WHAT started as a civic clean-up campaign in Zimbabwe by President Robert Mugabe’s increasingly repressive government has degenerated into a man-made disaster, spawning a humanitarian crisis.
The nationwide demolition blitz – which has caught the attention of the United Nations – has destroyed more than 200 000 shantytown homes, as well as informal businesses and a sprawling parallel market economy. The ramifications are shocking. Human rights groups say up to a million people have been affected.
About 30 000 people have been arrested during the campaign, which has been widely condemned by foreign governments, civil society organisations and churches.
Tens of thousands of people were thrown onto the streets – with no jobs, shelter, food, water or sanitation. The campaign has left thousands of pupils out of school. Women and children face hunger and disease. Some live in the open while others were packed like sardines into trucks and driven to drought-stricken rural areas with no means of livelihood. The smouldering ruins of their houses and businesses bear testimony to the scorched earth campaign. A huge internal refugee population has been created.
Innocent civilians’ social and economic rights are being violated on a massive scale by security forces serving a discredited regime whose leadership and policy failures are rapidly turning Zimbabwe into a failed state.
Those banished to the impoverished rural areas – in Mugabe’s own version of the apartheid bantustan model – wallow in abject poverty. People living in rural areas survive largely on food aid due to the food crisis.
After the chaotic land seizures that began in 2000, when Mugabe’s rule was challenged by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Zimbabwe plunged into a cycle of hunger. The country has undergone an alarming regression in the past five years because of the political and economic crisis.
The scenario is almost like a theatrical revival of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution or Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge rampage. The political philosophy and motives are similar. There are several theories – ranging from the absurd to the rational – to explain Mugabe’s dangerous political stunt.
Some say it is political purging with ethnic cleansing overtones, others say it is a kind of social engineering, and yet others think it is simple tyranny and a cynical way to divert attention from the economic crisis.
Others say Mugabe has created a Frankenstein monster through the exercise and that a third force is at work. Government claims the blitz is merely a clean-up campaign to rid the country of the black market, criminals and illegal structures.
Whatever is happening, it is clear that this is not a public policy issue. There is nothing to be gained politically by destroying people’s homes, and no politician in their right mind would expect to consolidate power through such a move.
The deployment of security forces to execute the crackdown suggests the rise of a police state and a breakdown of social order. It looks like the centre can no longer hold. Mugabe has become a prisoner of a situation of his own creation and is lashing out in all directions. He is surviving only due to the lack of organised opposition.
He has managed to survive electoral defeats by allegedly stealing elections three times in a row. He obfuscates his failures by waving the race card, pointing fingers at alleged foreign saboteurs and playing to the nationalist gallery. By legitimising terror, coercion and intimidation, Mugabe is desperately trying to maintain his faltering hegemony.
His ideology – if he has any beyond political irrationality – is a hodgepodge of authoritarian prescriptions, crude racism and propaganda, all wrapped up in a package labelled “sovereignty and nationalism”.