June 10, 2005

Anti-government protest collapses

A two-day strike called to protest a crackdown by President Robert Mugabe's government on informal traders headed for a collapse when most businesses opened as usual for the second consecutive day. A coalition of civic groups, supported by the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), had urged Zimbabweans to stay away from work to protest the destruction by police of illegal homes and street businesses. According to official statements by the Police, nearly 23.000 people had been arrested. As an U.N. official has estimated, about 200.000 were left homeless. Thousands of self-employed people have seen their informal business premises razed to the ground and their goods confiscated in what the government calls a clean-up campaign meant to snuff out crime, including illegal trade in scant foreign currency and basic food commodities.

In a statement, the main Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions which participated in the call, acknowledged it had attracted "a minimal response" during the strike, with its sole success reflected in a boycott by MDC legislators of Mugabe's speech to officially open a new parliament, in which he defended the razing of shantytowns and a crackdown on small traders as part of a government push to curb corruption and raise the black majority's stake in the economy. "The current chaotic state of affairs where operated outside the regulatory framework and in undesignated and crime-ridden areas could not be countenanced for much longer," Mugabe told during that parliamentary session. According to him, the government would introduce mandatory penalties for illegal trade in foreign currency and precious metals, which authorities say has thrived in shantytowns. Mugabe also said that bills were to be tabled in parliament included amendments to mining laws to rationalise the issuing of prospecting orders and to open up the foreign-dominated sector to locals. Parliament would also consider a black empowerment bill and amend the constitution to reintroduce a senate, create a single electoral commission and streamline procedures to complete controversial land reforms, he said.

Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa has defended President Robert Mugabe. "Zimbabwe has a right to manage its own affairs," Mkapa said. In reply to a journalist’s question about his views on developments in Zimbabwe, Mkapa said Mugabe’s land-redistribution programme was, "returning the ownership of the country to its people". His remarks have confirmed further the Southern African Development Community’s reluctance to distance itself from Mugabe on governance issues. Mkapa said he felt emotional about Zimbabwe and particularly about what he saw as the west’s unjust criticism. As he would be leaving office when his term ended in a few months’ time, he now felt free to speak out on Zimbabwe. The Tanzanian president said he found "sanctimonious and pious declarations" by western countries about Zimbabwe "totally abhorrent".

On the other hand, American President George Bush and South African President Thabo Mbeki, however, voiced concern at the situation in Zimbabwe after a meeting at the White House. "I brought up Zimbabwe. We're concerned about a leadership that does not adhere to democratic principles, and obviously concerned about a country that was able to, for example, feed ourselves now has to import food as an example of the consequence of not adhering to democratic principles," Bush said. Mbeki stressed that "the critical challenge, as I'm sure you are aware, is to assist people of Zimbabwe to overcome their political problems, their economic problems, problems of shortages because of the drought, and so what is really critically important is to see in what ways we can support the opposition party, the ruling party in Zimbabwe, to overcome the problems".

The United Nations has urged Zimbabwe's government to halt its campaign of mass evictions, saying it was a clear violation of human rights. Zimbabwe's policy of evicting urban poor and demolishing their shacks around the country - in what the government calls a cleanup campaign - represents a form of apartheid and must be halted, Miloon Kothari, a UN expert on the right to adequate housing, stressed. "We are seeing in the world, and Zimbabwe is a good example now, the creation of a new kind of apartheid where the rich and the poor are being segregated," Kothari stressed. "The vast majority are homeless in the streets. This kind of a mass eviction drive is a classic case where the intention appears to be that Harare becomes a city for the rich, for the middle class, for those that are well-off ... and the poor are to be pushed away." Amnesty International has also condemned the crackdown, saying it has left whole communities without shelter and destroyed thousands of livelihoods. It said police and other security forces are using excessive force - burning homes, destroying property and beating individuals. The evictions "have been accompanied very often by massive force from the police," Kothari said. According to him, police were using torches, sledgehammers and bulldozers and burned and demolished kiosks and homes of the urban poor in shantytowns around the country. "If the current eviction drive continues, the estimates are that 2 to 3 million people could be affected, which is about a quarter of the population," Kothari warned. He also reminded Zimbabwe of its obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The agreement, which Zimbabwe ratified in 1991, says that evictions should never leave victims homeless. "Where do they go back to?" Kothari said. "There is no resettlement being offered, no compensation being offered for the properties that have been destroyed." The evictions apparently are a result of the notice Harare's government-appointed Mayor Sekesai Makwavarara gave in May to dwellers in the city's myriad backyard shacks. He told them they had until July to vacate, citing health grounds. About half the city's poor live in such shacks. The government has not explained why it began demolitions before the July deadline. (Business Day, Johannesburg/AP)

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