Already plagued by rampant mass unemployment, power cuts, and fuel and food shortages, many of Zimbabwe’s poor are finding themselves evicted from their homes because of the security clampdown and roadblocks, which the government says is part of Operation Murambatsvina.
In the native Shona language, murambatsvina means “drive out trash”.
Since 19 May, the operation has led to 30,000 arrests and according to Miloon Kothari, a UN housing expert, rendered as many as 200,000 people homeless.
Riot police have bulldozed illegal shacks where swathes of the population lived, and smashed the flea markets where they sold fruit, vegetables, sweets and second-hand clothes in one of the world’s most shattered economies.
Many in Zimbabwe believe Operation Murambatsvina – adding to fuel shortages, intermittent power cuts, and shops empty of milk, bread, sugar and maize meal (the staple food for the 11.6 million population) – could signal Zimbabwe’s turning point.
Mugabe’s government says the
Officially, the government says that Murambatsvina is about cleaning up the country and ridding it of criminal elements. “Our towns and cities had become havens for illicit and criminal practices which could not be allowed to go on,” said President Robert Mugabe in a recent speech.
Elliot Manyika, Zanu-PF’s national commissar, told the local press that the economy needed to account for informal businesses and order needed to be restored to urban areas.
But the opposition maintains that the operation is directed at the urban poor in retribution for the 31 March parliamentary elections, when they voted overwhelmingly for the MDC, which lost the election in a disputed result.
“This is going to be an ungovernable country very soon,” says prominent opposition activist Tonderai Ndira, 28. “People are now desperate and ready to meet fire with fire.”
The roadblocks indiscriminately clustered across Zimbabwe are not designed to ensnare opposition activists or foreign reporters, but errant drivers.
Support for the MDC is strong in
Just east of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, a group of journalists approach the first police roadblock, close to the barbed-wire perimeter of the notorious Chikurubi maximum security prison
Heading to Mabvuku, one of the country’s most restive townships, we are far from inconspicuous: Two foreign journalists in a dilapidated old banger accompanied by prominent activists from Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Ndira says he has been arrested 27 times and severely tortured by the police. Muzuva, also 28 and a security officer for the MDC, has knotted welts on one arm and both legs which he claims came from a politically motivated shooting 18 months ago.
His assailant walked free, he says.
A baby-faced police officer languidly approaches our car and demands to see the driver’s papers. After a brief exchange of words, 100,000 Zimbabwe dollars – about $5 at the black market exchange rate – is handed over. We are on our way.
At least until the next roadblock that awaits us half a mile away.
We arrive in Mabvuku, 19km east of the capital. Granite boulders called kopjes form an exquisite backdrop to this once relatively prosperous township of around 50,000.
Zanu-PF, which has ruled Zimbabwe since the country’s independence from Britain in 1980, may retain support in the countryside, but in Mabvuku, like most other townships, hatred may be brewing against the country’s leaders.
Robert Mugabe is looking to
For most of the past two months, residents have been without water or electricity. Yet their rates have continued to rise. Children play in a nearby sewer and people have resorted to fetching water from boreholes and using the bush for the toilet.
Ndira ushers us into a dark, sparsely furnished three-room house, home to 16 people. The only light filters through cracks in the door. A small crowd soon shuffles in. They are unwilling to give their names, but eager to talk.
A middle-aged woman charges the government with sabotage. “The only people being punished are in MDC strongholds. People are being chased away from their houses and replaced by soldiers. They don’t care where we go, whether we go and live in the bush.”
Look East policy
The group then repeat a rumour that’s sweeping Harare – the government has cleared the flea markets in town as part of a business deal with the Chinese, who will soon take over the vacated areas. “Mugabe has no friends in the West, so now he’s turned to China,” says the woman.
“People are being chased away from their houses and replaced by soldiers. They don’t care where we go, whether we go and live in the bush”
In recent months the Zimbabwean government has implemented a Look East policy, spending $500 million on Chinese arms and aircraft.
Their claims cannot be independently verified.
Meanwhile, among the poor ever more desperate survival strategies are being adopted. “It [the situation] is forcing our daughters to be prostitutes,” says the woman. Schoolgirls as young as 14 are changing out of their uniforms after class and heading to the local beer halls to sell themselves for about $1 or simply a packet of crisps.
A middle-aged man in a smart suit – but like most residents, no job to wear it to – says people are increasingly turning to Kachasu, a noxious homemade brandy that “burns the lungs” and “makes you deadly drunk”.
“People can forget about life and everything,” he says.
The only hope, the group unanimously agree, is when there is a change of government: “Only when Mugabe is removed can there be change.”
Search for fuel
We leave Mabvuku with Muzuva and Ndira and attempt to get fuel on the black market – the only place it is available – in order to leave Harare.
Petrol is in great shortage in
The electricity is out, night has fallen and half the city is shrouded in darkness. Fires glow by the roadsides. Stalls lie overturned in broken heaps where markets bustled just a few hours before.
Thousands, including schoolchildren, are on the streets, stranded without means of getting home as there is no fuel for the public transport. Eventually, the army arrives and transports people back to the townships free of charge.
After hunting for hours, our search for fuel proves fruitless. It will be another day before we can leave Harare.