 6, 2005.

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