Burning Blankets

R.W. Johnson

Robert Mugabe’s Operation Murambatsvina (‘driving out trash’) began on 19 May. Heavily armed militia, backed by helicopters and fighter planes, swooped down on a helpless civilian population. Mugabe’s forces have bulldozed and burned his political opponents’ shacks and makeshift shops in Zimbabwe’s cities, rounding up terrified men, women and children, and piling them onto open lorries. ‘They are not being told where they are being taken,’ says Trudy Stevenson, an opposition MP, ‘but they have the impression that it is far away.’ Many will die of hunger and exposure on the journey. It is no exaggeration to compare Mugabe’s attitude to the urban poor who voted against him to that of the Hutu warlords who talked of exterminating the Tutsi ‘cockroaches’.

No word of criticism has come from Thabo Mbeki’s South Africa, though these forced removals are worse than anything seen under apartheid. If Mugabe proceeds with his declared aim of ‘cleaning up’ all the shanty towns in this way, up to a quarter of the population is at risk. When apartheid governments bulldozed shanties and moved people on, the task was performed with a soulless lack of concern: the victims were ‘surplus people’. But Mugabe makes it clear that those being moved are the enemy: they are dissidents to be punished. When the police found that churches and other charities had donated blankets to the homeless in Harare’s Hatcliffe township, the police seized the blankets and burned them. Augustine Chihuri, Mugabe’s police chief, refers to the crowds of homeless, hungry and often sick refugees as ‘a crawling mass of maggots’. Bizarrely, Mugabe talks of making Harare as spick and span as it was under Ian Smith.

In 1989, Edgar Tekere, a left-wing dissident, launched the Zimbabwe Unity Movement. In the run-up to the 1990 election, the state-owned Herald kept up a constant chant: ZUM voters, like white farmers, were agents of apartheid South Africa, trying to return Zimbabwe to colonialism; progressives would never stand for this, and would seize all the white farms rather than allow it to happen. Tekere got 25 per cent of the vote and soon faded away, but the strategy for dealing with threats to Zanu-PF rule was established. In February 2000, despite extensive vote-rigging, Mugabe lost a constitutional referendum. Had the following parliamentary elections been remotely free, Zanu-PF would have been overwhelmed by the recently launched Movement for Democratic Change. But within days of the February result, the farm occupations began, accompanied by sporadic violence against white farmers and much more systematic and large-scale violence against their workers. The 1989 strategy had been dusted off: the MDC was said to be the agent not of P.W. Botha or F.W. de Klerk, but of Tony Blair.

Mugabe controlled the rural masses not just by occasional terror but, above all, by the food supply. The peasantry knew that in times of famine, food and seeds were handed out to those with Zanu-PF cards; those without them starved. Such tactics could not easily be deployed in town, however, especially since the trade unions were a powerful force there. And they didn’t work on the four thousand white farms. In 1980, the farmers had watched their workers vote Zanu-PF almost to a man, and realised that they could not manipulate their vote. But the farmers allowed the workers’ extended families to stay on the farms, race relations were good and, unlike in South Africa, attacks on farmers were unheard of. Even during a famine, no one living on a white farm starved, and the farmworkers weren’t vulnerable to Zanu-PF’s food-for-votes blackmail. This didn’t matter as long as farmworkers voted for Mugabe or didn’t vote, but in February 2000 they clambered aboard their employers’ trucks, rode into town and voted against Mugabe. Given that most of the farmers were doing the same thing, it came to be seen as a fatal blunder that the farmers had driven their workers to the polls, apparently delivering their vote. It certainly contributed to Zanu-PF paranoia that the farmers had somehow manipulated their workers to vote the way they wanted, though they had neither the will nor the ability to do this.

In the violent farm occupations that followed the February 2000 vote, the media generally focused on the attack on the four thousand white farmers. A far more significant target were the 2.2 million farmworkers, who were made to sing Zanu-PF songs, beaten and tortured and then dumped at the roadside, traumatised and, as it were, re-peasantised. Of those who did not flee to surrounding countries, most will have had to return to subsistence agriculture and are vulnerable to food-for-votes blackmail. The Murambatsvina is the application to the urban environment of the same strategy: urban political dissidents are being punished for their views and driven into the countryside, where those who survive will be brutally ‘re-educated’ in the ways of single partyism. It is as pointless to expect mass popular resistance to this as it was to expect the Irish to rise up during the Great Hunger.

I’ve met Didymus Mutasa, the recently appointed minister of state for national security, who’s in charge of the Murambatsvina. As soon as the MDC emerged he told me it was a mistake: people should have stayed within Zanu-PF – everything could have been talked through there. There was ‘no room and no need for other parties in Zimbabwe’.

The other side of this rapine is the distribution of spoils by Mugabe. The white farms were given to key notables and helpers; as well as houses, more than 20,000 urban vending stands have been distributed to the police and army. This is reminiscent of the way Idi Amin bolstered his power by distributing property seized from Ugandan Asians, and of the way Hastings Banda ruled Malawi. Thus Mugabe’s politics, though still occasionally clothed in Marxist rhetoric, hark back to a shared heritage of African patriarchalism. The great chief crushes his enemies, endlessly distributing the spoils to his key henchmen. There is no room in this model for private property; land is ‘communally held’, which in practice means that the chief hands it out. In this system, there is no rule of law, only the will of the chief.

The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has recently visited Southern Africa, to promote his idea that the way ahead for developing countries is through secure, justiciable and individual property rights, enabling every home or land holder to raise capital, and giving every individual a firm sense that he legally holds what he has, that the rule of law is paramount, that contracts will be honoured. But Mugabe is going in the opposite direction: he has introduced legislation to abolish private ownership of land, reinstating the patriarchal model.

To introduce the new legislation outlawing private land ownership, Mugabe rode to Parliament in an open Rolls-Royce. The same car, in a procession led by horses, will be used for the tenth-anniversary celebrations in August of Mugabe’s wedding to Grace, more than forty years his junior. Already a multimillion dollar budget has been set aside to fly in guests and put them up at the Mugabes’ rural home in Kutama. The Mozambican and Namibian presidents have confirmed they’ll be going. A strong ANC delegation is expected from South Africa, though Nelson and Graca Mandela will probably decline the invitation.

Does this have anything to do with Blair’s Commission on Africa, G8, Bob Geldof and all that? Well, yes it does. Mbeki, an honoured guest at G8, is the chief link. These crimes against humanity wouldn’t be possible without his active support for Mugabe. It is also because Mbeki has insisted on keeping Zimbabwe on the UN Human Rights Commission that these crimes will get no hearing at the UN. (It is to overcome this barrier that Kofi Annan has sent Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka as his special envoy to report on the Murambatsvina. Mugabe’s decision to allow the visit is doubtless rooted in his belief that with Mbeki’s backing he can win over almost any African emissary.) President Benjamin Mkapa of Tanzania has publicly supported not only Mugabe’s ‘free and fair election’ but his human rights and governance record, going out of his way to support the Murambatsvina too. Mkapa, who has already confirmed his attendance at the Kutama wedding bash, was, with Geldof, a member of the Blair Commission. And, of course, Tanzania and Mozambique will both be beneficiaries of the new G8 debt relief programme, which means Western taxpayers are going to end up helping to buy some of the sumptuous anniversary gifts which Mugabe and his wife will receive. I sympathise with Geldof who is using the G8 meeting to sing his ‘let’s be nice to Africa’ song in the ears of world leaders. But it would be sensible to acknowledge that while G8 leaders could certainly be nicer to Africa, the fruit of all these efforts is bound to be an even greater cynicism unless African leaders can be persuaded to be nicer to Africa too.