Driving out the filth in Zimbabwe

Hut built by a family evicted from their home
Hut built by a family evicted from their home (© Eric Beauchemin)

In May 2005, the Zimbabwean government launched Operation Murambatsvina. The authorities translated this as “Operation Clean-up” or “Operation Restore Order”, but the more literal translation is “Operation Drive out the Filth”. Zimbabweans call it their tsunami. Officially it was designed to eliminate crime, clean up the streets and regularise the informal sector, the backbone of the country’s collapsing economy. In actual fact, the operation destroyed the livelihoods of nearly 2½ million Zimbabweans. It also left 700,000 people homeless.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: January 31, 2007


Radio Netherlands Worldwide presents “Driving out the Filth in Zimbabwe”. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

Murambatsvina was a totally illegal operation.

Soldiers were just advancing at walking pace through the suburbs and they were just destroying as they went.

It was the cruelest thing you can imagine. Displacing 700,000 people is criminal.

In May 2005, the Zimbabwean government launched Operation Murambatsvina. The authorities translated this as “Operation Clean-up” or “Operation Restore Order”, but the more literal translation is “Operation Drive out the Filth”. Zimbabweans call it their tsunami. Officially it was designed to eliminate crime, clean up the streets and regularise the informal sector, the backbone of the country’s collapsing economy. In actual fact though, the operation destroyed the livelihoods of nearly 2½ million Zimbabweans. It also left 700,000 people homeless.

This is a barren stretch of dry bush on the outskirts of Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Bulawayo. The thousands of people who live here have little protection from the wind. They’re all living in shacks made of branches and corrugated iron sheets, which are full of holes. Next to most of these tiny rickety structures are piles of bricks, the remains of their former homes. The house of 27-year-old Ncedisani Mpofu and her four children was demolished shortly after Operation Murambatsvina began.

Ncedisani Mpofu, her mother and two of her children in their temporary hut
Ncedisani Mpofu, her mother and two of her children in their temporary hut (© Eric Beauchemin)

It was 12th June. The police they come by 5 o’clock. In the morning? Yes, in the morning. They say go out. So I took only my children. When I was taking my children, they asked the matches. I gave them the matches. So they take the matches when I was keeping my child, they burnt the house. So there was no time to keep the property out. Did you have a lot of possessions? Yes, a bed, materials, tools, my wardrobe. They burnt all blankets. Did they explain to you why they were doing this? They said that this place is not for us to stay. And that’s all? They said, go away, go away to where you came from.

The ruling ZANU-PF party touted Operation Murambatsvina is a slum clearance programme, but 86% of the dwellings destroyed were robust structures, built out of brick and mortar and with corrugated iron roofs. The Clean-up Campaign, says a local human rights worker, who wishes to remain anonymous, out of fear of reprisals by the government, was actually designed to punish people who had voted for the opposition MDC party.

It was a way of ZANU-PF saying even in areas where there are MDC city councils, where there are opposition members of parliament, ZANU-PF still reigns supreme and we can do what we like. So I think that was one reason. I think there was another reason and that was to force people out of the cities and back into rural areas where they can be more controlled. And again that’s linked to the first reason, to the fact that people voted against ZANU-PF. In rural areas, chiefs and traditional leadership control the population. They control who gets grazing rights, who gets food. And so they can insist that people in their areas vote in a certain way and toe the line, go to certain political rallies and not other rallies. Otherwise they get punished. So it’s much easier to control rural populations, and I think there was a real effort to depopulate the cities. And in fact at the time, government ministers were saying ‘go back where you came from. If you are an indigenous Zimbabwean, then you have a rural home. And therefore it doesn’t matter if we knock down your city home because it’s not your real home. Your real home is your rural home. Go home.’

Ncedisani Mpofu, like many Zimbabweans, had no home to go back to. Many people who live in the urban centres left their rural area decades ago. Others have no rural homes in Zimbabwe.

Especially in the more informal sectors, many of the people who lost their dwellings, they are naturalised Zimbabweans. There are many Malawians, Mozambicans and Zambians who came here decades ago to work in the commercial farms, for example, and whose parents may not have been born in Zimbabwe, but who were themselves born in Zimbabwe. So they are Zimbabwean. They were born here. But they don’t have a local rural home. So they really were stranded and had nowhere to go.

Ncedisani Mpofu with two of her children
Ncedisani Mpofu with two of her children (© Eric Beauchemin)

Ncedisani Mpofu and her children spent four months living in the bush. She finally built a new shack around 2 metres by 3 metres. The police have come back time and time again, each time destroying her dwelling. The one she and her children are living in now is the 8th one she’s built. There are holes in the metal, so when the rains come, she and her children are unprotected. The wind blows dust in to the family’s scant possessions.

Constant dust is also a problem that Misipili Tshabalala, her husband and their 6 children have had to contend with for months now. They live about 2 kilometres from Mpofu, and their house too was demolished during Operation Murambatsvina.

The police came and destroyed our houses. EB: How many policeman came? There were so many, we didn’t read them. EB: What time did they come? Early in the morning. 5 o’clock. EB: And how did they destroy your house? Did they set it on fire? What did they do? They were using picks. They were just saying we have to go and find our homes. EB: So you, your husband and all your children had to leave the house. Yes. EB: Did they give you time to take your belongings? No.

It was a devastating thing to live through.

This local human rights worker witnessed Operation Murambatsvina and has studied the impact on the victims extensively.

I remember thinking at the time that it was like living in the middle of an earthquake that was moving at walking pace because soldiers were just advancing at walking pace through the suburbs and they were just destroying as they went. So it was like a slow-motion earthquake and it just went on and on and on and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.

Like many of the other people who lost their homes, the Tshabalala family spent days in the bush, fearing that the police would return. Eventually they sought shelter in the local Baptist Church. Ray Motsi is the pastor.

Local Baptist church in Bulawayo
Local Baptist church (© Eric Beauchemin)

We were about the first church to bring people in, and other churches, 16 other churches followed. We brought people and we gave them blankets and food and accommodation within the halls of the church. EB: How many people did you take in? There were about 200 people in the church.

The Tshabalalas and the other families remained there for over a month. Then people were forced to move again.

The government came in the middle of the night and started taking people away, emptying our churches without our knowledge. I want you to know that there were elderly people – 70, 80 years old, some of them sickly. There were babies, 2 or 3 days old. They had goats, they had dogs. They had rabbits. They had chickens. They had corrugated sheets. They had timber. And everything, everybody was loaded in big trucks. EB: Did the government do this at gunpoint or how did they…? They did it at gunpoint, obviously. It was at gunpoint. There were armed police that were actually doing that with police commissioners, monitoring and making sure that it was actually happening.

Church leaders, such as Pastor Ray Motsi, tried to intervene.

We heard that they had actually started with one of the churches that was in the western suburbs. And so about nine of us went there to see what was happening, and we started talking with them. Some of us were actually taken up to the police station for almost two or three hours that very night whilst we were trying to stop them from doing it. In the meantime, they were actually emptying our churches including this church. By the time I got to this church at four in the morning, I found the place empty.

Thousands of families were herded into transit camps, among them were the Tshabalalas. The conditions there, says Misipili, were dreadful.

Ah, we had a hard time. EB: Was there any food? No. EB: And they wouldn’t let you leave the transit camp? They didn’t want us to go out. There were police who have guns, guarding that transit camp.

The Tshabalala family
The Tshabalala family (© Eric Beauchemin)

After three days, officials ordered the Tshabalalas and the other families to leave and go back to their “original homes” in the rural areas. The Tshabalalas, like most of the others who were forcibly displaced, had no ancestral home to return to. They eventually wound up at another camp, around 40 kilometres from Bulawayo, where they spent yet another week in appalling conditions. But that wasn’t the end of their ordeal, explains Misipili, partially through an interpreter.

There came a man from Maraposa. So that man was a counsellor in Maraposa and talked to the police and said he can give us a place. So we stayed in Maraposa then from July 25 to December 27, we were at his home. And he didn’t give us a place. So we were just staying with our sons. They were meant to stay at this counsellor’s homestead until December. EB: And after that? Ah. It was difficult for us to stay in that man’s homestead in Maraposa. Then we decided to come back. EB: Why was it difficult at that homestead? This man, the counsellor at Maraposa had asked my husband to work for him, to cut the trees in his fields, and at the end of the day, he didn’t even pay him anything. So we decided that this was difficult. We can’t go on like that. EB: And what did you do when you got back here? How did you start rebuilding your house? I was staying outside only. EB: Out in the open. Yes, open, from December, January, February and March, April up to May, June. So in July I was starting building.

Last September, the police returned to Killarney on the outskirts of Bulawayo.

The police came and collected everybody and took them to central police station. EB: With your children too? Yes. EB: How long did you stay in the prison? The whole day and the whole night. We came the following day. EB: But did they simply release you and you had to walk back here? They took fingerprints and then they released us. EB: Did you have to walk back to here, to Killareny? Yes. No transport. And I leave it. …They had to walk back to Killarney after they were released from the police station, and after the fingerprinting, and they walked all the way back to Killarney. EB: So how many kilometres is that? Killarney is about 10 to 12 kilometres from the city centre. EB: And you had to do this with the children? Yes. EB: What do you think of what the police did? Yeah, it is so painful, but there’s nothing I can do because I’ve got nowhere to go and there’s nothing I can do. There’s no one to go to. It’s painful.

You’re listening to “Driving out the Filth” from Radio Netherlands Worldwide.

The tsunami, as many Zimbabweans refer to Operation Murambatsvina, hasn’t only affected homes in outlying areas. The police also knocked down structures in the high-density suburbs of the main cities. In some cases, they even forced the residents themselves to destroy their own structures.

Woman standing where her bedroom used to be
Woman standing where her bedroom used to be (© Eric Beauchemin)

This woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, lives in a high-density suburb of Bulawayo. Her house is tiny: a small living room, an even smaller bedroom and a kitchen. After the death of her sister in 1998, her sister’s children came to live with her. They joined the other 15 people living in the house. So she applied and received a permit from the local authorities to build a bedroom in her backyard. In June 2005, police destroyed her bedroom and the structures in the backyard of many of her neighbours. She’s still bewildered by what happened.

We don’t even have the reason why the Murambatsvina affected us because they first said you should build the house. Now, they destroyed the house. I don’t know why, and they haven’t given us the specific reason why they destroyed all these houses. They killed all the asbestos and the windows. So we didn’t even get one thing because they were pushing rough everywhere.

Now, all 19 family members are squeezed into the tiny house.

That’s why you can see people are having TB, everyone in the house having TB because we don’t have a good place where we can put people who are sick and people who are not sick. So there’s no hygiene. There’s no hygiene, because how can you stay in a small house with…we are 19. My mother, me, my kids, my sister’s kids, my young sisters, altogether with the big boys. They have got their wives but they have decided to take those wives to their homes because we don’t have place. That’s being unfair to separate two people. That’s not fair.

The authorities have asked her and the others affected by Clean-up Operation to register to get new accommodation. Like many, she is angry with Robert Mugabe, who she refers to simply as “he”.

We are fed up because he has always got false promises. He always say come and they register us and all those who were affected by Murambatsvina. But there’s nothing since that time until now. And you have registered? Yes I did. So many times. Even on Friday, we registered. They came here and wrote our names with out IDs. We don’t know whether we are voting by registering those names. We now don’t know because he’s clever and there’s nothing we can do because he’s always cheating us. How many years are we going to sit like this waiting for something which is not going to come? He took over the country. We wanted to be free. But we are not free because we are starving, more starving than what our forefathers were doing.

Murambatsvina was a totally illegal operation.

Mary Ndlovu is a local human rights worker.

Mary Ndlovu, local human rights worker
Mary Ndlovu (© Eric Beauchemin)

The reasons for it, one can debate. The consequences of it, one can’t debate. They’re there: impoverishment, illness, death, social dislocation, social collapse. It’s absolutely disaster for the people it affected, and it’s not defensible in any way by anybody. The government pretended then to be building houses which it never intended to make available to these people. That was clear from the beginning. I don’t think anybody seriously believed that they would do anything to redress the situation. I’ve never heard of any compensation being paid to anybody. Now, they are actually continuing with the evictions, in spite of court orders restraining the police or restraining the local authority from evicting people. They don’t care. They just go ahead and do it.

The apparent indifference of the government and the ruling ZANU-PF party to the human misery they are causing stands in sharp contrast to the outrage Operation Murambatsvina has provoked in the international community.

The United Nations sent in a team under Anna Tibaijuka who did an intensive investigation and who produced an excellent report which totally condemned the operation. It’s the UN figures of 700,000 people were displaced. And they called for prosecution. They said that the whole operation was illegal. People should be prosecuted. They said victims should be compensated, and the UN consolidated appeal for this last year talked about 23,000 shelters for the displaced. However, very little of this has actually happened. EB: Why? Our government has been hugely obstructive. They were embarrassed when the UN came in and produced this report. And everyone started saying this could even be a crime against humanity to displace this many people in this country in a time of peace and for no good reason. And their position has been that nothing bad happened, that this was just slum clearance, that they were going to build better houses, which of course they haven’t done. But what it’s meant is that they have refused to cooperate with the UN because to cooperate with the UN is to admit that there was a humanitarian crisis and there remains a humanitarian crisis. And to do that is to actually admit guilt.

Operation Drive out the Filth didn’t only leave 700,000 people homeless. It also virtually eliminated the informal sector. Nearly 2.5 million people in Zimbabwe sell on the streets or work in stalls and small markets like this one in Bulawayo, says Paul Temba Nyati of the opposition MDC party.

Paul Temba Nyati, opposition MDC party
Paul Temba Nyati (© Eric Beauchemin)

The informal sector that tended to sustain families because that was the only vibrant sector left after ZANU had destroyed the formal economy, that too has been destroyed, and replaced with poverty and misery.

In Bulawayo alone, there were nearly 300,000 informal workers when the operation was launched. Lovis Jones, a spokesman for the Bulawayo Upcoming Vendors Association, still remembers vividly how he and his colleagues heard about Operation Murambatsvina.

Lovis Jones, Bulawayo Upcoming Vendors Association
Lovis Jones (© Eric Beauchemin)

On the 5th of May, that was 2005, we were told by the police that there would be carrying out an exercise to clean up the city. They told us not to worry, that it wouldn’t affect us. But soon after that – I think it was a day or two days later – they came back without warning and they began destroying our stands, our stalls where we trading. They beat up some of our members who were resisting. They overturned our tables, our stalls. They destroyed some of our property, and they burnt the actual stalls. When we asked them why they were doing that, they said that they had to do it because they didn’t want us to return back to our stalls. And whatever property was left over, whatever of our goods which was left over, they took with them on a truck to the drill hall which is the holding area where they keep goods. They just, without even tagging the goods, they just threw them into a warehouse, all helter-skelter and we were unable because of that to identify our goods, and in the process a lot of our goods went missing. We suspect that some police officers helped themselves to the goods because any attempts that we made to recover our goods were just hopeless. A lot of our people lost their livelihoods in that one exercise, to the extent that today that they are absolutely destitute.

Murambatsvina couldn’t have come at a worse time for Zimbabwe’s informal sector or for anyone else for that matter. The economy is in free fall and the situation grows more dire with every passing month, says Dr. Eric Bloch, an economist and financial consultant.

The collapse is really substantive. If you think that the unemployment rate level is approximately 84% of the employable population, that an estimated 54% of the population are below the food datum line, the minimum amount needed just to survive in good health food-wise. And 78% of the population are below the poverty datum line. That alone is indicative of the extent of the collapse. Our rampant inflation is another indication. The International Monetary Fund has predicted an average inflation for 2007 of 4279%. That I think is overly pessimistic, but the underlying message behind is correct.

The Vendors Association has noticed that more and more of its members are going hungry. There are also growing numbers of them who are winding up in hospital, where they can no longer pay for medical treatment. According to this human rights activist, this is also happening to many others who were affected by Operation Murambatsvina.

One of the things which has horrified me is the rate at which people have just died. Entire families are died, who were alive and apparently well a year ago. Very likely they’ve died from HIV related illnesses, but something which precipitates HIV into full-blown AIDS is the kind of stress which has been caused by Murambatsvina. So what we have in Zimbabwe is the conflation of three humanitarian crises: the first is the one which has been caused by Murambatsvina. The second is the crisis of HIV where we have between 20 and 25 percent of our population infected, and the third crisis is hunger, the fact that for five years in a row, we’ve failed to produce enough food, and people while not starving to death are permanently hungry and undernourished.

Over a year and a half after Operation Murambatsvina, most of the vendors are still without work. Many don’t have the money to replace the goods that were destroyed, seized or stolen by the police. And the few who do have nowhere to operate legally.

The government are making a lot of promises to us, saying that they are going to build alternative places to replace our stalls they destroyed, our sites which they destroyed, but so far they have only come up with one and it’s very inadequate. You’ll find that they’ve only been able to accommodate 30 people out of 3000. Then again, it was on a party political basis. It was on a partisan. You had to prove that you are a ZANU-PF member in order to get into one of those stalls that they built. Meetings that we’ve held with the government, government officials have been produced no positive results. We feel that the government is stalling on this. We feel that it’s a political issue. They suspect us of working with the MDC. The local authority were before that exercise very sympathetic to us but I think they’ve developed cold feet because they are part of government, and I think they want to toe the line.

Another "hut" in Matabeleland
Another “hut” in Matabeleland (© Eric Beauchemin)

Unable to earn a living, many of the informal traders have joined a massive exodus from Zimbabwe. It’s estimated that nearly 4 million of the country’s 15 million inhabitants have left the country. Operation Murambatsvina also succeeded in destroying the self-help groups which the Bulawayo Upcoming Vendors Association had managed to establish. For example, it had banking schemes and burial societies, but nowadays few can afford the contributions. Other projects too have fallen apart.

We used to have a scheme whereby we were having an adult education programme, where adult members from our association were actually receiving appropriate training and education to enhance their businesses. The children, we were educating on our own although there was a government beam project whereby certain children were able to get education free. But we being like a black-listed organisation, children of our members were not benefiting from that project. So we had to educate our own children and it was coming out of the proceeds of our sales. That’s not there anymore as you can see, as you know. And a lot of our children not receiving education. It’s going on to two years now, they haven’t been able to go to school.

Archbishop Pius Ncube
Archbishop Pius Ncube (© Eric Beauchemin)

For Archbishop Pius Ncube is a vocal critic of President Robert Mugabe. In a room with poor acoustics, he told me that social upheaval and the collapse of civil society were among the goals of Operation Murambatsvina.

This evil government did it in order to stop organisation. They don’t want people who are organised. These informal traders were organised and they were having a voice. Secondly, they wanted to peasantify people, to force people to the rural area, to become peasants, then we can control them as Pol Pot did in Kampuchea, to make people dependent on government.

I would have liked to ask the Zimbabwean authorities in person to respond to these allegations, but I had to travel undercover to the country because of the government’s draconian restrictions on foreign journalists. In an official rebuttal to international criticism of the Clean-up Operation, the government said it acted in the public interest and according to the government’s laws. Opposition figures, such as Paul Temba Nyati, have no doubts about the consequences of Murambatsvina.

It was symptomatic of a very callous regime that has no consideration for the well-being and welfare of its people. It was the cruelest thing you can imagine. Displacing 700,000 people is criminal. It’s a criminal act, and I hope that relevant action would be taken by the international community to bring the perpetrators to book.

It’s a desire shared by many in Zimbabwe and abroad. But customary international law grants immunity to acting heads of state and other senior government officials. Archbishop Pius.

Mugabe is using the presidency, which out to be of service to the people of Zimbabwe, and he’s using that to oppress his people, to give them a torrid time, to harass them, to hound them and so on. Why must people be held to ransom by a heartless and murderous dictator, a big liar, a person who is going to cover up, all for the sake of his power, with absolutely no interest in his people? The international community had better think twice about that preposterous law of theirs.

“Driving out the Filth in Zimbabwe” was presented by Eric Beauchemin. This has been a Radio Netherlands Worldwide presentation.

If you have comments on this or any other Radio Netherlands’ programme, please write to us at English Language Service, Radio Netherlands, P.O. Box 222, 1200 JG Hilversum in Holland or e-mail us at letters@rnw.nl.