Operation Murambatsvina

Operation Murambatsvina (Move the Rubbish), also officially known as Operation Restore Order, is a large-scale Zimbabwean government campaign to forcibly clear slum areas across the country. The campaign started in 2005 and according to United Nations estimates has affected at least 700,000 people directly through loss of their home or livelihood and thus could have indirectly affected around 2.4 million people.[1] Robert Mugabe and other government officials characterise the operation as a crackdown against illegal housing and commercial activities, and as an effort to reduce the risk of the spread of infectious disease in these areas.

However, the campaign has met with harsh condemnation from Zimbabwean opposition parties, church groups, non-governmental organisations, and the wider international community. The United Nations has described the campaign as an effort to drive out and make homeless large sections of the urban and rural poor, who make up much of the internal opposition to the Mugabe administration.

Etymology of the word "Murambatsvina"

The word was initially used to refer to a communal village worker by the Shona who lived in "reserves". These people were employed by the ministry of health to improve levels of sanitation in these areas, to communicate health information, etc. Police Inspector John Tupiri of Operations Manicaland decided on the name "Murambatsvina". The Zimbabwean police were ruthless in executing their duties with the result that they were dreaded by the local populace. The sense behind the word therefore mirrors the alleged purpose of the operation as asserted by the government of Zimbabwe.[2]


Siya-so Home Industries area in Mbare township before Operation Murambatsvina
Siya-so Home Industries area in Mbare township after Operation Murambatsvina
Scene in Chitungwiza after Operation Murambatsvina

Zimbabweans refer to the operation as "Zimbabwe's Tsunami", in reference to the devastation which followed the tsunami caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. The crackdown has affected most of the major cities in the country, and the Zimbabwean government has stated its intention to widen the operation to include rural farming areas. Estimates of the number of people affected vary considerably. The latest United Nations figures estimate that it has led to the unemployment of 700,000 people and affected a further 2.4 million people countrywide.[1] Earlier, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum estimated that 64,677 families had been displaced, representing a total of approximately 323,385 people[3] (this estimate was based on figures from 45 locations). However, according to the police only 120,000 people have been affected.[4]

Whichever figures are correct, large numbers of people have been affected, all of whom are in need of emergency relief and resettlement following the loss of their homes and livelihood. The clearances have been condemned both internally and internationally. A report written by Anna Tibaijuka, the Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, was handed to the Zimbabwean government on 21 July 2005.[5] Excerpts from the report, which calls for all demolitions to be stopped immediately,[1] were made public the following day and describe the operation as a "disastrous venture" which has violated international law and led to a serious humanitarian crisis. The actions of the government are described as indiscriminate, unjustified and conducted without regard for human suffering. The Washington Post on 7 February 2008, described how some men and women displaced from Harare are now walking 28 km (17 mi) – 5 hours round-trip every day to work (furthermore without breakfast), because the individual bus fare for one day now costs nearly a week's wages – ZW$10 million.


Overall responsibility for the clearances rests with the ruling party, ZANU-PF. The previous Chairperson of the Harare Commission, Dr. Jameson Kurasha, initiated Operation Murambatsvina weeks after the disputed elections were held there. The Harare Commission led by Sekesai Makwavarara is currently running the affairs of the City of Harare despite the fact that there is a pending application to the High Court questioning its authority to do so. The Commission itself was appointed by Ignatious Chombo, the Minister of Local Government, Public Works and Urban Development, leading one Zimbabwean newspaper to comment that "President Mugabe, through the Minister of Local Government, Public Works and National Housing, Ignatious Chombo, is now effectively in control of the City of Harare".[6]

Mugabe said the clearances are needed to carry out "a vigorous clean-up campaign to restore sanity" and he has described the program as an "urban renewal campaign." Chombo has described the operation in terms of 'restoring order': "It is these people who have been making the country ungovernable by their criminal activities actually."[7] The Zimbabwean Police Commissioner, Augustine Chihuri, said that Operation Murambatsvina was meant to "clean the country of the crawling mass of maggots bent on destroying the economy."[8]

While police have carried out most of the demolitions, they have been supported by the army and the National Youth Service. Many inhabitants have been forced to destroy their own homes, sometimes at gunpoint.[9]

People whose homes have been demolished are being told to return to the rural areas or face further action from the Zimbabwe Republic Police and the dreaded Central Intelligence Organization. Education Minister Aeneas Chigwedere claimed that there is "nobody in Zimbabwe who does not have a rural home".[10]

Alternative reasons for the clearances

The Zimbabwean government has argued that Operation Murambatsvina is about restoring order (see section above). However, the timing of the clearances, so soon after the disputed parliamentary elections on 31 March 2005, combined with the contradictory nature of the operation, has prompted commentators to state that there are alternative reasons for the demolitions, although most say a combination of many of these.

Political retribution

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has argued that the government's main reason for Murambatsvina is to punish the urban poor for voting for the opposition during the March parliamentary elections. The cities are traditionally MDC strongholds, and, in fact, the Harare Commission that initiated the campaign was set up to override the governing powers of the elected MDC City Council. However, the retribution rationale is undermined by the fact that some Zanu-PF supporters, including liberation war-veterans, have also been caught up in the squatter camp clearances.

Weaken the political opposition

Some commentators have noted the alarming similarity between the name of this operation and the Gukurahundi campaign conducted as part of Mugabe's struggle against the Matabele tribe in the early 1980s. The Gukurahundi campaign ultimately resulted in the demise of Joshua Nkomo's Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) when it merged with Robert Mugabe's party in 1987. There has been speculation that the government is aiming to create a situation where the MDC has no choice but to merge with the ruling party.[11]

Commentators also argue that by forcing urban voters out into the rural areas the cities will be de-populated of MDC supporters thus enabling the government to re-populate the shanty town areas with Zanu-PF supporters. Further, MDC supporters will be forced to return to live in areas traditionally viewed as Zanu-PF strongholds.[11]

Science and Technology Deputy Minister Patrick Zhuwawo used state media to say that the government had demarcated nearly 10,000 residential stands at Whitecliff Farm for allocation to what he called "deserving people".[12] The Independent, a Zimbabwe newspaper, has interpreted this to mean "Zanu-PF supporters" and supports the view by identifying the presence of "Zanu-PF sharks" at the centre where people were meant to sign up for new stands.[13] A different source reported that, in Bulawayo, a Zanu-PF representative was tasked with compiling a list of future stand beneficiaries and that the resulting list was dominated by the names of known Zanu-PF supporters. One opposition supporter, whose name was not on the list, alleges that he was bluntly told that he supported the wrong party.[14]

It has also been speculated that the campaign, under the guise of destroying 'illegal' structures, is designed to whip up urban supporter anger towards the City Council that they elected. Nearly all the inhabitants of the shanty town claim that they were originally moved there in 1992 after the Government promised them that it was only temporary until new housing was built and temporary housing would be brought in shortly. However, no temporary housing was brought in, and people started developing their own homes. Many demolished structures were built with City Council permission, and some victims claim that they have paid rates and taxes, meaning that their homes should therefore be legal in the eyes of the council. Commentators have suggested that the injustice of demolishing a structure seen by the owner as legal could be designed to whip up anger against the MDC elected City Council, thus compromising the MDC's support base in the urban areas. In fact, as stated in the previous section, the operation was initiated outside the auspices of the City Council by the Harare Commission.

Controlling political protest

There were many reports in the immediate aftermath of the 2005 parliamentary elections, widely viewed by the west as neither free nor fair, of potential mass uprisings against the government. In fact, Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube, a respected human rights activist and outspoken critic of the government, publicly called for a peaceful uprising before the elections took place, claiming that the elections had already been fixed.[15]

It has been argued that, by dispersing MDC supporters to remote rural locations, the Zanu-PF government would find it easier to control an angry population in the event of possible riots or mass protests. David Coltart, the MDC's legal affairs spokesperson, described the operation as a sinister pre-emptive strike designed to remove the maximum possible number of people from urban areas to rural areas where they are easier to control".[16]

Other sources suggest[17] that former Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam, who fled to Harare in 1991, may have given Robert Mugabe the idea in the form of a security advise, warning the Zimbabwean leader that the swelling slum and backyard population in Zimbabwe was creating a fertile ground for a mass uprising.

Risk management as part of future government reform

The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum has advanced another reason for pre-emptively dispersing citizens living in opposition party strongholds. They point to the fact that the government faces an unprecedented economic crisis characterised by fuel and food shortages, rampant hyperinflation, and virtually no foreign currency. To resolve the crisis, they argue that the Zanu-PF government will be forced, against its will, to re-engage with the international community:

This means a reversal of its whole style of governing, adherence to the rule of law, an end to political violence and repression, opening of the press and media space, and a cessation of all interference with citizens basic freedoms.

The suggestion therefore is that if totalitarian controls were relaxed – to satisfy international principles and standards – the government would suddenly be exposed to protest and civic pressure. In other words, Operation Murambatsvina may be less to do with fear of protests immediately following the elections (which could be controlled using current methods which rely on a politicised police and army), and more to do with controlling the population after heavy-handed measures were dispensed with:

It is predicated on the observation that the greatest risk to repressive governments comes when they seek to liberalise.[18]

Zimbabwean 2005 election experiences give some credence to this view. Anticipating electoral observers coming to the country, the government eased up on a few of its repressive tactics in the months immediately preceding the parliamentary elections. The immediate effect was that MDC supporters felt confident and suddenly openly showed their support for their party in a way they hadn't been able to before.[19]

Regain control of foreign currency dealings

Zimbabwe has been fighting to keep control of the foreign currency market for the last few years by adopting a range of measures, usually spearheaded by Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono.[20] Sokwanele, a Zimbabwean civic action support group, describes Gideon Gono as having played a major role in Operation Murambatsvina.[21] In fact, Gideon Gono's appointment to Governor coincided with the beginning of a crackdown on illegal foreign currency dealings prompting one popular source of independent news to report that "one of his key areas of focus is the illegal foreign currency market".[22]

Sokwanele, in a different article, explains that the foreign currency market in Zimbabwe is broadly characterised by the formal market, the parallel market and the black market.[23] They describe the black market as follows:

Black market transactions happen on the streets, in the flea markets, and in back-rooms; sometimes for small sums of money like 20 US dollars; and the deals often take place between individuals.

Commentators believe the government is specifically targeting the small-scale black market traders through Operation Murambatsvina. The Age, an Australian newspaper, reported on how informal vendors at one market, dubbed 'The World Bank', maintains a façade of trading goods when their real business is dealing in hard cash, albeit very small amounts at a time.[24] (In fact, Bulawayo's 'The World Bank' was one of the markets targeted when Gono first become Governor of the Reserve Bank in [2003].[22])

Few analysts believe that the small amounts seized from vendors in one operation could begin to meet the country's massive foreign currency shortfall. This has led to some describing the government's action as indicative of their extreme desperation.

But others have further suggested that the government may believe that customers, unable to trade their money on the black market, will be forced to bring it into the formal banking sector. In addition to that, customers who previously accessed products on the black market will be forced to return to buy them from the formal sector, which the government may believe will help to bring about an economic revival.

Analysts also point out that the government publicly holds market traders responsible for runaway inflation so the action could also partly be about retribution against them.

Supporting the 'Look East' policy

Zanu-PF's drive towards resolving its economic crisis has included strengthening its historical ties with China.[25] The state-controlled newspaper The Herald reported on Robert Mugabe's support for Operation Murambastvina, and on his view that the economy was beginning to receive serious and significant investments from the Far East:

We should not look back, for, looking back, means back to our political enemies and detractors. Industry must recognise this new direction (Look East policy).

This has led some to speculate that the destruction of the shanty towns are partly in support of Chinese business interests in Zimbabwe. A report co-authored by Archbishop Ncube stated that:

Speculation over the motives behind Operation Murambatsvina has pointed to the removal of local competition threatening newly arrived Chinese businessmen whose stores sell cheap and often poor quality goods. It is estimated that, as a result of the government's aggressive 'Look East' policy, up to 10,000 Chinese citizens have moved into the country, and some have moved onto farms taken from highly skilled commercial farmers, notably to grow tobacco for China's 300 million smokers.[26][27]

As well as practical support of Chinese business interests, many have suggested that Operation Murambatsvina also demonstrates an adherence to a 'Look East' ideology and is evidence that Zanu-PF has embraced an Asian model of government where individual rights are often subverted for the good of the masses, or the regime.[28] Robert Mugabe's approach to governance has prompted regular comparisons between him and Pol Pot.[16][29][30]


Zimbabwean responses

Operation Murambatsvina has been widely condemned by Zimbabwean non-governmental organisations,[3] churches,[31] legal organisations,[32] and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change[33] as well as many other groups in Zimbabwe.

International responses

The international community has also condemned the operation with nations and international organisations strongly attacking the Zimbabwean government's policy.

Kate Hoey MP called on former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to encourage South Africa to use its regional influence to put pressure on Zimbabwean authorities to cease the crackdown.

The New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs Phil Goff expressed his condemnation of the operation by suggesting in a radio interview a boycott of the planned tour by the Zimbabwean cricket team of New Zealand in 2005–6.

Condoleezza Rice, then United States Secretary of State, called upon African leaders to speak out against the Operation and to increase pressure on the Zimbabwean authorities to end the evictions. The African Union has rejected these calls stating it has 'more serious concerns'.[34] For example, then South African President Thabo Mbeki questioned why Western leaders were so concerned about Zimbabwe while not paying the same amount of attention to far more dire African emergencies, such as civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

United Nations

Kofi Annan, then UN Secretary-General, dispatched special envoy Anna Tibaijuka to Zimbabwe to study the effects of the campaign and report back her findings. The report[5] is highly critical of the government, prompting one news source to say that the report used "language unusually harsh for the United Nations".[1] Excerpts of the report describe the operation as disastrous and inhumane, representing a clear violation of international law. The executive summary stated:

Operation Restore Order, while purporting to target illegal dwellings and structures and to clamp down on alleged illicit activities, was carried out in an indiscriminate and unjustified manner, with indifference to human suffering, and, in repeated cases, with disregard to several provisions of national and international legal frameworks.

On 23 May 2007 the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions and another group, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, sought independent legal opinion. This concluded that the evictions in Zimbabwe were a widespread and systematic attack against a civilian population, as part of state policy.[35]

Zimbabwe Government response to UN report

In a 45-page response to the highly critical report by UN envoy Anna Tibaijuka, President Robert Mugabe's government says it acted in the public interest, and denied that it was responsible for the deaths of several people during clean-up operation, and was carried out in compliance with the government's laws, the state-controlled Herald newspaper reported on 17 August 2005.

The government said Tibaijuka had used value-laden and judgemental language, which clearly demonstrated in-built bias against it and the operation.[36]

See also

External links

Wikinews has related news: President Mugabe bulldozes homes of 200,000 across Zimbabwe


  1. 1 2 3 4 Report: [ww2.unhabitat.org/documents/ZimbabweReport.pdf UN report on Zim. government], 17 June 2005
  2. [http://zimcrisis.blogspot.com>]
  3. 1 2 Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum: Order out of Chaos, or Chaos out of Order?: A Preliminary Report on Operation "Murambatsvina", June 2005 (secondary link)
  4. Homes 'smashed' by Zimbabwe paramilitary police
  5. 1 2 UN Special Envoy on Human Settlements Issues in Zimbabwe: Report of the Fact-Finding Mission to Zimbabwe to assess the Scope and Impact of Operation Murambatsvina, 18 July 2005
  6. Harare MDC Councillors should resign The Standard
  7. Police to use live ammo, army rolls into suburbs ZimOnline, 28 May 2005
  8. Priests told: don't aid filth Times Online UK, 17 June 2005
  9. Operation Murambatsvina Restore Order Kubatana
  10. Teachers decry Mugabe's 'clean-up' plan Mail & Guardian, 15 June 2005
  11. 1 2 http://www.zimbabwesituation.com/jan30_2008.html
  12. Kubatana: Purge of the urban poor
  13. Independent: Spreading tentacles of patronage
  14. SW Radio Africa: Victims cry foul over stand allocations, 22 July 2005
  15. BBC: Zimbabwe cleric urges 'uprising' 27 March 2005
  16. 1 2 Times Online UK: Mugabes regime lays waste to buildings in new terror tactic 5 June 2005
  17. Mail & Guardian: Mengistu 'brains behind Zim clean-up'
  18. Kubatana: Preliminary report on operation "Murambatsvina"
  19. Christian Science Monitor: Zimbabwe's opposition hopeful, 31 March 2005]
  20. Many Holes in the Hull – Currency auctions and other emergency measures fail to keep Zimbabwes economy afloat
  21. Sokwanele: Gideon Gono in Sheep's Clothing: The Role of the RBZ Governor in Murambatsvina
  22. 1 2 ZimOnline: End of era for forex dealers as Mugabe gets tough, 10 November 2003
  23. Sokwanele: The Forex Market: A laymans guide to how it works, and why it does what it does, 5 July 2005
  24. The Age: High finance behind Zimbabwe's market stalls, 30 April 2005
  25. Christian Science Monitor: A rising China counters US clout in Africa, 30 March 2005
  26. Reliefweb: 'State in Fear' report
  27. Sunday Times: Mugabe's Chinese puzzle, 14 July 2005
  28. Christian Science Monitor: Africa looks East for political role models, 5 July 2005
  29. Christian Science Monitor: A cry against the Pol Pot of Africa, 3 May 2002
  30. Mail & Guardian Mugabe: Shades of Pol Pot, 24 June 2005
  31. The Solidarity Peace Trust: Discarding the Filth, 27 June 2005
  32. Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights: The legal implications of Operation Murambatsvina and Operation Restore Order, 30 June 2005
  33. MDC National Council : Full text of MDC statement on flea market raids, 3 November 2006
  34. BBC News: Africa rejects action on Zimbabwe, 24 June 2005
  35. Zimbabwe slum evictions 'a crime' BBC
  36. "Angry reaction to barring of The Elders". The Zimbabwe Times. 20 November 2008. Retrieved 2009-02-24.
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