Why Chombo’s latest slum clearance stinks

via Why Chombo’s latest slum clearance stinks 11/11/2013 by Ken Yamamoto for NewZimbabwe

EIGHT years after Zimbabwe engaged in an internationally infamous clean-up campaign, dubbed Murambatsvina (drive out trash) which left thousands of impoverished urban dwellers homeless in 2005, of local government minister, Ignatius Chombo, a couple of weeks ago ordered a similar campaign to destroy illegally built structures in several towns across the country.

Chombo’s threats were backed up by the destruction of homes last week in the satellite town of Ruwa a few kilometres east of the Capital, Harare. The new operation, as it was in 2005, entails the destruction of illegally built structures such as houses and tuck-shops and vending kiosks, leaving the owners homeless at the onset of the rainy season and the vendors without sources of income in a country with a reported 80% plus rate of unemployment.

On the face of it, destroying illegally built structures looks very noble.  In fact, the natural question to ask is, ‘what is wrong with destroying illegally built structures?’ But the whole scenario raises a stink when you look at the context in which the structures were built over the years, and the actual motive behind the move, announced soon after Zanu PF “won” the July elections. It is easy to discern the motive when you move around Zimbabwe’s urban districts and the picture becomes clearer when you follow political shenanigans of those in power and follow the local papers.

To understand the context, let’s start with the politics of corruption, or is it the corruption of politics. Under President Robert Mugabe’s watch, the ruling Zanu PF party has for decades allowed corruption to take root across all levels of society. Politicians have siphoned billions of dollars over the decades, donor and taxpayer funds alike, leaving the once vibrant economy on its knees. Acts of corruption are well documented and Zimbabwe ranks badly on the global corruption indices.

History of corruption

The pot of corruption first boiled over in 1989 during the so-called Willowgate Scandal where government ministers looted the local car assembly co-owned by Japanese investors. Back then, many senior politicians were condemned and charged for cheating and perjury by the Sandura Commission. The irony of it is that Mugabe, who wants to be known as, and purports to be a principled leader, brought the crooks back into the fold. One of them, Fredrick Shava, is even Zimbabwe’s Ambassador to China. The only person convicted via the magistrate’s courts for corruption at the time, one Jonathan Kadzura bounced back as a Zanu PF commentator, sat on the boards of government linked companies, and was an advisor, and probably still is, of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.

Over the years, politicians have looted dry the coffers of Ziscosteel, National Railways of Zimbabwe, Noczim, Grain Marketing Board, Air Zimbabwe and sapped the cash out of major state-owned firms. The common strategy is to bleed a state-owned company, and then assign a retired army officer to go and sit on the lid of the corruption pot. In addition, state funds were immorally and illegally siphoned by senior government officials including present senior military officials, and government ministers who include the current Vice President Joice Mujuru. This led to disaffection by war veterans who started making life uncomfortable for Mugabe – shouting and beating drums while he delivered a speech in at the Heroes Acre in Harare back in 1997. Building a culture of impunity was coming to haunt the President. And for him the best strategy was to allow more impunity.

In 2000, the “principled” Mugabe allowed war veterans to invade white owned farms soon after the rejection of a proposed constitution at a referendum. Lawlessness and impunity was allowed to fester and the law was crafted afterwards to ratify the illegality. At the time, Mugabe announced that the war vets were merely trespassing. Now, that doesn’t leave you with a bad taste in the mouth until you realise that trespassing is actually unlawful. In short the president allowed lawlessness and impunity to take root and has since kept corrupt senior officials in government who are known thieves, racketeers, fraudsters and many of them have wealth that cannot be explained through hard work.


Recently, Mugabe himself revealed that a senior party faithful had performed a six million dollar mafia-style shakedown on Ghanaian investors. The official is still walking free. Mugabe himself was aware of this for the last two years. Recently, it was reported and confirmed by the police that senior police commissioners were running mafia-style gangs collecting illegal sums, dealing in stolen vehicles and invading private property. But guess what, the police chose to retire, among others, Commissioner Oliver Chibage and transferred Superintendent Tenderere to a rural outpost called Nkayi in Matebeleland. These officers were committing crimes. Instead of arresting them for racketeering, fraud and theft, they were retired. Are the people of Nkayi the ones that should be given a corrupt police chief?

The foregoing narrative highlights the culture of corruption, lawlessness and impunity that has permeated Zimbabwean society under Mugabe’s watch. By presiding over this kind of rot in the country, he created a slippery slope and a legacy of corruption. This is the environment in which Zimbabwean society has decayed to the extent where officials in government corruptly allow the construction of illegal structures only to announce a clean up after elections. Is it not mind-boggling that the Chombo, who was leading the same ministry back in 2005 has for the second time ordered the  destruction of the homes, which means all these illegal structures were built under his watch?

It only boggles the mind if you are not Zimbabwean. Zimbabweans know that Zanu PF allowed these structures to be built in the first place to buy votes and spite the opposition MDC. To demonstrate this point – last year, a real estate company, Sunway City, moved to evict illegal settlers on its land near Epworth, east of Harare. Chombo came out condemning the move arguing it was morally wrong to leave families homeless at the onset of the rain season. Fast forward to this year, and the same minister has instructed the destruction of illegal structures which his party and its officials encouraged and in some cases funded in the run up to the last election. And, ironically, at the onset of the rain season. So it’s a vicious cycle that comes with each election cycle.

Failing economy

So what informs the move to destroy homes? The hint is found in what informed the 2005 operation, and the present state of the Zimbabwean economy. It was reported in 2006 that Mengistu Haile Mariam, a fugitive former Ethiopian leader living in Zimbabwe advised the his hosts that the best way to avert civil unrest was to implement operation Murambatsvina because the illegal urban settlers were a threat to the government’s hold on power. The settlements would make it difficult to contain demonstrations from the disaffected citizens. The Commissioner of police, Augustine Chihuri, argued that the operation was to “clean the country of the crawling mass of maggots bent on destroying the economy”. Mugabe described it as a “vigorous clean-up campaign to restore sanity”. So the government went on to destroy homes in the operation that was described the then UN Habitat head, Anna Tibaijuka as “carried out in an indiscriminate and unjustified manner, with indifference to human suffering”.

Instead of the celebratory mood that follows an election victory, Mugabe, a man of very advanced age, is at sixes and sevens on what to do with the economy. Millions of youths are unemployed and do odd jobs at variance with their skills and the ill-equipped universities are churning out more graduates. Millions more have left the country. The government has indefinitely postponed the announcement of the national budget, a ritual usually done in November. The civil service which is stuffed with ghost workers gobbles 70% of the state budget. Zanu PF refused when the MDC and the IMF recommended the removal of the ghost workers during the unity government. Millions of Zimbabweans have a severe cash squeeze.

The national pension fund (NSSA) recently disclosed that thousands of employees had been laid off and at least 700 companies closed. The IMF has refused to advance support to Zimbabwe and there is no hope of getting funding from either the West or the East. There is no hope for the future as the recently “elected” government is clueless on how to fix the economic quagmire. As noted by the opposition, an election can be rigged, but markets and the economy cannot be cheated. As such, so many urban dwellers are disaffected, disillusioned and feel hopeless. It’s the poor that live in illegal structures and run tuck-shops to earn an honest living as they are far from the corruption trough from which the politicians feed.

So what’s the best way to deal with and pre-empt the real potential for discontent by disillusioned urban dwellers whose backs are against the wall? There is no prize for guessing: disperse, scatter and drive them out during the rain season and that will keep them busy for a while. And some may even go back to the rural areas.

Ken Yamamoto is a Japanese researcher fascinated by the politics of development in third world countries. He has carried out research in Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe. He can be contacted on yamamotokensan@gmail.com