Zimbabwe appears headed for another social crisis as authorities have embarked on a widespread operation to destroy illegal structures in urban areas, reminiscent of the 2005 disastrous Operation Murambatsvina which left over 700 000 people homeless.
The operation began in Chitungwiza on Friday afternoon where armed soldiers stormed the busy C Junction in Chitungwiza Unit C ordering owners of tuckshops and other small business premises to remove their wares and pull down their structures within 30 minutes failure which they would be beaten up.
With memories of the blood that soldiers spilt in the communities still fresh in their minds gloom immediately descended on the usually bustling centre of business as people began pulling down their shops and carting their wares home, marking an end of sources of livelihood for many.
The Standard witnessed the operation in action at C Junction on Friday before it spread to other parts of Chitungwiza, a dormitory town of Harare and home to over three million people. Yesterday the destruction had become commonplace in the town with major action being reported at Makoni Shopping Centre, one of Chitungwiza’s biggest and busiest business hubs.
It appeared the police and the city municipality were all behind the operation as their officers stood by as people pulled down their tuckshops and stalls.
The Standard also visited Harare’s oldest and most populous suburb of Mbare where the operation began to unfold yesterday morning. Illegal shop owners in the sprawling suburb were busy pulling down their structures under the watchful eye of soldiers, police and Harare municipal police. There was no resistance seen except downcast and visibly angry faces of affected people.
Residents were pulling down the structures on their own after being given a 24-hour notice to demolish the structures on Friday by soldiers who reportedly warned unspecified action if the order was not heeded.
Almost all morning, armed municipal police and soldiers were milling around the suburb, observing the demolitions. The Standard witnessed a group of the council police officers moving in clusters around Mbare.
“Yesterday (Friday) municipal police came here and ordered us to remove the structures within 24 hours or face unspecified consequences. Soldiers then came today (yesterday). They are armed and watching from their trucks, not saying anything,” one resident said.
“We don’t have room to disobey — you know what the soldiers have been doing these days. We, however, feel they should have given us adequate notice and alternative places to sell out wares. We are here not because we want to, but because we don’t have jobs.”
But other residents said the decision was a welcome move because the tuckshops were mushrooming everywhere and not paying council levies, but paying to Zanu PF youths.
“And they are now a menace, obstructing traffic. These tuckshops also fuel the black market. They were selling cooking oil at as high as $17 when OK Zimbabwe is selling it at $4. They should go,” another resident said.
But although municipal police were seen apparently backing the operation, it appears there could be discord and controversy in the launching of the operation. Harare mayor Herbert Gomba, the policy head of the city told The Standard yesterday that he was not aware of any such operation and that council had definitely not sanctioned the demolitions or enlisted the services of the military.
“We have not made a resolution to that effect,” Gomba said. “My council’s policy is that of engagement and we have always advocated for that. I am not sure if that was followed, but we will investigate further and give details later.”