The Bulawayo City Council, which last week barred three government ministers from attending its private briefing with United Nations special envoy Anna Tibaijuka, has roundly condemned Operation Murambatsvina, saying the so-called “clean-up” could cost it $62 million a month in lost revenue.
According to a report prepared by the council’s director of housing and community services, Isaiah Magagula, for the full council meeting of June 1- less than two-weeks after the start of the campaign – but only made available last week, police had carried out the blitz without consulting the city council.
Local Government Minister Ignatius Chombo has given the impression that the clean-up campaign is being carried out with the blessing of local authorities.
Magagula said from 1995 when the council designated nine vending sites and licensed vendors, it had carried out raids on illegal vendors in conjunction with the police. The local authority had also been involved in its own clean-up campaign in conjunction with registered vendors since April.
On June 1 Executive Mayor Japhet Ndabeni-Ncube, town clerk Moffat Ndlovu, Magagula, four councillors and three other senior council officials had seen police demolishing some of the vendors’ sites without consulting the authority.
“Interviews conducted with the vendors revealed that the ZRP demolished shelters, confiscating wares and chased away licensed vendors from designated sites,” Magagula said in his report.
“Some of the vendors had their stores or lockers broken into and wares confiscated. Some claimed that their licences were torn up.”
Magagula said the council collected more than $62 million per month in licence fees from an estimated 3 000 registered vendors. It therefore stood to lose this revenue if the stands were not occupied. In addition, the spirit of self-reliance and employment creation was being undermined.
He said what was more disturbing was that the designated sites had been built in consultation with the government and were commissioned by the then Minister of Local Government, John Nkomo, who chaired a meeting to convince vendors to use the designated sites instead of selling their products all over the city.
Ironically, the council’s decision to establish designated vending sites came shortly after President Robert Mugabe had instructed local authorities to amend their by-laws to allow vendors to sell their wares without any hindrance.
“They should be given small stalls to sell their goods. We see this type of business in New York and London, why can’t we do it here?” he asked on national television in October 1994.
President Mugabe, who was responding to a query by the Women’s Action Group as to why police continued to harass vendors, said he had taken up the issue with the then Senior Minister for Local Government, Joseph Msika.
“I told him that if he did not act, I would personally lead a group of women with their trolleys in marching to the city centre to sell their wares,” President Mugabe said.
Ndabeni-Ncube said the council had watched helpless as police pulled down and burnt sheds and structures used by vendors. All the council officials could do was to put the fire brigade on standby in case the fires got out of hand.
“Apparently, the clampdown was targeting not only those who were operating illegally, but legitimate vendors as well,” Ndabeni-Ncube said. “All the vendors’ sites, which had been properly demarcated at strategic areas in the city with council and even ministerial blessing with the noble objective of empowering the disadvantaged, had been razed to the ground.”
Deputy Mayor Angilacala Ndlovu said the exercise had been carried out in an insensitive manner. “It was a shocking experience seeing stalls being dismantled and merchandise being destroyed or taken away with the owners watching helplessly,” Ndlovu said. “Police on the ground had not explained the criteria they were using in selecting their targets. Their only response was that they were simply carrying out instructions.”
Alderman Charles Mpofu said the government’s action was inhuman because it was destroying authorised structures instead of spending its energies on more pressing problems like the shortage of fuel and food.
Bulawayo has been crippled by a critical fuel shortage since the beginning of May.
But the police had not only confined themselves to the destruction of vendors’ sites. They had pounced on so-called illegal structures but in the process they had also wantonly destroyed legitimate buildings or extensions that had council approval.
According to some residents, police had torn up approved plans when owners produced them. A bitter Salute Moyo of 74 New Luveve, whose approved extension consisting of a toilet and bathroom was destroyed despite the fact that he had an approved plan, 917/85, said he was at a loss as to what to do.
He said a senior police officer who seemed to be in charge of the demolishing team had bluntly told him that he was there to do his job. Moyo could take up his grievance with whom ever he wanted.
“What pains me most is that no one has come up to explain what the way forward now is. I have obtained quotations from reputable contactors and they have told me it will now cost me $37 million to replace what was destroyed. Who is going to foot that bill?” he asked.
Tibaijuka, who was sent to Zimbabwe by UN secretary-general Kofi Annan to assess the situation, condemned the wanton destruction of people’s homes saying forcing people back to rural areas was not the solution to the country’s housing problems.
She told Home Affairs Minister Kembo Mohadi who was accompanied by Resident Minister for Bulawayo Cain Mathema and Small and Medium Enterprises Minister Sithembiso Nyoni, during her visit to Bulawayo, that rural repatriation did not work.
“These people are not here because they want to, but they are trying to earn a living. Even in the US and Japan, people want to work in the city, they try to create small businesses where they can get a livelihood, and Zimbabwe is not an exception in that area. There is no way you can stop people from coming into town and finding employment,” she was quoted by an international news agency as saying.
The three government ministers were barred from attending a briefing between Tibaijuka and Bulawayo city councillors. The council gave Tibaijuka a list of all the legitimate buildings and extensions that police had destroyed.
Mathema, who was bitter about the way he, Mohadi and Nyoni had been shut out by the council, told the local media that the government was building 600 houses that would be completed before the end of next month to accommodate some of the more than 5 000 people who had been displaced in Bulawayo.
Although this was one of the government’s swiftest responses to a crisis, one resident said the move was akin to a father seeing his child in tattered clothes, tearing them to shreds, promising the child a suit, but leaving the child naked for the time being.
“Zvakaitwa nehurumende zvakafanana nababa wanoona mwana wavo akapfeka hembe dzakabvaruka, vobva vadzibvarura bvarura, vachiti nyarara mwanangu ndichakutengera sutu, asi vachisiya mwana akashama.”
Tibaijuka, who is expected to release her report in another week, seemed to concur with this view. She said the government should not call other people’s homes illegal structures unless it was able to provide an alternative.
“There is no need to call them illegal structures or squatter camps because they are homes to other people. They are special to other people who cannot have special homes,” she said adding that Zimbabwe fared better than most African countries in terms of slums.
“From our statistics, Africa has a slum rate of 72 percent but a study we have on Zimbabwe conducted in 2001, shows that the country had an illegal and slum rate of 3.4 percent,” she said.
She also dismissed claims by police that the crime rate had dropped since the “clean-up” operation was launched in May, saying: “The poor are not criminals. They work hard to achieve the little they get and therefore they should not be criminalised.”