Zimbabwe: Mugabe’s Terror Campaign

A stall burns in the Harare suburb of Glen View May 25 after being set on fire by the police. (Photo: STR / AFP-Getty Images)

Zimbabwe’s authoritarian capitalist government, headed by President Robert Mugabe, has unleashed a massive wave of police brutality and destruction in an attempt to terrorize the country’s fiercely anti-government urban working class and other poor city dwellers.

Thousands of riot police have invaded working-class urban townships in the dead of night, looting and torching small traders’ market stalls, roadside “tuck-shops,” carpenters’ workshops, and arresting and fining anybody suspected of “informal” economic activities. The wave of repression began in mid-May, reached a crescendo in late May and has continued into June.

Police are also evicting tens of thousands of backyard lodgers and impoverished residents of urban “squatter camps.” Families’ homes and meager personal possessions have been bulldozed, leaving them without shelter from southern Africa’s frosty winter nights. According to the Combined Harare Residents Association, more than half of Harare’s 3 million residents live in makeshift housing.

Late on May 26, more than 10,000 people were driven from their homes in the informal settlement of Hatcliffe, northern Harare. Many of the victims were supporters of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), settled there in 2002 by the government. As in other raids, huge quantities of merchandise — especially scarce staples such as maize, sugar and petrol — as well as foreign currency were seized, whether or not the owners had licenses to operate.

On May 24, Zimbabwe police spokesperson Oliver Mandipaka told the government-owned daily Herald that the raids had so far netted $900 million Zimbabwe dollars [$95,000] in fines and $2.2 billion Zimbabwe dollars worth of goods. On June 1, the Herald quoted Zimbabwe assistant police commissioner Wayne Bvudzijena’s boast, “We have so far arrested a total of 22,735 people, and recovered 33.5 kilograms of gold … and 26,000 liters of fuel.”

The official unemployment rate is running at more than 70 percent and tens of thousands of rural workers have sought refuge in the cities after being violently driven off farms. As a result, the vast majority of working-class Zimbabweans eke out a living in the “informal” economy. Even those still in jobs must supplement the wages in the informal sector, as their incomes are ravaged by 129 percent hyperinflation.

There is no love lost between the Mugabe regime and Zimbabwe’s urban masses. In the March 31 general election, despite widespread poll rigging, Zanu-PF was defeated in all but one of Harare’s 18 electorates. Similar results were recorded in other cities.

Dubbed Operation Murambatsvina (translated literally as “drive out the rubbish,” or euphemistically as “restore order”), the government claims its purpose is to root out “economic saboteurs” and criminals, and rid the cities of “illegal structures.”

In truth, Mugabe’s paramilitary invasions are designed to disorganize and discourage any resistance to May 28-29 price increases for maize meal (up 51 percent) and bread (up 29 percent). In the past, such increases have triggered massive urban rebellions in Harare.

The Mugabe regime also needs to prevent organized working-class resistance to austerity as it embarks on a campaign to win support from local big business and foreign capitalists, and eventually repair its relations with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Gideon Gono, governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, has declared 2005 “the year of investment attraction.” Gono declared soon after the Mugabe regime’s March 31 election victory: “we must realize as Zimbabweans that we cannot postpone the ‘turnaround’ [in economic policy], we have to take the pain like grown-ups and must know that the responsibility to turn around this economy squarely lies on our shoulders.”

According to Munyaradzi Gwisai, the former member of Parliament (M.P.) for the Harare seat of Highfield and a leading member of the International Socialist Organization of Zimbabwe (I.S.O.Z.), Mugabe and Gono “are intent on sending a clear and unambiguous message to their capitalist paymasters … that the country has turned over a new leaf and is ready to do everything it takes to advance and protect private property, and the wealth of the capitalists and the rich.”

The government’s attacks have met with some resistance. In the most determined response, on May 25 thousands of residents of Glen View and Budiriro, in Harare, blockaded streets and, armed only with stones, fought running battles with the paramilitary invaders for several hours. A protest march to the Glen View council hall was held before the residents dispersed.

One resident described the events to Zimbabwe’s Daily Mirror: “The whole of Glen View was here. This is a protest … Zanu-PF, M.D.C. [Movement for Democratic Change] … supporters were all involved, they are fighting back. They hit back soon after police had destroyed the vegetable markets. People have been driven to the edge by the destruction of the … major sources of their livelihood.”

The Zimbabwe Standard on May 29 reported that the cops marched into the area singing: “You haven’t had enough of being beaten up. We are famed for roughing up people.” The BBC reported on June 1 that residents of Zimbabwe’s second major city, Bulawayo, fought a two-hour battle with riot police the previous night.

According to the May 30 Zim Online, hundreds of residents attended a public meeting in Sakubva, a working-class suburb in Mutare, Zimbabwe’s fourth-largest city, to demand that their M.P., the M.D.C.’s Innocent Gonese, find arms so that the government can be fought. The M.D.C. has continued to discourage mass action against Mugabe since the election and instead argued for legal action.

A national day of action against Mugabe’s attacks has been called for June 18 by the activist group, Women of Zimbabwe Arise (W.O.Z.A.), and supported by a number of activist organizations, including the I.S.O.Z. and the Zimbabwe Social Forum.

Originally published June 8.