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2005-06-30

Zimbabwe Amb. vs. Trade Union Leader on Forced Urban Removal in Harare

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In Zimbabwe, a government-sponsored urban clearance campaign is the center of a heated debate within the country and around the world. Critics see the campaign as a move to drive out political opposition and punish those who supported the opposition group, Movement for Democratic Change, in recent parliamentary elections. Estimates of the number affected range between 300,000 and 1.5 million of the urban poor. At least two children have been crushed to death in demolished houses. A United Nations envoy met with President Mugabe yesterday during a visit to assess the results of the campaign. We speak with Simbi Veke Mubako, Zimbabwe’s ambassador to the United States, Wellington Chibebe, the secretary general of the Zimbabawe Congress of Trade Unions and Bill Fletcher, president of TransAfrica. [includes rush transcript–partial]

In Zimbabwe, a government-sponsored urban clearance campaign is the center of a heated debate within the country and around the world. President Robert Mugabe says "Operation Murambatsvina" is a clean-up operation intended to rid the capital, Harare, of illegal structures and crime. The government said it would step up a new housing program to benefit those left homeless.

Critics see the campaign as a move to drive out political opposition and punish those who supported the opposition group, Movement for Democratic Change, in recent parliamentary elections.

Since the campaign was launched on May 19, police have burned and bulldozed tens of thousands of shacks, street stalls and vegetable gardens. Estimates of the number affected range between 300,000 and 1.5 million of the urban poor. At least two children have been crushed to death in demolished houses.

More than 200 international human rights and civic groups last week demanded an end to the campaign. So have Western governments, including the U.S., Britain and Australia. Zimbabwe’s Roman Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube called for Mugabe’s arrest and prosecution on Friday.

On June 9th, President Mugabe defended the campaign in an address to Parliament, citing the regulation of small-medium enterprises, or SMEs, as a major aim.

  • President Robert Mugabe
    "The current chaotic state of affairs, where SME’S (small businesses) operated outside the regulatory framework and undesignated and crime ridden areas, could not be countenanced for much longer. In tandem with the ongoing cleanup campaign the government is in a process of reorganising the sectors operation–the process which include the provision of essential and dignified infrastructure, vendor-mart, technical and management skills training and clustering the enterprises in designated areas."

President Mugabe speaking earlier this month. Both the African Union and South African President Thabo Mbeki have refused to condemn what they call Zimbabwe’s "internal affairs." This has provoked sharp criticism from UK Prime Minister Tony Blair as well as international human rights organizations.

A United Nations envoy met with President Mugabe yesterday during a visit to assess the results of the campaign. UN envoy Anna Tibaijuka reported having a "constructive discussion" with Mugabe.

Also this week, state doctors went on strike to protest low pay. And the government announced it would raise medical fees and triple the price of gasoline to bail the country out of economic crisis.

  • Simbi Veke Mubako, Zimbabwe’s ambassador to the United States.
  • Wellington Chibebe, secretary general of the Zimbabawe Congress of Trade Unions, speaking from Harare.
  • Bill Fletcher, president of TransAfrica.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On June 9, President Mugabe defended the campaign in an address to Parliament, citing the regulation of small-medium enterprises, or SMEs, as a major aim.

PRESIDENT ROBERT MUGABE: The current chaotic state of affairs, where SMEs operated outside the regulatory framework and in undesignated and crime-ridden areas, could not be countenanced for much longer. In tandem with the ongoing cleanup campaign the government is in the process of reorganizing the sectors operations, a process which will include the provision of essential and dignified infrastructure, vendor marts, technical and management skills training and clustering the enterprises in designated areas.

AMY GOODMAN: President Mugabe speak earlier this month. Both the African Union and South Africa President Thabo Mbeki have refused to condemn what they call Zimbabwe’s internal affairs, which has provoked sharp criticism from Tony Blair, Prime Minister of Britain, as well as international human rights groups. A U.N. envoy met with President Mugabe yesterday during a visit to assess the results of the campaign. The U.N. envoy, Anna Tibaijuka, reported having a (quote) "constructive discussion" with Mugabe. Also this week, state doctors went on strike to protest low pay, and the government announced it would raise medical fees and triple the price of gasoline to bail the country out of economic crisis.

We’re going to start with the Zimbabwe’s ambassador to the United States, Simbi Veke Mubako. Also on the line with us from Washington, Bill Fletcher, President of TransAfrica. And we’ll go to Harare, as well. Ambassador, can you talk about what is happening now in Zimbabwe and what this campaign that has been so criticized by many is about?

SIMBI VEKE MUBAKO: Well, the campaign is slum clearance, basically. It’s getting rid of slums, which have mushroomed around our big cities, and illegal trading, which had also mushroomed throughout our big cities. And the result of all of those illegal structures has been an increase in crime, an increase in disease, because this place is unsanitary, and economic dislocation related to those structures. So, because of that, the government planned to remove them and then replace them with better housing and better trading facilities.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But, Mr. Ambassador, in a slum clearance program, normally, in most countries, there’s at least some kind of effort to build new housing first before you move the people out. Where would they stay in the meantime while you are building, supposedly, the new housing for the residents of these slums?

SIMBI VEKE MUBAKO: Well, that’s the ideal situation, but it’s not possible in every case. In fact, it has never been done in any slum clearance that I have heard about. There’s been slum clearance in the north of England. There’s been slum clearance in Nigeria. There’s been slum clearance operations in many other African countries. You can’t hope to have built all of the houses and allow crime and unhygienic conditions to continue in the meantime, to be perpetuating illegality, in any case.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to the ambassador from Zimbabwe to the United States, Ambassador Simbi Veke Mubako. Also Bill Fletcher of TransAfrica is on the line. And in Harare, we have just been joined by Wellington Chibebe, the Secretary General of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. Can you share your perspective on this issue right now, Wellington Chibebe?

WELLINGTON CHIBEBE: Well, thank you for the time. I’m glad that you also brought in the ambassador to Washington, and he is attempting to justify the cruel exercise taking place here at home. But he, unfortunately, is speaking from Washington, is speaking on the situation which is happening here in Zimbabwe, and I know Ambassador Mubako very well. We come from the same area, and I understand he comes from a very humble background, like myself. And for one to speak eloquently the way he is doing, justifying the cruelties being visited upon our people by the government, is unfortunate.

The fact of the matter is that — or that Zimbabwe is faced with a situation whereby 85% of this population, the active labor market, are unemployed. And to this end, you can visually or automatically see and translate what that would mean to the population. And therefore, this is the situation here, and these are the people who are now making a living out of the informal economy, and mind you, we together with the government were at the International Labor Conference in 2002 and approved that the informal economy needs to be assisted, and we will actually be working on a program which would assist in poverty alleviation. But what has just happened through this government program is actually going to worsen that position. It’s actually going to perpetuate the poverty instead of alleviating poverty.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Wellington Chibebe, you have visited some of the camps where those who have had their homes bulldozed have been forced into. Could you talk about conditions there and the latest events in recent days there?

WELLINGTON CHIBEBE: Yes. I have had the courage to visit some of the camps, although the camps are heavily guarded by plain-clothed security personnel who do not allow the occupants of these camps to talk to what they term "strangers." The situation is pathetic, to say the least. What is said or what is portrayed on television to give an impression that these people are staying in nice tents or are given adequate medication is not true. It’s unfortunate that the powers that be would want to play around with people’s brains and play football with the victims of disaster.

I was at Caledonia farm, which is holding camp about 20K to the east of Harare. This camp reminds me of the situation of the liberation struggle when people were shoved into protected villages around Chiweshe and some parts of MashEast. We are being reminded of that situation by our own government. And the sanitary conditions there are poor. The food — the government, initially, they did not allow any government — any non-governmental organizations or humanitarian organization to go with any assistance until or unless one gets approval from government. And we consider this as being untoward and inhuman.

AMY GOODMAN: We are listening to Wellington Chibebe, the Secretary General of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions in Harare. Ambassador Simbi Veke Mubako is on the line with us, the Zimbabwean ambassador to the United States. Ambassador, your response to these descriptions.

SIMBI VEKE MUBAKO: Well, there’s really nothing which Mr. Chibebe has said which contradicts what I have been saying. The truth of the matter is that the conditions in which these people have been living were intolerable in any case. Neither Mr. Chibebe or me or any of the people that clamor, the British government and so on, would like to live in those conditions. So those conditions had to be terminated, and we are trying to build new conditions. So, you know, that’s the long and short of the matter.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re also joined on the phone by Bill Fletcher of TransAfrica. Bill Fletcher, you have been long active in this country in building support for the liberation movements in Africa, and like many of us in the progressive movement, you in the past have supported the efforts of the Zimbabwean African National Union and Robert Mugabe. Your view of what’s going on now, and all of us, obviously, are skeptical when we hear pronouncements from the British government or the United States about what is going on in Zimbabwe, but your perspective on what’s going on there?

BILL FLETCHER: Well, thank you. Thank you very much, Juan and Amy. I think we have to be clear that neither Blair nor Bush have the moral authority to criticize what’s going on in Zimbabwe. So, we should just shove that aside and just look at the concrete situation. I think that the — what the ambassador was saying, unfortunately, just does not pass the straight face test. You cannot explain how somewhere between 200,000 and 1.5 million people in a four-week period would be removed from their homes without other adequate housing for them in the middle of winter? I mean, can you imagine in the United States if we bulldozed Harlem in January and said, we’re going to — we’re eventually going to set up homes? I mean, there is something problematic in this, and it’s for this reason that many people, many deep and intense friends of Zimbabwe, are saying something is fundamentally wrong with the way that this is being approached. And it raises all sorts of questions about what the motivations are.

AMY GOODMAN: The numbers again that you just cited, Bill Fletcher.

BILL FLETCHER: 200,000 to 1.5 million. The United Nations says that it’s somewhere in that range over four weeks. I mean, it’s —

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask this, Ambassador Veke Mubako, is this your understanding? 200,000 to 1.5 million?

SIMBI VEKE MUBAKO: No. Those figures — those figures are suspect. They are wild figures. We don’t have 1.5 — I mean, in the whole population of Harare is about 1.5 million. You would have been emptying the whole population of Harare. If it were anything like that figure were being removed. The majority of the people in Harare are still housed in Harare, and they have got good housing. It’s just the camps which were mushrooming around the cities that are affected.

AMY GOODMAN: Wellington Chibebe.

SIMBI VEKE MUBAKO: The figures are wild. You know, why not ask the government to give you the right figures?

AMY GOODMAN: Wellington Chibebe, your response. Also, we’re talking about removal. We also have been hearing reports of deaths. Wellington Chibebe, you’re in Harare. Your response?

WELLINGTON CHIBEBE: Yes. It’s unfortunate that the ambassador would want to duck out, as it were. He knows pretty well that Harare’s population is not 1.5. Assuming that he was in Harare maybe two weeks ago, that’s too conservative a figure. And also the fact of the matter is that these people were not being removed from camps. Let me emphasize. These people were removed from places like Gumbare, places like Makokoba, Glenview, well-established high-density residential areas. The so-called camps you would want to amplify on are maybe to some extent Redcliff extension and the Whitecliff Farm and maybe in the Bulawayo around Kilani.

But all having been said and done, it must be put on record that these camps were as a result of the green light coming from government, and we have got evidence of government officials, ministers officiating at these camps, legitimizing the camps and giving hope to these people that this will be a new home. And as I speak I have got the high court judgment, which was handed down last year in respect to Porter Farm, just 40 Ks out of Harare, where the high court ruled that the government was not supposed to evict, demolish these structures until and unless they find alternative accommodations for these people. But yesterday, but one, bulldozers were sent to Porter Farm, and they razed everything down, despite the fact that the lawyer representing these people was there present waving the high court judgment, and police were saying they don’t — they are not run by the courts. And what law or what rule of law or what criminality is the matter they are talking about when the government is not respecting its own laws, when it’s treating its own citizens? That’s hypocrisy.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Ambassador Veke Mubako, what about that issue at the high court rule that the government could not raze those homes in Porter Farm without first providing residences?

SIMBI VEKE MUBAKO: Well, I’m not talking individual cases, because the individual cases have got to be followed up by the lawyers concerned. And if it’s a matter which the high court is faced with, it, you know, it has got to be decided on its facts. But the general picture —

JUAN GONZALEZ: But once the homes are demolished, it’s moot what happens in the court, isn’t it?

SIMBI VEKE MUBAKO: No, well, if the homes are demolished illegally, there will be compensation paid, but that’s — it’s not decided yet that the homes have been decided illegally. In fact, in most cases, the structures were illegal [inaudible] in any case, because the structures which may have grown up in the townships, which Mr. Chibebe has been mentioning, I feel, then and others, would have been those additions which were done without planning — without planning permission. They have been such structures even in the low density areas, and I know of high government supporters themselves were caught up in this, were keeping goats, chickens and other things, animals behind their houses.

Now, all of this is, in fact, illegal. And there’s no way any government can permit this to go on. It doesn’t matter how it started. Even if at one time it was — you know, it was — it seemed to be [inaudible] on, it was illegal. And it’s time to put a stop to it. In fact, it was a mistake to allow these informal structures — it’s not just the housing. It’s informal trading structures, [inaudible], for example, which mushroomed and was allowed to go on for a long time. And when [inaudible] in the middle of town, and all of those things are illegal, and many people have been pointing out, including myself, that this should never be allowed, and now some of us are very pleased that government has at long last decided to put an end to it.

And the way it was done is, of course, important. One should not say that you should go on in indiscriminately routing out people. People should not be wrapped up. And anyone who is injured or affected deserves compensation. And — but you cannot expect that in a big operation such as this one that there would be no accidents, and to talk of two people who are — who have accidentally been killed in an operation which — which you say involves 300,000 people, is trying to — just to sensationalize misfortune.

AMY GOODMAN: Wellington Chibebe, your response in Harare to the Zimbabwean ambassador to the United States about the — is your number the same as the ambassador’s? Two deaths?

WELLINGTON CHIBEBE: My heart bleeds.

SIMBI VEKE MUBAKO: I have not said there have been two deaths. [inaudible].

WELLINGTON CHIBEBE: My heart bleeds when a person of the ambassador, who has got a legal background to that effect, in the high respected legal person in Zimbabwe would do just dismiss what is happening in Zimbabwe for political mileage. It’s unfortunate for any person, a government representative for that matter, where one who have lost a soul or a relative, for the official to say that such people would be compensated. Because having grown up in the rural areas myself I have never seen where a death has been compensated by bringing up or bringing back a life. And the figures being stated by the ambassador are not true. As we speak we have got information that there have been four deaths today at Porter Farms. In Glenview, they — it is said that there are four deaths again. Those two deaths he is talking about, about the kids who were reported in the [inaudible] were defaced to death, but the deaths are continuing through the demolition accident, as you say, through exposure to harsh weather conditions, because we are in winter. If you raze down a home and you put people’s belongings on the tarmac and all that the neighbors not for accommodate the victims simply because by accommodating the victims, you will be actually defying government program. This is the cruelty at its worst, and I never expected this to come out of a liberation-led government, who liberated us from the jaws of slavery, taking us 20 years after independence, taking us back to the same situation we were, and that the [inaudible], it’s shocking to get that from the ambassador.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Bill Fletcher, yeah, I’d like to bring in Bill Fletcher here. Obviously, within the progressive movement in the United States, the debate continues on this issue: What should be the position of the progressive movement in this country vis-a-vis what’s going on in Zimbabwe currently; your thoughts?

BILL FLETCHER: Well, you know, I think that many of us lived through — in the United States, lived through the 1950s, '60s urban renewal, which many of us called negro removal, and even in those circumstances when our homes were knocked down, people would get some degree of notice. But it destroyed entire communities. We're looking at a situation, and the ambassador and I can go on and on until the cows come home in terms of the actual numbers of people, but something — it just simply doesn’t make sense that in a four-week period by his own admission, hundreds of thousands of people would have their homes knocked down. And yes, yes, there’s issues of crime, but the reality, as Mr. Chibebe was pointing out, is that Zimbabwe is locked in a major economic crisis right now where people are attempting to survive using a variety of different means. To now determine, 'oops, we got a problem, we are going to knock down the homes of hundreds of thousands of people,' it simply doesn’t make sense. And it seems to me that it’s important for people who are friends of Zimbabwe, as opposed to people like Bush and Blair, to express our deep concern to the government of Zimbabwe that this is something that further isolates Zimbabwe at precisely the moment that there are vultures out there that wish to come down and strike the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Simbi Veke Mubako, you have the last word.

SIMBI VEKE MUBAKO: Yes, well, I appreciate Bill Fletcher’s concern, but, you see, the concern of our friends here tend to be just verbal. If there really — anyone was really concerned about the situation in Zimbabwe would now be asking what can we do to help. I don’t hear that coming from any of our friends, including Bush and Blair. It is — they sing the same song. They should be asking what can we do to help. And already there are organizations which are helping, which are helping with tents, with blankets, with food and so on. Many organizations are doing that. They’re working together with the government to assist the people in this transitional period.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, we’re going to have to leave it there, and I want to thank you all very much for being with us. Ambassador Simbi Veke Mubako, speaking to us from Washington, he is the Zimbabwean ambassador to the United States; Bill Fletcher, President of TransAfrica; and Wellington Chibebe, Secretary General of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, speaking to us from Harare, for this unprecedented conversation. Thank you for joining us. We’ll continue to follow this story.

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