Zimbabwe on tipping point
By Nelson Chenga and Andrew Kunambura
Zimbabwe faces a moment of truth in the coming days as all socio-economic fundamentals that are in free-fall collude in what could be the country’s tipping point in its long and tortuous journey to return to stability, the Financial Gazette can report.
Fast moving events playing out in the country’s body politic suggest that the nation is sliding fast down a precarious hillside as the government increasingly fails to bring the economy back on the rails.
All attempts to lure foreign investment — the easiest way out of the liquidity crunch — have yielded nothing but endless hope; while industries have collapsed due to a debilitating cash crisis, among other forces.
And ultimatums given this week by Local Government, Public Works and National Housing Minister, Ignatius Chombo, to thousands of the country’s former industry and commerce workers who have taken to the streets to join thousands of jobless youths to vend to survive, are the strongest signs yet that government is now clueless on how to put the country back on track.
Incoherent political rhetoric by the country’s politicians, who appear sharply divided in opinion and solutions to the country’s problems, have not helped matters either.
And in all this socio-economic mayhem, desperate Zimbabweans have been pushed to the wall.
The voices of some of the thousands of people who have resorted to vending to make ends meet in the country’s towns and cities, are telling.
“The First Lady (Grace Mugabe) said we should be selling freely on the streets and who is Chombo to drive us away. The police will find us selling on the streets on Monday. They can beat us to death if they want,” is what the president of the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCLEA) Lucia Masekesa said.
ZCLEA says it is the umbrella body of all informal traders associations in Zimbabwe.
The vendors’ sentiments came after Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa indicated recently that it would not be possible to remove the thousands of people off the streets, unless you shoot them, as long as the country’s economy remains depressed.
Yesterday, legal watchdog, Veritas, said if the government intends deploying the army to remove the street vendors without first giving the police and local authorities an opportunity to do so, then it will be acting unconstitutionally.
It said the Constitution regards the army as one of the branches of the Defence Forces whose duty is to protect Zimbabwe, its people, its national security and interests and its territorial integrity and to uphold the Constitution.
Section 213 (2) says; “With the authority of the President, the Defence Forces may be deployed in Zimbabwe — (a) in defence of Zimbabwe; (b) in support of the Police Service in the maintenance of public order; or (c) in support of the Police Service and other civilian authorities in the event of an emergency or disaster.”
“There is a very good reason for limiting the grounds on which the Defence Forces can be deployed within Zimbabwe. The Defence Forces are the coercive arm of the State, to be deployed when the government is compelled to use violent force to defend itself. Their personnel are not trained as police officers: ultimately they are trained to kill people. They do not even have the legal power to arrest civilians,” said Veritas.
“When it comes to ordinary police duties such as moving street vendors to designated sites, the police and local authority officials should be left to do it. It is implicit from the nature and role of the Defence Forces that only when a threat to public order must be forcibly quelled can the Defence Forces be called in to apply that force.”
Political analyst Ibbo Mandaza weighed in.
“It looks like they are serious in getting rid of the vendors. But it’s a desperate move really. People are trying to survive… It’s difficult to solve the problem…We have had a Murambatsvina before. And how many Murambatsvinas do we need before we realise that the problem is deep-seated than that?” asked Mandaza.
The vendors have since found fighting partners in human rights activists.
On Tuesday, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) petitioned Chombo and local authorities, seeking the reversal of the ultimatum, failure of which they would seek legal recourse.
“Our lawyers have delivered the letter to Chombo and the councils. We are saying the move by government is a gross violation of human rights which we cannot tolerate,” said the organisation’s information officer, Kumbirai Mafunda.
In the petition, ZLHR condemns the abuse of security forces by government as unconstitutional.
The Human Rights NGO Forum, which represents several human rights organisations across the country, is also planning legal action against the government.
“We are currently in consultation with the vendors associations and those who will be affected by the demolition of houses, after they were settled there by land barons, to see how best we can approach this issue. We are ready to assist them to take legal action against the move by government. The government should not punish people for being poor. These people are victims of situations and they should be protected,” said Human Rights NGO Forum national chairman, Cousin Zilala.
Seeing an opportunity to rise from relative obscurity, opposition political parties have also condemned the plans to remove the people from the streets.
Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, condemned the move as unconstitutional while the spokesman of another MDC splinter organisation, MDC Renewal Team, Jacob Mafume, said his party “was prepared to stand with the vendors through all constitutionally available means”.
“We are speaking with our lawyers on the possibility of launching an urgent court interdict,” said Mafume in an interview with the Financial Gazette on Tuesday.
Although the country’s Urban Councils Act empowers local authorities to exact and enforce by-laws that prohibit illegal structures and activity in their areas of jurisdiction, the Zimbabwean scenario suggests that solutions to the country’s illegal vending problem go beyond brute-force law enforcement.
In 2005, President Robert Mugabe’s government attracted global scrutiny when it launched a crackdown on informal traders operating in city centres, a process that took away livelihoods of many. Many illegal structures, including homes around the country were destroyed under an operation code-named Murambatsvina or Operation Restore Order.
The United Nations habitat report estimated that the operation directly and indirectly affected 2,4 million citizens. Financial Gazette