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Eric Bloch Column

‘Operation Clean-Up’ economic folly

By Eric Bloch

MANY will not agree, but some definitive action by the government was long overdue in respect of the endlessly growing shantytowns, and particularly those on the periphery of business and resi

dential areas of Zimbabwe’s major cities.

Similarly, constructive action was very necessary in respect of the tens of thousands of informal sector operators who over-populated certain areas, such as Mbare in Harare, with ramshackle, potentially dangerous trading structures.

Action was necessary because the growing shantytowns and the crowded informal sector trading zones were increasingly becoming a major potential health hazard, not only to those living or trading in those areas, but to society as a whole. The almost total absence of sewerage and toilet and ablution facilities, and the mountains of refuse that characterised almost all those areas were fast becoming the prospective source of disease in general and especially for a possible cholera epidemic outbreak.

And action was also necessary because of the rapidly increasing extent of criminal activity in many of the unauthorised trading areas by vast numbers (but not all) of the informal traders. The criminal activities included trading in stolen goods and in hazardous drugs such as mbanje and gold sourced from panners or stolen from mines and the operation of a thriving black market of foreign currencies while commerce and industry, and all other formal economic sectors, have been critically short of such currencies in order to continue their operations, and thereby provide employment and produce much of Zimbabwe’s needs.

Although there have been numerous causes of Zimbabwe’s pronounced economic decline, to the point of near total collapse — and the greatest of such causes is undoubtedly the government — nevertheless certain informal sector operators are very major contributors to that economic decline.

So, some very substantive actions by the government were very necessary. The most constructive of such actions would have been for the government to desist in its diverse policies which have yielded little but economic destruction, and vigorously to have embarked upon alternative policies as would bring about genuine, rapid, and substantial economic recovery.

Such recovery would assure employment creation, minimising the need to resort to informal sector activities, and would generate state revenues which could be applied to accelerated housing development and to creation of informal sector trading centres. But to have done so would have meant the government would have had to acknowledge the abysmal failure of its programme of land acquisition, redistribution and resettlement and sought to realign it to that which had been agreed upon at the Harare Donors Conference in 1998, and again in Abuja in 2001, but resolutely reneged by the government.

It would also have meant adherence to the principles of democracy in the entirety, establishment of a genuinely and totally free and fair judiciary, respect for human rights, humane enforcement of law and order, creation of an investment-welcoming environment and constructive and reciprocally respectful interaction with the international community. Regrettably, to expect such actions from the government is naivety in the extreme, and therefore other actions had to be expected of the government.

Such actions needed to be humane. They needed to recognise the dire circumstances of those living in the shantytowns and those which had forced so many to turn to informal sector operations as the only way whereby they could survive.

But the government does not have much of a reputation for respect for human rights. The actions of the Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland in the mid-1980s are well known. It has had no hesitation in legislating oppressive laws such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and the Public Order and Security Act, and an equal absence of hesitation in incarcerating persons for many months before they are brought to trial.

So instead of seeking to address the shantytown and informal trader issues humanely, the government resorted to brute force. Justifying its actions as necessary in order to restore economic wellbeing to Zimbabwe, it applied unmitigated brutality.

At the height of winter, tens of thousands, including numerous children, have been rendered homeless, subjected to the suffering inflicted upon them by the elements, while at the same time they have been deprived of their only remaining sources of income, and therefore now face an appalling future of poverty, malnutrition and ill-health.

Not only is that the fate for those who lived in the shantytowns and those who traded in unauthorised trading areas, but the same fate has been imposed upon many who were operating with requisite authority, such as many of the flower sellers in the designated area of Africa Unity Square.

And the economic consequences are horrendous. Instead of having the alleged beneficial economic results, the reverse is the case. First of all, there will inevitably now be an upsurge in crime, for how else will the displaced survive. They will resort to burglary, theft, car-breaking, pick-pocketing, black marketeering and the like. Who can blame them, if they have been deprived of all other avenues of income generation?

Secondly, the previously distressingly low levels of business confidence, which were hindering economic revival, have sunk to the lowest levels as a direct effect of witnessing yet further excessive governmental authoritarianism.

And internationally, Zimbabwe having become an ever-greater pariah, its image has been further blackened and cast lower than ever before, to the prejudice of attracting investment, obtaining lines of credit and restoring Zimbabwe as a renowned tourism destination.

Action by the government to deal with the dangers and ills of the shantytowns and of the informal trading areas was critically necessary, but not the actions taken, and still being pursued. Those actions were, and are, inhuman and monstrous in the extreme, and pronounced economic folly.

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