THE NGO NETWORK ALLIANCE PROJECT - an online community for Zimbabwean activists  
 View archive by sector


Back to Index

This article participates on the following special index pages:

  • Operation Murambatsvina - Countrywide evictions of urban poor - Index of articles

  • The truth is 10 times worse
    Elinor Sisulu
    July 18, 2005

    Many years ago I asked a Ugandan classmate whether horrific accounts of Idi Amin's regime were true or the result of Western propaganda. Though we were in Senegal, on the opposite side of the continent many thousands of miles from Uganda, Joe looked around to check if anyone was listening, leaned forward and said in a whisper: "My sister, the truth is 10 times worse than anything you have ever read in the papers."

    Joe's words often came to mind in the past few weeks when I have been confronted by the heart- rending reality of Zimbabweans who have had their lives and livelihoods destroyed by the Mugabe regime's Operation Murambatsvina.

    For the victims of this heinous campaign, the truth is 10 times worse than anything portrayed in the international media, yet Robert Mugabe apologists dismiss their experiences as nothing more than the exaggerations of the Western media. Their suffering is just so much dirt to be swept under the apologist's carpet, while through some strange twist of logic, the man responsible for their misery is portrayed as a victim who has been unjustly vilified by a vengeful West.

    John Vidal's fulmination against Western vilification of Mugabe is the work of an apologist par excellence ("The hypocrisy of Mugabe's critics", July 8). He trots out the tired old argument that "Mugabe is unacceptable to Britain and the West mainly because he has chosen to evict whites and redistribute land grabbed in colonial times," yet not one single victim of the Murambatsvina evictions is white. Furthermore, some people who had been settled on land taken from the white farmers have been forcibly removed from that very land.

    Vidal contemptuously dismisses the numbers cited in the international media, arguing that "a few thousand have been filmed in makeshift camps, but not many more".

    He disputes the estimations of those evicted on the basis of the population of Harare alone, yet the removals have taken place across the length and breadth of Zimbabwe. What Vidal neglects to mention is that, as a result of Zimbabwe's draconian press laws, large parts of the country are closed to media scrutiny. The few thousand shown in the footage are only the tip of the iceberg. The Zimbabwe government itself has given out figures of 30 000 arrested and 130 000 evicted. Zimbabwean organisations, not unnamed United Nations agencies, have estimated the figures to be much higher.

    It is true that millions of poor are evicted all over the world and forced removals should be condemned wherever they take place. However, there are several aspects to the current removals that are unique. Firstly, forced removals almost invariably have an economic imperative. As Vidal points out, people are removed to make way for infrastructure projects, the gentrification of cities, national parks and urban redevelopments. It is rare for a government to destroy a substantial section of the nation's housing stock purely as an act of political vengeance.

    Secondly, the current blitz in Zimbabwe is much more than a forced removal, it is an attack on the livelihoods of the poor. Markets, restaurants, hairdressing salons, carpentry workshops, sewing projects and myriad other small businesses have been destroyed. People who have been able to eke out a living in the informal sector have been reduced to absolute penury with no alternative but to wait to be fed by the World Food Programme. The operation has also set a dangerous precedent - if other African governments decide to destroy the informal sector on the grounds that it is "illegal", the suffering among the poor and marginalised will be immense.

    What I find most reprehensible about Vidal's commentary is the privileging of Western voices over African ones. By reacting only to the West, he deflects from the extent of the crisis and pretends that Africans do not exist. Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and Doctors for Human Rights have commented extensively and with great detail and accuracy on the current blitz. African civil society organisations in the region have sent petitions to the African Union.

    Most of us in this region have grown up in families that either rented out backrooms or lived in backrooms themselves. The idea that a government can deploy riot police and army units to destroy backrooms and cottages in which many people have invested their life's savings is a horrifying prospect for people throughout the region.

    Vidal's argument also begs the question of agency. Mugabe cannot and should not be characterised as a victim who cannot be held responsible for his actions. This kind of argument encourages impunity, the kind of impunity that has resulted in millions of deaths of people on this continent. Western silence on Operation Murambatsvina would certainly help Mugabe. The question is: Would it help the displaced, homeless and destitute in Zimbabwe?

    *Elinor Sisulu is an author, political activist and analyst

    Please credit if you make use of material from this website. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License unless stated otherwise.