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

  • Blitz exposes flawed state welfare system
    Ray Matikinye, The Zimbabwe Independent
    August 26, 2005

    A GOVERNMENT slum clearance campaign launched in May has blown the lid off a flawed state welfare programme often kept out of public scrutiny until disaster strikes.

    Operation Murambatsvina dre-dged up weaknesses in state welfare programme to deal with the economic and social dislocations triggered by the campaign that left an estimated 700 000 people roofless and many more without sources of livelihood.

    Squatter camps that dotted the towns and cities countrywide illustrate the lack of affordable housing for the urban poor.

    The shortage of employment opportunities in impoverished rural areas fed the rural-urban drift despite government having acquired vast tracts of land that could be redistributed for housing and farming.

    Victims of the government blitz have contrived methods to counter the ever-present spectre of official desire to intrude on vendors' new trading places.

    Elegantly dressed in what could be her Sunday best, 19-year old Abibi Phiri saunters out of a bus shelter with a bulging leather satchel slung on her shoulder. She could easily pass for a traveller who has missed one of the regular buses plying inter-city routes and trying to catch the next one.

    Only when she pulls out two plastic bottles of popular beverages or rattles a packet of potato munchies from her bag does she momentarily blow her cover. Abibi is one of the scores of confectionery and fruit vendors who have devised shrewd tricks to avoid detection by police prowling bus termini between major cities and towns to enforce anti-vending laws.

    "Twenty each," Abibi says quietly and making sure passengers can lip-read what she is saying.

    Constant harassment by municipal police since the government's onslaught on informal traders as part of its Operation Murambatsvina has compelled hawkers along major highways to invent smart ways to camouflage their activities.

    They either carry empty suitcases or stuffed knapsacks to bus stations so as to pass off as intending travellers. Others wear knee-length jackets from which they pull various items that they tout in loud whispers to commuters.

    "Don't travel hungry or thirsty," is one of the popular sales lines often recited by the vendors.

    Women put on facial make-up and men rove around in suave elegance competing for customers among travellers, cautiously aware that they might be arrested.

    Police used to haunt and harass any sloppily dressed men and women in regular swoops at bus termini along the highways until hawkers came up with novel ideas to avoid arrest.

    Police have been snapping on the heels of vendors, hawkers, touts, the blind, beggars and streets kids who are constantly on the move to avoid arrest. The blind no longer rattle begging bowls at street corners, nor sing hymns along pavements to capture public attention and arouse their benevolence.

    Last week more than 300 people were arrested in the capital's city centre for crimes ranging from vending, touting, loitering to begging and gambling. City officials try to keep a tight rein on their initial clean-up campaign's success in their bid to maintain the city precincts pristine.

    But all these efforts are coming undone as the urban poor drift back into the CBD to eke out a livelihood.

    Finance minister Herbert Murerwa last week said government had noted a widespread resurgence of rent-seeking trading and parallel market activities in foreign currency and other basic commodities that the operation has failed to suppress as people strive to eke out a living.

    But the campaign-driven poverty has jolted government to the stark realities that its social safety nets like health insurance, retirement pensions and welfare payments to cushion the elderly, the orphaned and the disabled fall woefully short of the demands of an economic environment characterised by hyper-inflation.

    Murerwa has realised the inadequacy of state social security by reviewing some benefits provided for under the scheme. Although major reviews concern public servants and the armed forces, a pension reform programme he proposed during his mid-term fiscal policy last week concedes that the state welfare scheme is outdated.

    Government now wants to ensure sustainability of state pension payments by converting to a defined contribution pension scheme to be managed through a pension fund. It also intends to reduce employee contributions to health insurance by 20% while limiting the number of beneficiaries to four.

    The new system will operate outside the budget. It has defined benefits, unrelated to contributions and dependent on the economy's capacity to sustain such expenditures.

    "Experience has demonstrated that such systems are unsustainable in the long-run, especially as the number of workers supporting pensioners decline due to a variety of reasons," Murerwa admitted.

    Zimbabwe's economic meltdown has thrown thousands out of formal jobs, shrinking the revenue base for retirement and health insurance schemes.

    Government's about-turn regarding these poverty-alleviation innovations is illustrative of how Zimbabwe's welfare system is sagging precariously under the weight of widespread poverty.

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