BY SIMON CALDWELL AND BRONWEN DACHS
A Zimbabwean Catholic archbishop has condemned the demolition of thousands of homes and businesses in his country as “inhuman”.
Archbishop Robert Ndlovu of Harare, in a rare public attack on the government of President Robert Mugabe, spoke out against Operation Murambatsivna (“drive out trash”).
Under the policy, police and bulldozers have for the last two weeks cleared away “illegal” buildings and market stalls that were erected without planning permission. The government also said it wants to obliterate crime which has flourished in the shanty towns amid worsening economic conditions. The United Nations believes that 200,000 people have been left homeless as a result. A further 30,000 people have been arrested.
Archbishop Ndlovu criticised the evictions in a radio interview with the BBC last Sunday.
“The way the exercise was carried out was inhuman,” he said. “Bearing in mind this is the winter season in Zimbabwe, we felt that it was really inconsiderate. Now people are sleeping in the open — there are small children there.” Opposition politicians of the Movement for Democratic Change claim Mr Mugabe has reneged on promises to rehouse those people he has evicted.
They have accused the President of simply seeking to punish the urban poor who voted against the ruling Zanu-PF party in parliamentary elections in March.
The words of Archbishop Ndlovu are bound to carry great weight because so far he has been reluctant to involve himself in the political life of the former British colony.
Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s only other Catholic metropolitan archbishop, has regularly criticised Mr Mugabe and his policies, accusing the President of causing spiralling unemployment and starvation in a land once regarded as the “breadbasket” of sub-Saharan Africa.
But Archbishop Ndlovu, although he had a reputation as a defender of human rights while Bishop of Hwange, adopted a softer approach after his installation in Harare on August 21 last year. He wanted his work to be primarily of a pastoral nature and has sought to avoid being identified with any particular political cause.
Like Archbishop Ncube, Archbishop Ndlovu is from the minority Ndebele tribe which suffered under Mr Mugabe’s 5th Brigade in the 1980s when up to 20,000 people in Matabeleland were massacred.
Formal government objections to Archbishop Ndlovu’s appointment met with a two-line rebuttal from the Vatican.
Just days before the archbishop made his remarks Zimbabwe’s bishops issued a collective statement in which they called on the authorities to “stop this violence immediately”.
The Zimbabwean bishops’ conference warned the govern ment: “History will hold you individually accountable.” In some areas, police provoked riots “by moving in on unarmed and peaceful citizens,” the bishops’ conference said in a statement. “The use of violence to achieve any perceived goal by the authorities is a most worrying factor in our nation,” the bishops said. “The excuse of fighting crime through collective and indiscriminate punishment is unacceptable.” The bishops said they found it “difficult to understand how the government could unleash such violence on the nation”.
“The informal sector has, over the years, been encouraged by the government,” they said, noting that some people’s structures were registered with the city, and monthly taxes were paid. “Their destruction does not make our country more prosperous,” the bishops added.
They said they were surprised that the government gave insufficient warning before its crackdown and did not offer alternative accommodation and sources of income to the affected people.
“The timing of the operation could not be worse, leaving many people exposed to the winter cold of the southern African country,” they said. “The assumption that all people have somewhere to go is false,” the bishops said, calling the operation a “grave crime” against poor and helpless Zimbabweans “who are already facing many hardships”.
Dominican Sister Patricia Walsh described the horror of seeing only rising smoke as she drove toward Hatcliffe, a shanty town that was home to about 40,000 people in Harare.
All the residents were outside “in the midst of their broken houses, furniture and goods all over the place, children screaming, sick people in agony”, Sister Walsh said.
Since 1992 Dominican sisters have helped feed thousands of people in Hatcliffe, where they run a clinic as well as a home for 180 Aids orphans. Structures built by the Dominicans were left untouched by the police “but had to be dismantled immediately, otherwise they, too, would be destroyed,” Sister Walsh said.
The government is widely blamed for the crisis in Zimbabwe but it blames profiteers who buy foreign currency, fuel and food for resale at much higher prices on the black market.