Politicians’ acrobatic ways

THEY have been rather long in coming, but now that the “small” matter of securing votes from the povo in national elections is out of the way and the short-term future of some politicians secured, the demolition of “illegal structures” appears well underway.

Editor’s Memo Stewart Chabwinja

Government yesterday reportedly lent bite to its increasingly menacing threats by demolishing illegally built housing structures and tuck-shops in Ruwa and Damofalls just outside Harare, warning the programme would be rolled out throughout the country in a style reminiscent of the infamous Operation Murambatsvina of 2005.

Fearing for the worst in Chitungwiza, Zanu PF supporters, most of whom benefited from illegal land deals engineered by party leaders, yesterday demonstrated against the demolitions in the town saying they constituted abuse of human rights. That might not be the most accurate way of putting it, but the abuse of desperate citizens at the hands of ruthless politicians is a familiar refrain locally and elsewhere.

In the minds of our politicians, the term “illegal structure” appears to have a definition with the malleability of putty and depends on, among other factors, the political season and ownership of the contentious structures. But if in this case illegal structure — as one would ordinarily expect — refers to constructions and settlements lacking council approval, the demolitionists have their work cut out.

They would have to ensure their list includes a growing number of unplanned settlements mushrooming right under the noses of councils and government, mostly stands parcelled out by vote-seeking politicians. These include Zanu PF stronghold Hopley Farm, a veritable dog’s breakfast, as is indeed virtual squatter camp Epworth where President Robert Mugabe once assured residents on the eve of an election that they would never be evicted.

The selective application of the law is nothing new. Back in the 1980s, as long as polls were not imminent, Zanu PF-dominated councils would slash maize cultivated on stream banks to avoid soil erosion and, in other areas, to prevent muggings by robbers hiding in dense maize fields. But as elections approached, urbanites would even be encouraged to cultivate open patches of council land “to supplement their domestic needs”, with assurances their crops would not be slashed.

But back to the current demolitions, while the random settlements and illegal structures are indefensible, what sadistic streak makes our authorities turn a blind eye to the offending settlements and structures, only to act when people have completed their structures? Should they not be demolished at the earliest opportunity and as a matter of routine?

Warning of the demolitions a few weeks ago Local Government minister Ignatius Chombo said the demolition of all illegal settlements had been necessitated by councils that had allowed settlements to expand without taking action to stop them. Government could not allow settlements with no proper ablution and other basic facilities at the illegal settlements with more than 10 000 people nationwide, he said. But it was the same Chombo who, at the end of last year when it was politically expedient given the high-stakes of national elections eight months away then, claimed demolitions of an illegal settlement near Epworth by Sunway City, which affected 200 families, was inhumane because affected residents were not offered alternative accommodation.

With a forked tongue, Chombo said: “If Sunway City felt that they had a strong case, that did not warrant leaving people to sleep in the open this rainy season.”
Talk about double-standards! For Chombo’s information, his ongoing demolitions will also leave people sleeping in the open as the rainy season is upon us unless, of course, he offers them “alternative accommodation”.

There is in all of this an important lesson for Zimbabweans about the devious nature of politicians: they will make promises they know they can’t keep or sustain, including parceling out residential stands whose tenure does not extend much beyond an impending election.

As Auguste-Maurice Barrès, a French novelist, journalist and politician once said: “The politician is an acrobat; he keeps his balance by doing the opposite of what he says.”