A SENSE of déjà vu is emerging in the wake of the United Nations report on Operation Murambatsvina/Restore Order. Anybody familiar with the ruling party’s rhetoric over land will see the pattern of blame and conspiracy-theorising being r
einvented for the benefit of weary consumers.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s special envoy Anna Tibaijuka was welcomed earlier this month as somebody who could be relied upon to see things from the government’s point of view. After all, had not her president, Benjamin Mkapa, recently expressed support for the clean-up in remarks made in Cape Town to the World Economic Forum?
Tibaijuka was duly shepherded around the country’s main towns in what ministers were confident would be a Potemkin tour. Things came a little unstuck when she objected to people’s homes being constantly referred to as “illegal structures” and “shacks” and the police being used as a demolition squad, but her ever-present minders were so deluded by their own sense of righteous zeal that when leaked editions of her report hit ministerial desks last Friday morning there was near-panic.
The report — together with its subject-matter — was an unmitigated disaster for the Zanu PF government. The clean-up was declared by Annan to be “a catastrophic injustice”. Tibaijuka reported that it was carried out in “an indiscriminate and unjustified manner with indifference to human suffering, and in repeated cases with disregard to several provisions of national and international legal frameworks”.
Zimbabwe was a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Tibaijuka pointed out, which state that a government cannot forcibly evict people without having made alternative plans to house them.
“Had this principle been observed, much suffering of the urban poor could have been avoided,” she said. She noted pointedly: “The government of Zimbabwe should set a good example and adhere to the rule of law before it can credibly ask its citizens to do the same.”
One of the great ironies of her report is the description of the colonial character of the assumptions underlying the clearances. But, having recovered their breath from this hefty punch to the paunch, ministers and their well-oiled propaganda machine soon cranked into action, suggesting that Tibaijuka, who sits on Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa — as does Mkapa and Trevor Manuel — was a British hireling. President Mugabe, speaking in China, claimed Tibaijuka had told him that her hands were tied and that “certain people” had been planted in her team.
The same of course was said about the Nigerian head of the Commonwealth Observer Mission in 2002. Only a few weeks ago a similar label was pinned on Anglican Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane.
That is not the only familiar ring. Diplomats from the Non-Aligned Movement accredited to Harare were on Monday taken on a tour of construction work at Whitecliff. They were predictably rhapsodic. We can be sure every visiting head of state will be required to say a few words in support of Operation Garikai, just as they were once required to tour a recently acquired farm.
Indeed, much of the vitriol now emerging from the state media has its roots in the land seizures of 2000-4 where all international criticism was depicted as emanating from British resentment of land acquisition.
There is however an important difference. Whereas in the first half of the decade Mugabe was able to project himself as redressing colonial anomalies, in this case, as Tibaijuka points out, he appears to be perpetuating them. His attempts to emulate King Canute in ordering back the human tide will provide only a very temporary dam to what is a natural demographic surge. Again, as Tibaijuka noted during her visit, many successful economies are developed by harnessing urbanisation, not resisting it.
That Zanu PF ignored the human misery associated with its evictions should not surprise us. Some 400 000 farmworkers lost their livelihoods to fast-track land reform, an equally ill-considered and lawless enterprise. Then of course there were the 20 000 victims of Operation Gukurahundi.
How many more “acts of madness” does the country have to endure? Governments that employ brutality to impose hardship upon their citizens in the name of political cleansing or social upliftment are understandably treated as pariahs abroad. It is the ruthless character of Murambatsvina and the fate of the poorest sectors of the population, shown on television screens around the world, that has elicited outrage.
Zimbabwe’s rulers think that by responding with defiance to local and international indignation they will somehow rally the nation around them. That is not happening. This is an exhausted nation for whom the latest campaign could be one too many. Perhaps sensing the national mood, it is significant how many Zanu PF notables have been silent on the campaign.
Mugabe has assumed a lofty detachment from the suffering his policies have once again spawned, using his visit to China, where human rights abuses count for little, to make dubious claims about the report’s author. No visits to transit camps for him.
But in provoking a more robust line from his erstwhile apologists in Pretoria and the African Union he may conceivably have written his own political obituary.
While this isn’t the end of the road for him yet, there is a palpable sense in which his leadership is perceived — at home and abroad — as not only failing but damaging to the region. Blair, Mbeki, Obasanjo and Annan all seem to be speaking with one voice at last.
In producing this consensus, Operation Murambatsvina appears to have achieved at least one useful result!