A Last Straw

I think most people understand why making hundreds of thousands of people homeless overnight is a humanitarian disaster. (As an aside: I’m seeing wildly varying numbers of people involved, no doubt a consequence of the near-closure of the country to outside observers. )

One small but crucial dimension of the Murambatsvina (“clean up the trash”) campaign in Zimbabwe that might be overlooked amid the immediate crisis is that it also is an incredibly dire economic blow to the relatively “stable” urban households in the townships. Many reports confirm that it’s not just squatter camps that are being demolished and cleared, but also wooden and inexpensive structures built by township residents on their properties. One of the few sources of income left in the urban areas after the ravaging of the manufacturing and service economies has been rents on such structures. There is an entire strata of urban society in Zimbabwe whose primary source of income since 1980 has come from such rents, minimal as most of the payments were even in the relatively good economic era of the 1980s and early 1990s.

One of the many real advantages of the Zimbabwean economy at independence was its relative diversity: there were sources of meaningful income outside of a government wage. Step by step, the state has laid waste to all of those sources. This campaign is likely to demolish, at least for the immediate future, one of the last. Since the government itself is more or less bankrupt, even a government wage is not especially secure at this point unless you’re one of the ruling party fatcats who can siphon the few last dregs of wealth in the tank to yourself.

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