Police burn down shanty homes

By Xan Rice

PARAMILITARY police have burned down shack dwellings in Harare as part of a heavy-handed campaign to clean up Zimbabwe's capital.

The crackdown on shanty housing in big towns — named Operation Marambatsvina, or "drive out rubbish" — comes just days after the arrest of thousands of street traders accused of fuelling a black-market economy. Residents in several suburbs fought police and destroyed vehicles and property after the arrests and razing of roadside stalls.

The Government ordered all illegal dwellings in Harare to be destroyed to stop it becoming a "filthy shack township", according to Augustine Chihuri, Zimbabwe's police commissioner. Half of the city's two million-plus residents are thought to live in shanty housing.

On Tuesday it had been announced that shack-dwellers would have until the end of July to find places to live, but on Thursday state television showed bulldozers destroying homes as riot police looked on.

Mr Chihuri said that resistance would not be tolerated. "The ZRP [police] has adequate resources to ensure that peace and tranquility prevail," he was quoted as saying in the state-run Herald newspaper yesterday.

Critics of the Government say that the action is to punish urban voters for a lack of support in March's parliamentary elections. President Mugabe's Zanu-PF party was soundly beaten in big towns, but swept back to power by dominating rural areas, amid widespread allegations of vote-rigging.

Since then the battered economy has taken a further turn for the worse. Basic foods are in short supply, and aid agencies say four million people will need help this year. Fuel is also scarce. The reserve bank devalued the Zimbabwe dollar by 45 per cent last week in a drastic effort to raise foreign exchange.

With public discontent mounting, street traders last week became the official scapegoat for many economic woes. They were accused of buying up stocks of maize meal, sugar, fuel and foreign currency and selling them at inflated prices on the black market. Riot police arrested more than 10,000 vendors in Harare and 7,650 in Gweru, another opposition stronghold.

Analysts say that by arresting and fining the vendors, the regime has ended their livelihoods. About 70 per cent of Zimbabweans are unemployed. Chris Maroleng, senior researcher on Zimbabwe at the Institute of Security Studies in South Africa, said: "The Government is undermining one of the main survival strategies for many families. It will have a devastating effect on these people and is really counter-productive."

Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, said that Mr Mugabe had ordered the destruction of shacks to provoke unrest, enabling him to invoke a state of emergency and increase his powers drastically.

Mr Tsvangirai also accused the President of ordering the arrest of street vendors to appease Chinese businessmen, who had allegedly complained that informal traders were undercutting their prices.

Mr Mugabe has pinned his hopes on his "Look East" policy — a rejection of Western trading partners in favour of Asia, and China in particular — to help to rebuild the economy.