Was Murambatsvina political backlash or genuine clean-up?


The people should have seen it coming.

It was common talk before the March 31 elections that there would be a political backlash once ZANU-PF had been assured of another five-year term because it would no longer care a hoot about the plight of the average Zimbabwean.

This is exactly what is happening. The viciousness with which the government is cracking down on vendors and illegal settlers in the country’s urban centres, which has so far left more than 200 000 people homeless and deprived over a million of their sole means of survival, has just proved the point.

Church leaders cried out that President Robert Mugabe should fight poverty and not the poor. One observer asked: “Why does (President) Mugabe hate blacks so much?”

No one has any answers because no one has so far explained why the government suddenly descended on its poor citizens with such brutality. The only explanation the government has given is that this is a clean-up operation aimed at restoring order.

Throughout, the government insisted that this was not political retribution on the urban voters who had overwhelmingly voted for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

It was a clean-up exercise aimed at ridding the country of criminal elements, including foreigners. Though a few foreigners were caught in the net, the bulk of the victims were ordinary Zimbabweans.

Contrary to its most vehement protestations, the increasingly paranoid ZANU-PF is reported to believe that the teeming vending sites dotted across the country’s cities and towns were a simmering bed of public discontent with a government that has failed to provide basic foodstuffs – including the staple maize.

The March 31 parliamentary poll was yet another disputed election and although the opposition did not make good its earlier threats of street protests, government could not sit comfortably. The combination of a worsening economic situation and political disenchantment made for a potent time bomb.

That possibility drove the government into precipitous pre-emptive action which saw them raid the flea markets and suburbs that were fast degenerating into slums due to the monumental failure of public housing policies adopted soon after independence.

Luxon Zembe, president of the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce, said while the business sector wanted law and order, things had gone out of hand.

“Even though the intentions (of the crackdown) might be good, we have a very cruel, evil way of treating each other,” he said.

“With unemployment at 75 percent, how can one destroy a fellow Zimbabwean’s only source of income and after that follow the same person and destroy his home?”

The Bulawayo archdiocese of the Catholic Church said in a statement that the whole operation smacked of a callous indifference to the plight of the poor.

“Whatever criminal element may lurk in their midst or feed off their vulnerability, they are still and will ever remain, children of God – not so much ‘trash’ to be swept away,” the statement said.

The same sentiments were echoed by Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition. “The flimsy explanation that the current terror is war against dirt is as silly as it is far from the truth,” the organisation said in a statement.

“It smacks of hypocrisy that the government spends millions of dollars destroying market and industrial stalls, the livelihood of its people looking for foreign currency, while the people within the government continue to send their children to schools and colleges abroad paying in foreign currency.”

What was disturbing was that some of the vendors whose businesses were destroyed had been allocated stands by the local authorities and were paying rent, which meant that they were operating legally.

Veteran politician Welshman Mabhena, who was unceremoniously kicked out of government because of his controversial views that were often in conflict with those of the ruling party when he was in the politburo, said he was not surprised by the government’s actions.

“ZANU-PF is still using guerrilla tactics to rule this country 25 years after independence. They are still at war, but this time with their own people. There is no room for dissent. Everyone who does not agree with the party is an enemy and must be dealt with ruthlessly,” Mabhena said.

While there has been token resistance to the crackdown so far, most people believe that the government has gone too far. It is on record for encouraging people to start flea markets because of increasing unemployment, but it is now clamping down on them because the informal sector has grown out of proportion, dwarfing the formal sector.

“Our leaders are taking the people for granted,” Zembe said. “This crackdown has left serious scars that will take years to heal. This is a recipe for civil unrest. It might take years to erupt but it will come just like it took decades for black Zimbabweans to take up arms against white oppression.”

Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition said in an economy where the informal sector employs 80 percent of the labour force, “torching people’s markets and arresting street kids will not help the economy let alone bring fuel, foreign currency or fill the granaries of Zimbabwe.”

But the government had every reason to be worried. According to Austrian economist, Friedrich Schneider, the shadow economy in Zimbabwe (defined broadly as all market-based, legal production of goods and services deliberately concealed from the authorities) is estimated at a whopping 63.2 percent of GDP.

The government has no access to this vast wealth. But what must have upset the government most is that all the shortages resurfaced immediately after ZANU-PF’s March poll victory. It was therefore a blatant show of no confidence in the government despite its increased majority. It, therefore, had to show who was in control.

But because of the brutal way it has dealt with the situation, it has created more enemies than friends.

“The manner in which the government has handled this whole issue makes people hate the current leadership,” Zembe said. “Even when someone has done something wrong, they need to be treated fairly and justly. When there is no fairness or justice, people tend to side with the victim even when the victim is wrong.”

This seems to be exactly what the people are doing. Though the government says it has set aside $300 billion for the construction of proper markets for the displaced vendors and is to provide 250 000 stands for the poor to build houses, most people are taking this with a pinch of salt.

Small and Medium Enterprises Minister Sithembiso Nyoni seems to have made things worse when she announced that those who wanted licences must come up with a positive identity card, proof of residence and police clearance that they are not criminals.

One business executive commented: “Why does the government have this notion that everyone who runs a flea or vegetable market is a crook or of no fixed abode?”

Zembe was more sceptical. “The present crackdown seems to be following a pattern,” he said. “First it was the commercial farmers. Now it is the informal sector. Who is next?”


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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.


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