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Housing as a Civil Right in Operation Murambatsvina

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Human Rights
Wordcount: 6104 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Everybody Belongs Somewhere


“There is no Zimbabwean without a rural home.”[1] This was the phrase Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF government used to justify Zimbabwe’s Operation Murambatsvina—a month-long “public interest” campaign in May 2005 that forcibly evicted over 700,000 urbanites from their informal homes and prompted them to return to their “rural origins.”[2] While the stated intent of the operation was to “stem chaotic or disorderly urbanization,” to those who became homeless, the Operation took on a more political meaning; only 48 days before, a presidential election was held in which those same urban poor voted overwhelmingly for the opposition and lost.[3] Seen in this light, the Operation was less a means of cleaning up Zimbabwe’s cities than a test of patriotism: “true” Zimbabweans would not be homeless and could return to their ancestral lands in the country where support for Robert Mugabe was strong, and those who could not were considered foreigners—or, in the words of Zimbabwe’s police commissioner, “a crawling mass of maggots bent on destroying the economy.”[4] With these words, the Zimbabwean government not only stripped urban Zimbabweans of their homes, but of their humanity as well—effectively forcing them out of political and civic life.

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By hiding a heated political agenda within an urban renewal campaign, Robert Mugabe was able to claim to speak on behalf of all Zimbabweans while simultaneously denying some citizens—those who disagreed with him—of their rights to citizenship. This has not been widely recognized; in condemning Operation Murambatsvina, the international community made virtually no public comment on how the loss of housing and lack of citizen participation in the decision affected the political rights or voices of the urban poor. Much of this has to do with the ways in which social and political rights were defined and separated in the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent human rights covenants after World War II. This raises two questions: what really are the differences between social and political rights, and how do governments manipulate international notions of social rights in order to achieve their own political ends? This paper will attempt to answer these questions in the context of Operation Murambatsvina. In particular, I argue that in using the rhetoric of rural homes and citizenship, Mugabe’s government transformed the meaning of Operation Murambatsvina from the stated urban renewal project to a consolidation of power. As a result, the stripping of 700,000 poor urban Zimbabweans of their social right to housing served to remove their civil right to be seen as real citizens, effectively turning the right to housing from a social and economic right into a political one.

Rural Rhetoric and Citizenship in Zimbabwe

 Before delving into the social and political implications of housing, it is necessary to understand how rural rhetoric and the urban-rural divide is embedded in Zimbabwean history, and how its colonial history was utilized during the Operation. When the British entered Zimbabwe (what was then called Rhodesia) in the late 1800s, they fundamentally re-shaped its economic and social life, mobilizing African labor to work in the new diamond mines and claiming traditional indigenous farming land as their own. For several decades, British efforts focused on the conquering of African farming practices, drawing a labor force from the surrounding areas and establishing a labor-migration pattern that pushed people from their original homes and into new labor practices.[5] By the 1950s, however, the colonial state took on a program of planned modernization, and a stark urban-rural divide was created in colonial policy discourse. As Jens Andersson states, rural areas became “reinvented as traditional African…society, requiring state intervention in order to develop.”[6] At the same time, those indigenous farmers without exclusive farming rights were absorbed into new urban settlements, without any regard for previous ownership arrangements.[7] As a result, opposition to these new urban modernizing strategies assisted in the development of a rural African nationalism, which helped fuel the liberation movement as well as the rise of Robert Mugabe.

After gaining independence from Britain in 1980, Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party took charge of the country, overturning colonial rural policy and overseeing massive land reforms that promised to end white ownership of Zimbabwe’s most fertile lands and return it to indigenous peoples.[8] Yet while his militant-style take-over of white-owned farms in the 1990’s did lead to some land redistribution and housing creation for a small number of indigenous people, the closure of the farms lead to an economic collapse, sending a large number of former farm-laborers (often of foreign heritage) to the cities to look for employment opportunities and homes.[9] As a result, cities became a bastion of the poor, and developed a strong informal economy consisting of tuck shops, flea markets, and currency exchange places, while rural areas remained patriotic strongholds—the holders of “ancestral land.”[10] In addition, a lack of infrastructure lead to the development of squatter settlements in urban areas—illegal structures that were given implicit approval by the government due to lack of funds for development.[11] With conditions in the cities steadily dropping from the land reform and economic policies, discontent with Mugabe began to rise among the urban poor. Political support switched from the ZANU-PF to the country’s first opposition group, MDC—and it showed in the March 2005 election cycle, though Mugabe still won.[12] To combat a potential revolt, Mugabe’s government began to use the rural nationalism from the past as a means of recasting the urban poor as foreign nationals left over from colonialism.

It is this economically depressed, politically divided, urban-rural context in which Operation Murambatsvina took place. In the weeks after the election, ZANU-PF began to cultivate the sentiment that the urban poor were culturally disconnected from “true” Zimbabweans, and that they needed re-educating about how to behave.[13] As housing—both formal and informal—became scarcer as the economy collapsed, the need to determine who actually belonged and could have access to the land became more pressing. In appealing to this need by ostensibly creating a public interest campaign to free up space and clean up urban spaces, Mugabe was able to kill two birds with one stone; he forced the urban poor to the rural areas to re-educate them in the sort of patriotism that got him elected while freeing up homes for his own supporters. In doing so, he reconfigured the citizenship status of his opponents; those who became homeless (in other words, those who did not have a rural home to go back to) could not really be considered real Zimbabweans. As such, they were not required by law—either international or domestic—to be given legal recourse to the loss of their already illegal homes in the cities, and could in fact be considered criminals. In this way, those most likely to rebel against him—former farm-laborers with foreign origins who lost their jobs with the land reform policies and liberal youth born in urban centers with no job prospects—lost their identity as protected citizens as well as their homes. Disbursed to the rural areas, with no means of returning to the cities, these opponents of Mugabe could no longer collectively rebel against Mugabe’s land and economic reforms—either electorally or through civil protest. In this way, Mugabe was able to consolidate his own power using colonial notions of rural patriotism and true citizenship—all under the guise of public interest.

Housing as a Social Right

 One of the problems with Mugabe’s use of forced eviction as a means of recasting citizenship is that the end goal—urban disenfranchisement for “threats” to his government—is circumstantial and rather hard to spot. After all, the domestic and international legal rights to housing and political status are not often thought of in conjunction with one another. While both are alluded to in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (housing under Article 17’s right to property, and political status under Article 6’s right to recognition), the right to housing is codified under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), while citizenship is in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The separation between the two is historical; to drafters of the two covenants, political rights were seen as “justiciable” and requiring precise legal definition to be interpreted similarly by all nations, while social rights required vaguer terms in order to allow for cultural differences.[14] As a result, civil and political rights are often portrayed by international bodies as the basis upon which all human rights are protected—when one state violates their citizen’s political rights, it can easily be identified and condemned by another country. Yet when a state violates a social right, it is not as easily recognized; housing in one culture can look very different from that of another. The general rule for the implementation of human rights becomes to protect citizenship first; if a person has a country, that country is obligated to protect their social rights, such as housing. How they do it, however, is another matter.

 In addition to a lack of strict definition due to social rights’ cultural interpretations, housing also faces another barrier to enforcement as a human right: that of the question of who it is for. Are governments that sign onto the ICESCR required to make sure each individual citizen has housing the citizen deems as “adequate”, and if so, how? And what of poor countries with large populations? As Roland Burke details in his article “Some Rights are More Equal than Others,” these questions were purposely not answered in the original drafting of the covenant in order to allow for culturally-appropriate responses to state-specific problems. One of the solutions—particularly for developing countries—has been to create conditions for broader, community-wide social and economic development.[15] As a consequence, the needs of individuals within states has become secondary to public interest projects that could provide the opportunity to fulfill social rights. This is especially true with housing, where competing allowances by different international and domestic rights treaties allow for justified evictions in cases of “land reform or redistribution” or “in the interest of public need or in the general interest of the community.”[16] The problem that arises is that these public interest campaigns are often determined by governments rather than the public, and can be used as a means of revoking rights—both social and political—for specific populations (in this case urban supporters of the opposition), all while appearing as a public good for the entire society.

 Nowhere is this more apparent than in Operation Murambatsvina, where the official reason for the mass eviction of the urban poor was to “stem disorderly or chaotic urbanization…and provide service delivery e.g. water, electricity, sewage and refuse removal.”[17] The event was supposed to make the lives of his urban opponents better, for the good of the entire country. Yet while Mugabe reiterated several times that the Operation was for the greater public good, to there was no civic input or dialogue between the government and affected residents regarding the Operation. In fact, many of those rendered homeless stated that they were given notice that ranged from one week to only one day before they were forced to dismantle their own homes.[18] Other than a call to return to the countryside, no alternative accommodations or plan for relocation were made with the evictees, and thousands of people were forced to sleep on the streets or moved to transit camps with no known end destination.[19] As a result, rather than stemming “the disorder and chaos that was the order of the day” before the Operation, it increased it: hundreds of thousands of people were left without access to the water and electricity the Government promised to provide, and illegal activity switched from informal economic activities on the part of urban citizens to violence and rights abuse on the part of the government.[20] In Operation Murambatsvina, the social right to housing for individual poor urbanites was disregarded in favor of a greater “public interest” that had very little to do with the public itself. This can be seen in the Operation’s very name; officially translated by the government as “Operation Restore Order,” another Shona interpretation can be read as “Operation Drive out the Filth.”[21]

 As a social right, the international community has treated the loss of housing in the Operation with the same vaguery as is written in the ICESCR. As housing has no specific international definition, analysis of loss of housing as a human rights abuse has been done primarily within the context of domestic Zimbabwean law. While a Special Envoy to the United Nations did mention that the uprooting of thousands in Zimbabwe may constitute a Crime Against Humanity as written in the Rome Statute, she also suggested that due to conflicting conceptions of housing and the importance of social rights, international debate on the issue was “bound to be acrimonious and protracted.”[22] Consequently, recommendations to mitigate the effects of the Operation have centered around compensating the victims, developing an international humanitarian aid response, and restoring dialogue between the government and civil society rather than the specific nature of who was affected and the political rhetoric used.[23] Organizations both inside and outside of Zimbabwe call for the prosecution of those responsible, but none have named Mugabe himself, and neither suggest prosecution outside the bounds of Zimbabwean law.[24] In addition, no real call has been made to tighten international definitions of housing and property ownership as a means of preventing future abuses of social rights, and—perhaps most importantly—virtually no analysis has been done on how loss of housing has affected the civil rights of the urban poor.

The Transition of Housing into a Civil Right

 While Mugabe’s couching of Operation Murambatsvina in terms of a public good successfully drew the international community’s attention toward the loss of housing as a social right, his internal rhetoric on the supposed rural nature of true Zimbabweans and the effect of the Operation on the citizenship rights of the affected gives this loss a more political meaning. In the context of the event, the historical notions surrounding the differences between social and political rights become flipped on their heads; the social right of housing becomes the basis upon which the civil rights of free speech and enfranchisement are protected, while the meaning of citizenship has been left up to the determination of the state. For Zimbabweans, housing is what Rhoda Howard-Hassman refers to as a “strategic right”—not only is it central to the protection of human dignity, as a social right is, but access to property and housing rights also enable individuals to support themselves outside of state aid.[25] With this basic necessity covered, citizens are able to focus on and freely choose their political beliefs, organize social groups, and form opinions on their relationship with the state. As such, housing and property rights protect the more so-called justiciable and recognized political human rights, such as liberty, self-determination, and the right to be recognized before the law. Without it, citizens must conform to the state’s conditions, as they have limited means of both supporting themselves and participating in civil and political process that could make positive changes in their situations. In other words, housing can be a civil and political right.

 This loss of political liberty is precisely what happened to the victims of Murambatsvina. In claiming that true Zimbabweans had rural origins, Mugabe used land scarcity and forced evictions in the urban areas as a way of managing his most staunch opponents’ political lives.[26] Reports from local NGOs show that those areas who had the most votes for MDC in the March 2005 elections were treated the most harshly, with residents not only removed from their homes, but wantonly beaten and held up at gunpoint.[27] Not only were people simply urged to go back to their rural homes, they were forcibly moved out of the urban areas to rural transit camps, where they were relocated to more Mugabe-friendly areas to be re-educated as more patriotic Zimbabweans. As one NGO wrote in a report written as the Operation was still happening:

 “People are being forcibly moved from MDC dominant urban centres to ZANU PF dominant rural areas; it is simple, those translocated will have to show allegiance to ZANU PF or face a real risk of starvation this winter.” [28]

In this case, the loss of home also meant loss of political freedom—and for those with foreign origins and no rural home, who were relocated to Zimbabwe during colonial times, it meant the loss of being considered a true Zimbabwean in the eyes of the law. In fact, many of the people who have been relocated to rural areas from the city have stated in interviews with both academics and NGO workers that they are no longer aware if they are still citizens or have become aliens in the aftermath of the Operation.[29]

 One perhaps more tangible way that this connection between housing loss and civil rights can be seen in Zimbabwe are in the voting rights of those affected by relocation and the democratic political process itself. The hundreds of thousands of urban residents who were moved to transit camps have now effectively been disenfranchised; they are registered to vote in constituencies where they no longer live.[30] Should they wish to return to the cities to vote in future elections, many find themselves trapped—after all, poverty is “the most severe obstacle to full realization of citizenship rights.”[31] Living in squatter camps with no running water, toilets or access to food, many former urbanites are forced to live day-to-day.[32] And with their livelihoods destroyed with the informal economy and the rural areas already saturated with workers, most victims of the Operation could not afford to make the trek back even if they wanted to.

Not only, however, were they perhaps indirectly discredited and disenfranchised through housing loss and subsequent poverty, but the rhetoric of Mugabe’s government in the Operation’s aftermath became increasingly more direct about their lack of political status. The Deputy Minister of Industry and Trade claimed at the height of the Operation that 90% of those MDC Parliamentary members who were voted into office in March 2005 are not “indigenous” and their constituencies—the urban poor—have “no identity and recognition.”[33] MDC itself was prevented from enacting any influence in the urban areas, as homes that were once considered illegal when occupied by its supporters were given (via bribes) to more secure ZANU-PF supporters and former veterans who served under Mugabe.[34] With no physical location in which to claim their identity, a government head bent on removing their identity as Zimbabweans, and a limited ability of the supporting government officials to implement real change, homeless victims of Murambatsvina have lost the means by which their political status can be recognized in a meaningful way. As a result, in the aftermath of the Operation, the right to property ownership and housing in Zimbabwe has been transformed from a social right protected by the political right of citizenship status to a political and civil right that forms the basis of citizenship status and political participation itself.


It has been thirteen years since Operation Murambatsvina, and the situation for those former urban residents rendered homeless has changed little—if at all—despite the inpouring of hundreds of thousands of dollars of humanitarian aid from organizations across the world. Thousands of people are still housed at the transit hubs where they were relocated, and these settlements, too, have now been deemed illegal by the government.[35] ZANU-PF remains firmly in power (helped along by the limited political participation of the homeless opposition supporters), though Mugabe himself was forced to step down earlier this year as a result of the growing economic collapse in the aftermath of Murambatsvina. As of today, those responsible for the chaos, destruction and disorder have been left unpunished, and the international community has chosen to conduct a strategy of “quiet diplomacy” as a means of protecting the rights of those displaced.[36] In other words, while condemning Zimbabwe’s actions towards the urban poor, the United Nations and other international bodies have focused more on providing short term humanitarian assistance to address the loss of social rights rather than providing any denunciation of the civil rights abuses caused by the forced evictions.[37]

For the urban Zimbabweans who lost their homes, their livelihoods, and their national identity, this is simply not enough. While social and political rights are kept separate in the ICCPR and ICESCR, Mugabe’s rural rhetoric and the subsequent forced evictions and disenfranchisement of the Zimbabwean urban poor gives concrete proof that there is a very fine line between the two. When social rights are used as political leverage, they can transform from being benefits resulting from the more “justiciable” political rights to strategic civil rights in and of themselves. The implications of this transformation are important for preventing wide-scale human rights abuses like Operation Murambatsvina from occurring again; mechanisms need to be in place to ensure that corrupt leaders cannot hide behind the vagueries of cultural interpretation or public interest. As it is, it is not enough to ensure civil rights are protected in name, only. The international community needs to understand that access to important civil rights is embedded in social and economic rights, particularly in those as basic and taken for granted as housing; without access to one, the other is not necessarily ensured. While not every Zimbabwean has a rural home, the fact remains that Murambatsvina proved that it is their homes that make Zimbabweans into citizens. Everybody belongs somewhere, and it is that very belonging—both in a home and in a country—that defines both our civil and political rights.


[1] Chimdza, Tinashe. “”The Bulldozers Always Come”: Maggots, Citizens & Governance in Contemporary              Zimbabwe.” In The Hidden Dimensions of Operation Murambatsvina in Zimbabwe, 87-101. Oxford:              African Books Collective, 2008.

[2] Ibid., 89

[3] Zimbabwe. Statement by the Minister of Foreign Affairs on the Report of the UN Fact Finding Mission toZimbabwe: A Preliminary Response. Accessed through ReliefWeb International. Harare, 2005. Accessed              December 5, 2018. https://reliefweb.int/report/zimbabwe/statement-minister-foreign-affairs-report-un-fact              finding-mission-zimbabwe

[4] Chimezda, 89.

[5] Andersson, Jens A. ” Administrators Knowledge and State Control in Colonial Zimbabwe: The Invention of the              Rural/Urban Divide in Buhera District, 1912-80.” The Journal of African History 43, no. 1 (2002): 119-43.

[6] Ibid, 136.

[7] Ibid, 137.

[8] United Nations. United Nations Resettlement Program. Report of the Fact-finding Mission to Zimbabwe to Assessthe Scope and Impact of Operation Murambatsvina. By Anna K. Tibaijuka. 2005. Accessed December 5,              2018. http://www.un.org/News/dh/infocus/zimbabwe/zimbabwe_rpt.pdf

[9] Potts, Deborah. “Attacking the Urban Poor & Abusing Rural Links: Operation Murambatsvina 2005.” In CircularMigration in Zimbabwe and Contemporary Sub-Saharan Africa, 211-33. Boydell & Brewer, 2010.

[10]  Solidarity Peace Trust. Discarding the Filth. Zimbabwe, 2005. 1-47. Accessed November 21, 2018. http://solidaritypeacetrust.org/download/report-files/discarding_the_filth.pdf

[11] Ibid, 15.

[12] Groves, Zoe. “People and Places: Land, Migration and Political Culture in Zimbabwe.” The Journal of ModernAfrican Studies 50, no. 2 (2012): 339-56.

[13] Potts, Deborah. “‘Restoring Order’? Operation Murambatsvina and the Urban Crisis in Zimbabwe.” Journal oSouthern African Studies 32, no. 2 (2006): 273-91. 

[14] Burke, Roland. “Some Rights Are More Equal than Others: The Third World and the Transformation of Economic              and Social Rights.” Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, andDevelopment 3, no. 3 (2012): 427-48.

[15] Ibid, 438.

[16] Rubinson, Abby. “Preventing Human Rights Violations Done “in the Public Interest”: Recommendations for              Development That Respect the Prohibition on Forced Evictions.” University of San Francisco LawReview 48, no. 4 (2014): 673-708.

[17] Government of Zimbabwe, online.

[18] Rubinson, 278

[19]Human Rights Watch. The Implementation of Operation Murambatsvina. 2005, Background Briefings. Accessed November 18, 2018.              https://www.hrw.org/legacy/backgrounder/africa/zimbabwe0905/4.htm#_ftnref46

[20] Zimbabwe, online.

[21] Potts (2006), 215.

[22] United Nations, 67.

[23] Ibid., 70.

[24] Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum. “Order out of Chaos, or Chaos Out of Order? A Preliminary Report on              “Operation Murambatsvina”.” News release, June 1, 2005. Accessed December 5, 2018.              http://www.hrforumzim.org/publications/order-out-of-chaos-or-chaos-out-of-order-a-preliminary-report              -on-operation-murambatsvina/.

[25] Howard-Hassmann, Rhoda E. “Reconsidering the Right to Own Property.” Journal of Human Rights 12, no. 2              (2013): 180-97.

[26] Muchadenyika, Davison. “Land for Housing: A Political Resource – Reflections from Zimbabwe’s Urban              Areas.” Journal of Southern African Studies 41, no. 6 (2015): 1-20.

[27] Bratton, Michael, and Eldred Masunungure. “Popular Reactions to State Repression: Operation Murambatsvina in              Zimbabwe.” African Affairs 106, no. 422 (2007): 21-45.

[28] Solidarity Peace Trust, 27.

[29] Chimezda, 100.

[30] Solidarity Peace Trust, 22.

[31] Chimezda, 100.

[32] “Victims of Operation Murambatsvina Still in Limbo.” Zimbabwe Independent, May 20, 2010. Accessed              December 5, 2018. https://www.theindependent.co.zw/2010/05/20/victims-of-operation-murambatsvina              still-in-limbo/.

[33] Solidarity Peace Trust, 22.

[34] Hammar, Amanda. “Urban Displacement and Resettlement in Zimbabwe: The Paradoxes of Propertied Citizenship.” African Studies Review 60, no. 3 (2017): 81-104.

[35] “Harare city set to begin provision of services to Caledonia settlement.” NewsDay, March 2017. Accessed              November 18, 2018. https://www.newsday.co.zw/2017/03/harare-city-set-begin-provision-services              caledonia-settlement/

[36] Human Rights Watch. Zimbabwe: Evicted and Forsaken: Internally Displaced Persons in the Aftermath ofOperation Murambatsvina, 2005, Policy File. Accessed December 5, 2018.              https://www.hrw.org/reports/2005/zim1205/index.htm

[37] Ibid.


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