Homeless and hopeless in Zimbabwe

Harare, 05 July 2005 07:19 - The giant prehistoric Balancing Rocks that stand 16km from the centre of Harare are one of the great symbols of Zimbabwe, etched on to banknotes and pictured in every tourist guide.

Immediately across the road from the rocks is a new symbol of the nation, one that is unlikely to feature in any guidebook or on the notes of the collapsing Zimbabwean dollar.

It consists of piles of rubble, corrugated iron and random belongings -- a basin, a single shoe, a coathanger -- like the detritus left in the wake of an earthquake or a storm. This was home to hundreds of people in the suburb of Epworth until President Robert Mugabe announced last month that Operation Murambatsvina (Clear Out the Trash) was under way. He authorised the destruction of the homes of hundreds of thousands of people across the country as a way of removing what the police commissioner, Augustine Chihuri, described as "this crawling mass of maggots" who had settled into makeshift townships on the fringes of cities. So far at least seven people have died in the clear-out, there have been six suicides reported and 22 000 people have been arrested or had their property confiscated.

"They stood there with their AKs [Kalashnikov rifles] and told us we must knock our own homes down," said George, a bearded, middle-aged man who told his story as though recounting something utterly unfathomable. "Last night, we all slept on the ground under a blanket with plastic bags over us. This is what the government is doing to its people."

The drive back into town has a surreal quality to it. On one side of the road, a group of Apostolic worshippers dressed in immaculate white are conducting an open-air service as tsiri-tsiri birds hop beside them in the fields. On the other side, hundreds of people desperate to get into Harare to work or buy food try to flag down overloaded cars and lorries.

"We have to start walking at four in the morning now to get to work," said Joyce, a young woman from Hatfield, another affected area. Most will end up walking the 16km as petrol has almost run out, and drivers queue for up to seven days, sleeping in their cars as they wait for the pumps to open. "Some of the petrol stations, they ask to see your Zanu-PF [Mr Mugabe's ruling party] card before they serve you," George said. In the centre of the highway, armed police man roadblocks, waving down and searching cars.

"This country is upside down now," said one young man. "Once we had beef and tobacco and maize and now -- look -- we have to stand in line for petrol, for money, for mealie meal, for sugar. Soon there will be no country left at all."

A retired carpenter in his 80s said he had never seen Zimbabwe in such a state. "You have to be careful what you say in public," he said. "You don't know who is listening and what may happen to you but even under the whites there was always work if you wanted it."

State of emergency

Operation Murambatsvina was launched in the wake of Mugabe's fiercely contested election victory earlier this year, which established him in power, with 108 of the 150 parliamentary seats, until 2008, at which stage he has indicated he will step down after 25 years as president. It also comes as he has increased from two years to 20 the penalty for "publishing and communicating false statements prejudicial to the state". But the law has not curbed his critics.

"Once he was our darling," said Marcus, a young businessman in Harare. "I remember when we were at school, we would all clap when we saw him on television and he did great things with education, with healthcare. But now the old man is ruining the country. He says that he will go in 2008, but even if he does, that will be too late. He needs to go tomorrow. He cannot go on treating people like this.

"He is not Pol Pot and he is not Hitler, like some of his enemies say, but he has been behaving brutally. It has never been this bad before. What you have here is a de facto state of emergency."

Not only Harare has been affected. From the Victoria Falls to Bulawayo to Beitbridge, the bulldozers have gone in. Over the past week a transit camp has been opened at Caledonia Farm near the capital to house some of the homeless in single-sex units, but many now sleep in the open or erect shelters secretly at night and pull them down before dawn. No one knows exactly how many have lost their homes. The government figure is 120 000 while opposition groups have claimed as many as a million. Aid agencies suggest the total is around 300 000.

The government remains bullish. Didymus Mutasa, minister for state security and head of the Central Intelligence Organisation, said on Zimbabwe state radio: "Everyone in Zimbabwe is very happy about this clean-up. People are walking around Harare saying 'we never knew we had such a beautiful city'."

On Monday, the United Nations special envoy, Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, continued an inspection that started last week at the behest of the secretary general, Kofi Annan. According to the government newspaper the Herald, she applauded Mugabe's "vision", but the report was immediately dismissed by a UN spokesperson as inaccurate.

Why has Mugabe launched such an operation which has brought him the attention of the UN and condemnation around the world at a time when he is already beleaguered? The government's justification is threefold: that the settlements consist of illegal structures which create a health hazard and damage Harare's fragile infrastructure; that they breed crime; and that the "parallel market" of unauthorised businesses dealing in currency, goods and fuel constitute a serious threat to the country's economy.

Inflation is at 144% and unemployment is nearing 80%. While the official exchange rate is around Z$9 000 to the US dollar, the black market rate on the street corner in Harare outside Meikles Hotel is Z$25 000. Lack of foreign currency after the collapse of the tourist industry has caused the latest fuel shortage. The other shortages Mugabe blames on droughts and what he portrays as a racist campaign waged against him by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and United States President George Bush.

Mugabe's opponents see his motives very differently: to punish those from the settlements who voted so heavily against him and for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in the elections, and to disperse people who might foment an uprising in an increasingly hostile political environment.

"Another reason he is doing this is because farming has collapsed since he took the farms away from the white farmers and gave them to the war veterans [who fought the white regime] -- although many people think he just gave them to his supporters," said a young technician in Harare. "The people who had worked on the farms came to the cities because there was no work for them in the country. Now Mugabe wants to drive them back because the farms are producing nothing."

On the streets of Harare, people ask how much a flight to London costs, what an average wage is there, what work is available. An estimated three million Zimbabweans now live abroad, mainly in South Africa but also in Britain -- as evidenced by the current hunger strike by asylum seekers -- and the money they send back keeps the economy afloat.

Politically, the clean-up has already prompted fissures within the ruling party. Two days ago a Zanu-PF central committee member, Pearson Mbalekwa, resigned, declaring himself "perturbed and disturbed" by what he saw. He is seen as testing the water for others to follow and there is talk of a "third force", a grouping of disillusioned Zanu-PF members and some MDC politicians.

The MDC's shadow justice minister, David Coltart, said on Monday that he thought that unlikely. "I think it's a distinct possibility that Zanu will fragment," he said.

"I think an uprising is unlikely and the country will just literally grind to a halt. Sadly, when you go to some other African states, you will see that Zimbabwe has quite a way to go."

Mugabe remains unbowed. In an interview with the magazine New African he denounced Blair, saying he "wants to continue to maintain this headmaster type of attitude -- you must submit, after all you are a black nigger".

The new minister for information, Tichaona Jokonya, defended the laws governing the media and the prohibitions on foreign media operating in the country. He said the BBC, which is banned in Zimbabwe, had wanted 36 people accredited for the elections. "Obviously, we knew what they were up to," he told New African. "They wanted journalists to come here with a pack of intelligence guys."

The Guardian's former Zimbabwe correspondent, Andrew Meldrum, was deported two years ago, and in May two Sunday Telegraph journalists were jailed for two weeks after being detained for reporting without permission. This report was compiled on the same basis and names of members of the public interviewed have been duly changed.

Mandela invited

The one country in the region with the power to influence events is South Africa, but its president, Thabo Mbeki, has reiterated the position of the African Union: Zimbabwe is a sovereign country and what it does within its borders is its own affair. Mbeki has also echoed Mugabe's view that the West is only concerned about Zimbabwe because of its old colonial interests. This week, however, Mbeki has held talks for the first time with the MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, who on Monday called on G8 leaders to intervene in Zimbabwe.

The only other South African with the personal and moral power to intervene is Nelson Mandela, and pressure is already being put on him by Zimbabweans to act. Mandela has been invited as guest of honour at a party to celebrate the Mugabes' 10th wedding anniversary. In an open letter from "concerned Zimbabweans" in the opposition newspaper the Zimbabwean, an appeal has been made to Mandela to stay away. "We, your admirers, are concerned that your attendance at this event will be construed as a blessing of the things that are occurring in Zimbabwe," urges the anonymous letter writer. "I do not think that you are able to eat and drink and make merry while Africans are being oppressed."

Coltart, the shadow justice minister, believes South Africa now has to engage in meaningful efforts to broker a way out of the crisis. "When Zanu realises that they have to jettison Mugabe, then maybe something will happen, but the outlook is pretty gloomy."

The International Crisis Group, the Brussels-based body chaired by Lord Patten, said in its report on the elections last month that "economic meltdown, food insecurity, political repression and tensions over land and ethnicity are all ongoing facts of life that the election has not changed for the better in any way". It concluded: "Robert Mugabe has been the father of Zimbabwe in many respects but he is now the single greatest impediment to pulling the country out of its precipitous social, economic and political decline."

Out in Epworth, there is a plume of smoke from burning tyres. The Balancing Rocks of Chipenga may have survived for thousands of years, but modern Zimbabwe's balancing act seems more precarious by the day.

Guardian Unlimited =A9 Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005