New Internationalist

A tsunami of demolitions

Issue 386

While the Zimbabwe Government may be using bulldozers to flatten the homes of its opponents, Andrew Meldrum discovers that mass evictions are a problem right across Africa.

‘Our tsunami’. That’s how Zimbabweans refer to the sweeping housing demolitions that President Robert Mugabe’s Government unleashed on poor city dwellers in May last year. Waves of police and army descended on townships in the capital, Harare, and ripped down homes that they said were violating building codes. Whole neighbourhoods were flattened as if they had been hit by a devastating natural disaster.

‘‘Everywhere I turned I saw homes being destroyed,’ said Trudy Stevenson, the opposition member of Parliament who represents the Hatcliffe settlement, an area virtually obliterated when more than 400 homes were torn down. ‘It was like a scene out of the anti-apartheid movie Cry Freedom when they showed the forced removals in South Africa. I couldn’t believe it was happening in Zimbabwe.’

‘The demolished Hatcliffe homes had been constructed under a US aid project and had all the required permits, say residents. A mosque, a church, an orphanage and a health clinic were also destroyed.

‘Harrowing eyewitness accounts flooded in from Zimbabwe’s second city, Bulawayo, the eastern border town of Mutare, the western tourist centre Victoria Falls, the central mining and industrial centres of Gweru and Kwekwe and the southern gateway to South Africa, Beitbridge. Across the country, bulldozers pushed down brick houses and wooden cottages. Flamethrowers were used in some areas and sledgehammers in others.

‘The task was so huge that officials ordered people, at gunpoint, to tear down their own homes, using hammers. Others were told that if bulldozers were used, homeowners would have to pay for each room that was levelled. Adding insult to injury, the Mugabe Government called the campaign Operation Murambatsvina – ‘drive out filth’ in the Shona language.

‘Life was already tough for Zimbabwe’s urban poor who are battling unemployment at 80 per cent, inflation near 300 per cent, widespread shortages of basic foods and fuel and declining schools and health services. The housing demolitions have made things much worse.

‘Although the scale of Zimbabwe’s demolitions place them in a category of their own, forced evictions – and the human rights violations that go with them – are a growing problem in Africa. ‘The common factor [in Africa] is the growing tendency to undertake and justify forced evictions for “development” purposes,’ points out Jean du Plessis, co-ordinator for the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE). ‘The tragic outcome in most of these cases is that the poorest and most vulnerable members of society are placed at even greater risk.’

‘According to COHRE’s summary of evictions in Africa from 2000 to 2005, Zimbabwe was the worst offender, with an estimated 2.4 million people affected. Nigeria has been a serial offender. `Nigeria has earned a reputation as one of the world’s worst violators of the right to adequate housing,’ states the COHRE report. Nigeria’s most extreme case was the mass eviction, in 2000, which affected 1.2 million people from Rainbow Town, Port Harcourt.

‘The Kenyan Government has evicted an estimated 80,000 people from their homes since 2000. ‘In Kenya’s experience slum dwellers would move only when they saw a government bulldozer,’ said Kenyan Housing Minister Amos Kimunya, expressing sympathy with those carrying out the Zimbabwean evictions. Most have been evictions from the Sururu and Mau forests, where the Government claims it is protecting water catchment areas for Lake Nakuru. But environmental groups charge that the commercial logging of the forests is far more damaging. Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo have also carried out major forced evictions since 2000.

‘On the bright side, a group in Kenya averted evictions through court actions and negotiation. In Ghana, two planned evictions in the capital, Accra, are being challenged. Since 2002 Ghanaian officials have planned to clear hundreds of homes from the Old Fadama settlement, claiming that the area needed to be cleared to improve the environment of the Korle Lagoon. Residents and the People’s Dialogue on Human Settlements have legally challenged the evictions and have voluntarily improved Old Fadama’s access roads, drainage and refuse collection to minimize damage to the lagoon.

‘But those signs of progress, hailed by housing rights activists, were eclipsed by Zimbabwe’s big step backwards. Since the Zimbabwe demolitions, there have been new reports of planned evictions in Malawi, Kenya and South Africa, according to COHRE.

‘The massive scale of the Zimbabwe demolitions surprised even hardened housing activists. Although press reports described the homes torn down as wooden shanties and shacks, many were substantial brick dwellings with electricity and water. Filmed footage showed bulldozers knocking down homes as women and children wept amongst their salvaged furniture and possessions. At least two children and one adult were killed when walls fell on them. In addition, the forced evictions took place during Zimbabwe’s winter months when night temperatures drop to near freezing. The thousands of newly homeless huddled together for warmth amongst their belongings. Before long, deaths due to respiratory infections were being reported.

‘President Robert Mugabe appeared surprised when the international community protested against his actions. He said the housing demolitions were merely part of an urban renewal campaign. But even as he spoke, families were being herded on to trucks that took them to holding camps outside the cities or into the rural areas listed on their national identity cards. Old Rhodesian-era documentation provided for the rural home of a person’s parents or grandparents to be listed and that is where thousands were taken, even though many had no surviving relatives. ‘Everyone comes from somewhere; no-one comes from nowhere,’ said Edmore Veterai, assistant police commissioner commanding Harare.

‘As reports grew of the suffering caused by the demolitions, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan acted decisively. He appointed Anna Tibaijuka – head of the UN’s housing agency, Habitat, and the highest-ranking African woman in the UN administration – to investigate the situation and report back to him. Her report, presented to Annan on 22 July this year, was a scathing indictment of the housing campaign. In total 700,000 Zimbabweans lost their homes or source of livelihood or both, reported Tibaijuka, and 2.4 million people were directly affected. She accused the Government of callous ‘indifference to human suffering’ and recommended perpetrators be charged.

‘The Mugabe Government refused to budge and the UN launched a $30 million appeal on its own in September this year to provide food, water, temporary shelter and blankets to the most vulnerable. Meanwhile the Government continued its campaign against the cities’ poor. In Bulawayo police raided nine churches, rounding up about 600 people who had been sheltering in the places of worship. They, too, were taken to a holding camp outside the city.

‘There is now considerable speculation about why the Mugabe Government has carried out these demolitions and evictions. Few if any accept Mugabe’s claims that he simply desired to improve Zimbabwe’s cities. Only a small number of new homes can be seen under construction and they are allocated to staunch loyalists of the ruling party, Zanu-PF. Likewise new vending licences are being granted to party stalwarts.

‘More credence is given to the theory that Mugabe wanted to assert more control over the cities. These areas have voted consistently against Mugabe since the 2000 elections, in which the opposition won urban seats by margins of 80 per cent. Urban opposition to Mugabe has also extended to his Government’s attempts to control prices; city residents have ignored the price controls. Staples unavailable at the fixed prices in the shops – ranging from maize meal and cooking oil to toothpaste – were being sold on the street at higher prices. The street vendors were only following the basic economic law of supply and demand. Nevertheless the Mugabe Government branded them criminals. It deluded itself that it would stamp out the illegal market in foreign currency by tearing down the soapbox stalls of street traders. Instead, the trade in foreign exchange continued to thrive, going deeper underground. By evicting large numbers in every Zimbabwean city, Mugabe was giving the message loud and clear that black Zimbabweans could only live in the cities with the approval of his Government. Ironically, it mirrors the old Rhodesian pass laws, under which blacks were only allowed to live in the cities if they had official documents to permit it.

‘Zimbabwean analysts say that Operation Murambatsvina was a pre-emptive strike against a possible township revolt. They have been surprised that their line has also been adopted by The Herald newspaper, which is tightly controlled by the Government.

‘An article in The Herald, reprinted from the New African magazine and written by Baffour Ankomah, said that Mugabe’s secret police, the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), warned the President that Western agents hoped to instigate mass demonstrations similar to those in Ukraine to force a change in Government. As a consequence, the CIO convinced Mr Mugabe to ‘nip the danger in the bud by dispersing the slum dwellers via the demolition of their habitats,’ wrote Ankomah.

‘Whether as a means of political repression or as a blunt means of urban planning, forced evictions will continue to be a problem for Africa’s poor. Systems that uphold the legal rights of all citizens, even poor slum dwellers, are needed to combat evictions. ‘African governments must make housing a priority,’ said Mawuse Anyidoho, co-ordinator of COHRE’s Africa programme. ‘Leaders must have the political will to address the issues that lead to the proliferation of slums, rather than just bulldozing them when they become an eyesore.’

Andrew Meldrum lives in and reports from South Africa. He was thrown out of Zimbabwe by Robert Mugabe’s security forces.

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