Chaotic Urban Transition in Africa: Zimbabwe Evictions Come at a Heavy Cost

Article excerpt

With little or no warning, the Government of Zimbabwe in May 2005 embarked on an operation to "clean up" its cities. "Operation Murambatsvina", or Operation Restore Order, started in the capital Harare and rapidly evolved into a nationwide demolition and eviction campaign carried out by the police and army. Popularly known as "Operation Tsunami" because of its speed and ferocity, it resulted in the destruction of homes, business premises and vending sites in several parts of the country.

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A July 2005 report by the UN Special Envoy on Human Settlements Issues and Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka (pictured at right), estimates that some 700,000 people in cities across Zimbabwe had lost either their homes or source of livelihood, or both, as a result of the operation, and a further 2.4 million were indirectly affected.

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Operation Restore Order took place at a time of persistent budget deficits, triple-digit inflation, critical food and fuel shortages, and chronic foreign currency shortfall. It was implemented in a highly polarized climate, characterized by mistrust, fear and a lack of dialogue between government and local authorities, as well as between the Government and civil society. While the report acknowledges that the social, economic and political circumstances in which the operation took place were specific to Zimbabwe, they nonetheless shared common characteristics with other rapidly urbanizing African cities.

Unlike other parts of the world where urban transition has been linked to industrialization and greater economic opportunities, urbanization in Africa has come at a heavy cost. It has occurred in an environment of consistent economic decline over the past 30 years. Moreover, conflict, drought and rural economic decline have contributed to the rapid rural-to-urban migration of millions of people seeking a chance at a better life. Even in the best of times, local authorities rarely receive a portion of national wealth to deal with rapid population growth and demands for services. In stagnating national economies, city authorities have been left with even fewer resources to address the needs of city residents, a majority of whom end up living in sub-standard housing or slums. According to UN-HABITAT, more than 70 per cent of the urban population in sub-Saharan Africa live in slum-like conditions, with little access to basic services, and in inadequate or overcrowded housing.

The situation worsened in the 1980s when many African countries had to adopt structural adjustment reforms, espoused by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which led to retrenchments and severe cuts in municipal budgets that, in turn, impacted provision of services to the urban population. Today, only 48 per cent of urban households in sub-Saharan Africa have water connection, but in informal settlements it drops to 19 per cent. And while only 31 per cent of urban households are connected to a sewerage system, just 7 per cent in slums are connected. Only over half of the urban residents have electricity in their homes, compared to just one fifth in slums. Many of sub-Saharan Africa's problems are rooted in the colonial period. In many British colonies, including Zimbabwe, urban planning typically reserved the city core for whites, while leaving an undeveloped buffer space around the central business district. Towns were often pre-planned and imposed on localities without much attention being given to existing constraints. The indigenous population was either relocated to black townships on the outskirts of the city or to rural "reserves".

Africans moved to towns and cities in large numbers only after attaining independence in the 1960s. However, cities such as Dar es Salaam, which was already a bustling coastal town before the British took over Tanganyika from the Germans after the First World War, was more difficult to segregate and therefore does not have the kind of densely packed pockets of slums as those found in Nairobi. …