Review of The Hidden Dimensions of Operation Murambatsvina in Zimbabwe - Mukai


The Hidden Dimensions of Operation Murambatsvina in Zimbabwe,
edited by Maurice Vambe, Weaver Press, Harare, 2008, 170 pages.

Reviewed by Oskar Wermter SJ

Published in Mukai-Vukani Jesuit Journal for Zimbabwe No 48, May 2009, pp 24-26.)

When a Mbare woman heard that Operation Clean-up of 2005 was called in Shona “Murambatsvina” (Removing the dirt) she exclaimed spontaneously, “Tsvina yacho – ndisu!” (That dirt – that’s us [the people of Mbare]).
Treating certain people like dirt and throwing them out, removing them from ‘decent society’, has a tradition in this country which goes back to colonial fears and racist obsessions.
“Operation Murambatsvina was …driven by thinking about dirt and cleanliness with their roots in colonial, post-colonial, and nationalist constructions of cleanliness and dirt, purity and impurity, health and disease, and morality and immorality” (40). The indigenous African black population was associated with dirt and infectious disease so as to justify racial segregation. “Racialisation of dirt, and illness, played a significant role in justifying the creation of segregated African ‘locations’ in colonial Zimbabwe” (41). Removing people and evicting them had a long tradition in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, being practiced by both the colonial and post-colonial rulers. The Revolution 1980 and the attainment of Independence did not make much difference. Tyrannical rulers resemble each other in their tactics. “There is a striking similarity between ZANU (PF)’s instruction that evictees ‘return to their homes in Zimbabwe’s rural areas… and the Rhodesian government’s argument that ‘Africans were only temporary inhabitants on the highlands and that they could adapt once again to the malarial forests from which they had originated’” (43). And both the colonial evictions and the post-Independence Operation Murambatsvina of May 2005 were carried out by armed police.
In the midst of ethnic tensions “tsvina/dirt” became a metaphor for despicable, loathsome people. It is alleged that “the Ndebele used the Shona word tsvina (dirt) to describe their antagonists as chiTsvina, ‘dirty people’” (44). And ‘dirty people”, the implication is, are less than human; destroying them like vermin can be justified. This is nothing new: any war propaganda first dehumanizes the enemy, before one’s own side slaughters them as mere beasts.
The post-colonial government clings to the antagonism between “pure” and “dirty”, except that now colonialism and all that is connected with it is “dirty” and Africa “pure”. “Mugabe’s Third Chimurenga – defined as a ‘final decolonisation’ - is meant to imply a struggle to return Zimbabwe to a ‘pure’ past, unsullied by the history of colonization” (44). The people of Mbare (and other high density suburbs that had voted for the “dirty” opposition , dirty because supported by white farmers [colonialists]) had to be removed so as to “purify” the place by only allowing “pure” anti-colonialists to reside there (ZANU PF members). The ‘dirty people’ to be removed are a “crawling mass of maggots” consisting of women, children, the unemployed, migrants and farm workers, mostly of foreign origin, displaced by farm invasions. The contempt in which the new rulers hold the poor and disadvantaged, depriving them of their human dignity, could not be worse (cf. 89). The homeless are swept away and dumped at Porta Farm because they might cause “severe embarrassment” to Queen Elizabeth II. This too was in continuation of an old colonial tradition. “Clean-up campaigns involving forcible evictions and the destruction of homes ….date back to the colonial period”(66), especially in connection with the Land Apportionment Act of 1930.
Dirt is related to disease, in the Zimbabwean case, to HIV/AIDS. “Just as Murambatsvina sought to purify the cities of Zimbabwe through evicting and purging the social and moral ‘dirt’ of those cities, so too must the HIV/AIDS sufferer be separated from the rest of society” (48). Ashleigh Harries (Discourses of Dirt and Disease in Operation Murambatsvina, 40 ff.) maintains that “the current administration of Zimbabwe is deeply entangled with the violent, racist, colonial past” (49).
People who are not “pure” are denied full “citizenship”. Murambatsvina sorted out the “dirty” and removed them from among the “pure” (Shona, black). Foreigners, especially those as workers associated with “white” colonials, cannot claim citizenship, they become second class citizens, or are deprived of any citizenship status altogether.
Operation Murambatsvina spectacularly demonstrated the continued erosion of certain rights that are and must be protected by national and international laws, including the fundamental right to human dignity; to shelter; to employment; to education; to health care; and the right to freely engaged in business activities.” As Zimbabwe once more undertakes to produce a constitution, it is paramount that access to citizenship is guaranteed without unfair political discrimination.
Citizenship must no longer “be a ‘technology’ of monopolizing state power in Zimbabwe. It is used to police social groups, to control…those who dare to challenge its parochial definition” (102).
Women suffered the most through Murambatsvina: their and their families’ livelihood was destroyed when their informal market stalls were smashed up and their merchandise was stolen by the soldiers and policemen, and their homes were demolished. It might have been emphasized even more in this social study that the wanton destruction of homes hits women even more cruelly than men since women are after all “housewives” and “homemakers”. Murambatsvina, in demolishing, not just shacks and slums, but properly built brick cottages, destryoyed what is in a special way a woman’s living space and sphere of influence. “Operation Murambatsvina destroyed what accommodation the urban poor had been able to establish for themselves in the context of the failure of municipalities to provide adequate housing….[It] also ruined many sources of livelihood by razing flea-market stalls and informal workshops to the ground” (10).
Beauty Vambe suspects that Murambatsvina was to “undermine black women’s economic initiatives. The aim was to make sure that women who form the majority of the Zimbabwe electorate remain poor and therefore dependent on state patronage” . Even as far back as 1986 , at the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement, women were swept up and removed as dirt: a woman walking alone at night, it was assumed, must be a prostitute. “This particular clean-up exercise reveals the misogynistic tendencies in the male rulers of Zimbabwe” (137).
The ten essays collect much material and offer many perspectives and points of view. Some can be considered generally accepted, others merely speculative. Despite long bibliographies, certain historical claims are not supported by giving the exact sources. Maurive T Vambe writes that Fr Edward Biehler SJ, who wrote the first Shona grammar and dictionary, when based at Chishawasha, "suggested that the only salvation was to kill all Shona people from the age of 14 years" (p. 135) in a letter to Lord Grey. That seems an extraordinary statement, and one would like to know the source, context and exact wording of it, if indeed it was ever made.  *
There are generalizations, which seem somewhat dubious: did really all missionaries teach ‘that godliness is next to cleanliness’? I doubt it. It certainly cannot be proven (41). What ‘Catechism’ said so?
There is also no indication as to who was right behind the whole operation, first thought of it, promoted it and planned and executed it. More work has to be done to enlighten us about this most scandalous and shameful episode in the history of the Mugabe government, its assault on the poor, destitute and homeless of our cities, and the women of Zimbabwe in particular. A truth and justice commission still has to restore the human dignity of Zimbabwe’s citizens. And the perpetrators should be held responsible. Zimbabwe needs a new constitution, which respects human dignity and effectively ensures human rights are observed and civic duties are carried out.

© Mukai/Vukani