'Restoring Order'? Operation murambatsvina and the urban crisis in Zimbabwe

  • Potts D
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Abstract

Zimbabwe is experiencing a profound economic crisis, which has devastated the livelihoods of most of its urban population and created conditions of extreme poverty in its towns. Since independence, the state has generally adhered to housing policies that have made it both difficult and expensive for low-income urban residents to comply with legal housing requirements. However, in comparison to most other sub-Saharan African countries, in Zimbabwe the extent of illegal, freestanding urban housing areas has remained relatively limited, forcing many to house themselves in illegal backyard shacks within the plots of formal townships. These shacks were, to some extent, increasingly tolerated during the 1990s and early 2000s as poverty increased. Huge growth in informal employment has also accompanied the country's urban economic crisis. In mid-2005 the Zimbabwean government embarked on a far-reaching and unprecedented campaign within its towns; Operation Murambatsvina (?Restore Order?) was designed to eradicate ?illegal? housing and informal jobs, which directly affected hundreds of thousands of poor urban residents. According to the government this drastic policy was necessary to eradicate illegal housing and activities from the cities although such justifications obscure far deeper economic and political causes. This article surveys and analyses this campaign with reference to trends in incomes, employment and housing and shifts, both apparent and real, in government policy towards these. The article emphasises the injustice of enforcing urban ?order? when the symptoms of poverty thereby tackled have been forced upon the urban poor, and not chosen by them.
Zimbabwe is experiencing a profound economic crisis, which has devastated the livelihoods of most of its urban population and created conditions of extreme poverty in its towns. Since independence, the state has generally adhered to housing policies that have made it both difficult and expensive for low-income urban residents to comply with legal housing requirements. However, in comparison to most other sub-Saharan African countries, in Zimbabwe the extent of illegal, freestanding urban housing areas has remained relatively limited, forcing many to house themselves in illegal backyard shacks within the plots of formal townships. These shacks were, to some extent, increasingly tolerated during the 1990s and early 2000s as poverty increased. Huge growth in informal employment has also accompanied the country's urban economic crisis. In mid-2005 the Zimbabwean government embarked on a far-reaching and unprecedented campaign within its towns; Operation Murambatsvina (?Restore Order?) was designed to eradicate ?illegal? housing and informal jobs, which directly affected hundreds of thousands of poor urban residents. According to the government this drastic policy was necessary to eradicate illegal housing and activities from the cities although such justifications obscure far deeper economic and political causes. This article surveys and analyses this campaign with reference to trends in incomes, employment and housing and shifts, both apparent and real, in government policy towards these. The article emphasises the injustice of enforcing urban ?order? when the symptoms of poverty thereby tackled have been forced upon the urban poor, and not chosen by them.

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Authors

  • Deborah Potts

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