Between 1991 and 2003, urban poverty trebled in Zimbabwe. It was against this background of escalating economic collapse and social disintegration that “Operation Murambatsvina” (OM), or “Discarding the Filth”, took place in mid 2005. In the space of a few weeks, 700,000 people lost their homes and/or livelihoods in a process that the UN has referred to as “indiscriminate and unjustified”. More than two million others suffered related losses as a result of the demolitions.
One year on, this report assesses the state of meltdown. The situation on the ground remains dire. Fifteen months later, almost nothing has been done to house those who lost homes and livelihoods, or to salvage the informal trading sector – either by the Zimbabwean government, or by the international community.
OM began with an assault on the informal trading sector, with arrests of 90,000 vendors nationwide in the space of a few weeks, and destruction of vending marts. One year on, the informal sector in which 80% of Zimbabweans eke out a living, remains largely criminalised. In Bulawayo, 9,000 vetted and licensed vendors operate where only 120 individual sites have been built in the past year! This means thousands of breadwinners live their entire working lives on the run, and lose millions to theft of their goods by the police. Vendors and their families are visibly sliding into an ever greater abyss of poverty. There is an urgent need for legal vending sites to be (re) built nationwide, and for immediate allocation of temporary sites on a massive scale. The arrests and harassment must stop.
A handful of houses have been built under the government’s so-called ‘Operation Live-Well’. These have been surrounded by scandal, including corrupt allocation of the few hundred houses built, to ruling party members. In western Zimbabwe, not one house under this scheme is fit for occupation, as there are no services connected: out of more than 100,000 displaced people in this region, not one person has yet been officially housed.
International donor organisations have fared scarcely better – even though the UN Consolidated Appeal aims at 23,000 shelters in 2006, only 800 temporary dwellings have been built nationwide, and all of these are in greater Harare. Reasons for this failure to provide shelter include international concern that any shelter provided will end up housing government supporters including the army, and not those who were displaced. However, in some towns such as Bulawayo, local councils have taken a stand against corrupt allocation of housing.
The demolitions have resoundingly failed to change people’s urban identity. People have not left the towns, as ordered by government. A survey of two suburbs in Bulawayo shows that in 90% of homes affected by backyard demolitions, those displaced have remained in the urban setting, in conditions of shocking overcrowding. In some houses, people now co-exist in around 1 sqm per person of floor space! Married couples are forced to sleep apart, unmarried adults are forced to share space, and single people live continually on the move, from one tiny house to another. Children are exposed to sex-for-money activities, and face schooling difficulties from overcrowding and poverty. Some breadwinners have been forced into the Diaspora. People live in a state of permanent existential crisis, with no way out.
This same survey illustrates that the backyard shelters knocked down were in fact mostly robust dwellings, with access to safe water, sanitation and electricity. 86% of shelters destroyed do not meet the criteria for “slums” – the demolitions were not “slum clearance”, but destroyed valuable living space.
During the demolitions in Bulawayo, the police rounded up 1,400 displaced persons who were being housed in the churches and forcibly dumped them in rural areas around Matabeleland. The authors have been tracking some of these families over the past year: follow up reveals that around 75% of these families are now back in the urban setting, where they live in appalling conditions, in shacks that are very inferior to those demolished. While conditions in the urban areas are dire, those in rural areas are perceived by many to be even worse. Even forced relocation to rural areas has failed to change this perception, or people’s urban identity. However, people have been severely impoverished and highly stressed by continual movements: all have lost possessions and many have lost their health. A distressing number have died.
OM has left the informal sector in misery and disarray. The terrible exercise of destroying people’s shelter and vending marts has left large sectors of urban populations criminalised by the very government that should protect their rights. It has also undermined the power of local urban councils, by the imposition of army headed committees who have overriding powers in the government’s rebuilding exercise.
The UN and the government of Zimbabwe have been at an impasse over how to proceed on the issue of housing. The government is opposed to construction of temporary shelter because that would mean acknowledging people were thrown into crisis by the demolitions, which is still officially denied. The UN has been opposed to building permanent shelters because of concerns over issues of tenure.
However, the option is to continue to do almost nothing, or to do something. Solidarity Peace Trust believes that there is no solution to the humanitarian crisis faced by those left in the cold and rain, other than to go ahead and build decent shelter, and to deal with the issue of tenure as an ongoing struggle. If this is not done, then in a year from now, more Zimbabweans will have been forced into the Diaspora, or will be eking out lives of even worse poverty and despair.