By Dzikamai Chidyausiku in Harare (Africa Reports No 37, 30-Jun-05)
With humour born of desperation, Zimbabweans are wryly suggesting that President Robert Mugabe, is trying to "Make Poverty History" by simply eradicating the poor through his campaign to demolish their houses.
In Operation Murambatsvina, police and soldiers have flattened the homes of up to two million of Zimbabwe's 11 million people.
This programmed destruction is widely seen as retribution by Mugabe's ruling Zanu PF government for losing the urban vote to the opposition, and a culmination of its five-year plan to wrest control of the cities from their elected mayors and councils.
A commission made up of Mugabe loyalists has been imposed on Harare, the capital, to replace the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, mayor and his council. This commission has overseen a collapse in city services and remained silent as police bulldozed and sledgehammered homes in the capital's poorest suburbs.
"They can just go back to wherever they came from. We must clean the country of the crawling mass of maggots bent on destroying the economy," said national police commissioner Augustine Chihuri.
Among the cruel ironies of Operation Murambatsvina is that many of the people now being forcibly removed to the countryside had responded to Mugabe's call in 2000 to join the mass invasion of white-run commercial farms. Their hope that they would become the farms' new owners was dashed when they were driven off the properties into poor city suburbs, and Mugabe's top ministers, civil servants, military officers and judges took the properties for themselves.
Now these people are on their way back into the countryside, where there are no jobs, agriculture has collapsed and distribution of scarce food aid is controlled by ZANU PF loyalists.
With hindsight, Mugabe seems to have set the scene for Operation Murambatsvina in early March this year - prior to 31 March parliamentary elections - when he pleaded with the people of Harare to vote ZANU PF. Mugabe made the appeal at the funeral of one of his closest aides, Witness Mangwende, whom he had imposed as governor of Harare in 2003.
"What wrong have we done you, Harare? Think again, think again, think again," Mugabe implored mourners at Heroes Acre, where politically correct loyalists are laid to rest.
Visibly agitated, Mugabe said he would not be happy to lose Harare's parliamentary constituencies yet again to the MDC. He also said he was displeased that the town councils of Harare, Bulawayo and other major urban centres had MDC majorities.
Despite what can now be seen as an ominous warning, the people of Harare again rejected Mugabe and ZANU PF overwhelmingly in all but one of the city's parliamentary constituencies. ZANU PF failed to win any seats at all in Bulawayo, the country's second largest city.
It was this continued rejection, despite the presidential warning, that seems to have triggered Operation Murambatsvina.
Mugabe insists the programme aims to remove illegally built homes and trading premises, clamp down on money launderers and drug dealers, and clean up unsanitary and unsightly squatter camps.
However, the sheer vindictiveness and brutality of the destruction and forced removals suggests another motive, not least because no provision has been made for alternative housing.
Many people were given just ten minutes to vacate their houses before they were razed by bulldozers. In some homes, babies were crushed to death as the demolition squads moved in. Even buildings registered and licensed by city councils were not spared.
Cabinet members like local government minister Ignatius Chombo, who has been at the forefront of the clearances, actually inaugurated some of the same working class suburbs that have now been declared illegal and destroyed. Officially registered housing cooperatives, some with thousands of paid-up members, had long been established in the poor quarters of the cities, and Chombo and others from the government attended ceremonies to mark the laying of foundations of new dwellings funded by the cooperatives, frequently named after ZANU PF liberation war heroes.
In the Harare suburb of Hatcliff, householders paid the equivalent of four British pounds a year in rent to the Harare administration for their plots.
"The World Bank even paid for the sewerage and water services to be put in," said the local MDC member of parliament, Trudy Stevenson, surveying the devastation left when police bulldozers moved in. "Look, you can see the remains of the piping on the ground."
Among the legally registered buildings flattened in Hatcliff was a Catholic refuge for AIDS orphans, a secondary school, a World Bank-funded public lavatory and a Sunni mosque.
Chombo has been used by Mugabe as his key weapon to harass and undermine the authority of city councils which had fallen to the MDC.
Harare city council went to the opposition in 2000, and then in 2002 voters elected Elias Mudzuri, the MDC's candidate, as mayor. All efforts by Mudzuri to run the city efficiently were blocked by the central government, which last year dismissed him and appointed its own ZANU PF commissioners, handpicked by Chombo, to run the capital.
Mugabe had earlier already introduced governors to oversee the affairs of Harare and Bulawayo, a move seen by residents and analysts as an early attempt to supersede mayors. Where it could not find fault with the MDC administration, as in Bulawayo, Chegutu and Masvingo, the central government withheld funding for capital projects in a bid to discredit the councils.
Mike Davies, chairman of the Combined Harare Residents Association, CHRA, an organisation grouping housing associations in both upmarket and poor districts, said, "The Mugabe government has done everything in its powers to control Harare. In so doing they are violating the democratic right of the people to elect their own people."
Davies believes that Mudzuri's dismissal and the appointment of hand picked commissioners showed that Mugabe had no respect for the will of the people, and he blames it for the demolition programme.
"Chombo's commission itself is illegal according to the Urban Councils Act," he said. "It does not have the mandate to undertake such a campaign. This whole thing is a total disregard of the rule of law. The most illegal structure in Zimbabwe today is the government."
He said that before councils demolish houses, the act says they must first issue cessation orders, which have to be followed with a succession of further warnings about when work will begin.
CHRA has filed an urgent court application seeking the abolition of Harare's commission, but in the meantime conditions are deteriorating. Burst water and sewerage pipes and broken street lights are everywhere, while many areas have gone months without drinkable water. Mountains of rubbish pile up on street corners following the collapse of the garbage collection system.
"Mugabe's governors are not elected, the commission was not elected," said Davies. "I don't think Mugabe and his ministers care at all. They simply feel they don't owe anything to the people. Even people with employment in the city have had their structures destroyed and been told there is no place for them here in the city and that they must go back to their rural homes."
Professor Brian Raftopoulos, director of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Zimbabwe, said, "The clean-up operation is an extension of the assaults of the ruling party on a sector of the population considered the enemy. The Harare commission, appointed by the responsible minister [Chombo] to do the dirty work of ZANU PF, is an absolute disgrace.
"At no time in the post-1980 [independence] period - and perhaps even before that - has the capital city been so badly run and with so little regard for the majority of its citizens."
Dzikamai Chidyausiku is a pseudonym for a journalist in Zimbabwe.