Housing demolitions and food shortages, Zimbabwe

by Niall O'Keeffe, Trócaire's Southern Africa Programme Officer - July 2005

It is estimated that over 300,000 people have been affected by the recent housing demolitions in Zimbabwe. People who, up until recently, enjoyed a home to live in (some of whom have lived in their houses for 20 years) have been forced to sleep in the open - a particularly harsh experience in the Zimbabwean winter.

The indiscriminate campaign to remove the inhabitants has been carried out with indifference to the presence of - or concern for - children and the elderly, or to the levels of poverty in which people have been living. Many of the informal settlements had government approval to remain, had water and electricity provided by the government, and in some case government ministers or governors have opened these vending sites and settlements.

The housing demolitions have mainly, but not exclusively, taken place in areas known for their support to the political opposition; the operation will benefit individuals in power who have land interests; the result will be a 'clean' city to present ostensibly a normal city; and, most importantly, it serves as an expression of power over the people.

The housing demolitions are characteristic of a government which has expressed a total disinterest in the welfare of its own people, rather it has used its people to maintain its own position. Human rights abuses perpetrated by government agencies, or with their tacit support, have taken the form of intimidation, torture and murder. These abuses have been systematically planned and well executed to the extent that there is coercion into supporting the government.

Trócaire's programme in Zimbabwe provides support to a local partner organisation who, with a trained team of 240 monitors, document cases of human rights abuse throughout the country. Cases documented contribute to a monthly report on politically motivated human rights abuses while the monitors provide a referral for victims of abuse to appropriate care centres.

Selected cases are further investigate and legal proceedings are initiated in the courts against the perpetrators. Additionally, the project seeks to erode the current environment of impunity for politically motivated violence.

Court cases of significant political sensitivity test the independence of the judiciary who have, on several occasions, failed to act independently. The most infamous of cases, involving the newspaper The Daily News, was a clear expression of bias by the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe as it ruled in favour of the government and undermined their own position as an independent court, and leading to the closure of the country's main newspaper.

Trócaire is providing support to local organisations which have brought cases of human rights abuse to the African Commission on Human and People's Rights. This African Commission has acknowledged the lack judicial independence in Zimbabwe and is proceeding to hear several cases of human rights abuse from the country.

Government food aid is withheld from communities who do not demonstrate their loyalty. However, the government food supply is now depleted and millions of people throughout the country are facing food shortages. But to avoid further wrath of the international community, the Government of Zimbabwe is concealing the extent of the food shortages.

In a recent visit to the country, one Zimbabwean organisation spoke of three young children dying in one village as a result of malnutrition. Local authorities had warned the organisation against publicising the situation. While distributing food aid in villages can be subjected to political manipulation, Trócaire supported projects provide food aid distributed in schools to ensure that children receive at least one meal per day and through a structure that does not discriminate as all children receive food.

While people in Zimbabwe are disillusioned with the current government, the constant threat of human rights abuse, coupled with the difficulties of finding their next meal, has served to ensure that their disillusionment is not converted into an opposition force of concern to the government.

The Government of Zimbabwe seeks to prevent international and national development and human rights organisations from operating in the country. The recent NGO Bill, while presented as a standard regularisation mechanism, threatens to effectively ban work on human rights in the country. Other African countries, most notably South Africa, have blindly accepted the 'regularisation' argument frequently put forward by the Government of Zimbabwe.

There is currently a considerable need for food aid in Zimbabwe and international pressure should be brought upon the Government of Zimbabwe to allow humanitarian access. The Irish Government should highlight, amongst the international community and particularly the United Nations, the need to facilitate this access. Greater support is required for Zimbabwean organisations who, under very difficult conditions, seek to counter the systematic human rights abuse perpetrated by the Government of Zimbabwe on its people.