The battle for the cities

By Brian Raftopoulos

WHILE the livelihoods of rural and urban areas in economies like Zimbabwe are closely interdependent, the urban spaces have a specific set of dynamics that have, in historical terms, mar

ked out the urban as a particular set of socio-economic and political relations. This has meant that the politics of the urban areas has taken on specific characteristics, particularly in relation to nationalist politics.


While mass nationalism grew out of urban struggles in the 1950s and 1960s and broadened into rural struggles, the complexity of class, ethnic and generational struggles in the urban areas provided a number of challenges for nationalist mobilisation in the urban areas.


Such complexities were not of course absent in the rural areas, but as the nationalist struggles became concentrated in the rural areas from the 1970s, certain tensions and differences developed in the absence of sustained nationalist organisation in the cities.


As the nationalism of Zanu PF has grown more intolerant of diversity and insisted on a uniformity of outlook, the simplistic dichotomies of citizen/alien and patriot/traitor that have marked the mobilisation strategies of the ruling party have had difficulties in coping with the heterogeneity of urban formations.


Hence the anti-urbanism that has become one of the hallmarks of the ruling party’s authoritarian nationalism, as it has repeatedly located national authenticity in the rural population, and hurled insults at the “totemless” strangers living “under the spell of the urban ill-wind” and outside of the “Third Chimurenga”.


There is a good deal of continuity with the colonial state in this characterisation of urbanites who, under settler rule, were seen as temporary residents in the cities, tolerated only as long as their labour was required.

Many of the struggles in the colonial period were precisely around this position of the colonial state, and despite the discriminatory policies they face, Africans made the cities their home and fought for their rights to live and raise families in urban areas.


The act of an independent government destroying informal settlements and displacing thousands of workers is in every sense as destructive as its colonial precedent. The great urban African leaders of the past like Charles Mzingeli would have recognised the marks of such destructive interventions.


As in the colonial past the current regime has used the arguments of criminality and urban squalor to “restore order” to the cities, and as with past attempts this one will not solve the problem of urban squalor. For the basis of this urban poverty is the crisis of the reproduction of labour and the continued failure of current economic policy to stabilise the livelihoods of urban workers.


In fact, labour is now more vulnerable in livelihood terms than it was in 1980, having had to endure the eroding effects of falling real wages, increased food prices and the massive cutbacks of the social wage. This condition of labour has also been further exacerbated by the inefficiencies of the current land policy.


As several commentators have already pointed out, the current campaign against the informal sector has sinister political overtones.


After a series of electoral defeats in the urban areas, the state responded to the urban population by undermining their elected representative at local government level and corrupting such structures through a series of appointments and policy decisions on service provision that allowed patronage politics to enrich the few and impoverish the city.


The current Harare Commission, appointed by the responsible minister to do the dirty work of the ruling party, is an absolute disgrace. At no time in the post-1980 period, and perhaps even before that, has the capital city been so badly run and with so little regard for the majority of its residents.


The latest clean-up operation is an extension of the assaults of the ruling party on a sector of the population considered “the enemy”. Moreover, it should be seen as an extension of land politics to the cities, for in the urban areas the housing question and the informal settlements constitute an important element of the land question.


The threats uttered and songs sung by the invading police units of “Operation Restore Order” had all the hallmarks of the militia violence that marked the land occupations, this time under cover of police uniforms. It may well be that the ruling party is looking to remove the “surplus” elements of the urban population ahead of the next presidential election by drawing them into more controllable rural political relations. We will need to watch this trend.


In addition, listening to Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor Gideon Gono’s last monetary statement, it is clear that he had little to offer formal industry in the cities, and was more concerned with satisfying the emerging black elite on the land and turning Zimbabwe into one big export processing zone, dotted with penal institutions.


There is in all spheres of government policy a continuous use of punitive language designed to discipline, confiscate and expropriate for the benefit of our new ruling elite. The language of public policy has been decisively damaged by the ruthless acquisitiveness of the state, and the destructive belief that this state is the property of Zanu PF alone.


It is also important to relate “Operation Murambatsvina” to the ongoing state attacks on the labour movement. For when examined together it becomes clearer to see the attempts to combine controls on the city’s surplus population with the destruction of a major institutional representative of urban labour, the labour movement. It would not have escaped the notice of the state that the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions has put in place a programme to work with the informal sector.


In short Zimbabweans are experiencing very dangerous changes in the country’s social structure that combine the structural shrinkage of urban spaces with a repressive anti-urban political establishment. The long-term implications of this process do not bode well for democratic politics.


*Brian Raftopoulos is associate professor at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Zimbabwe.

Top