A planned urban clean-up campaign in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, motivated by health and safety concerns has evoked fears among some residents of a re-run of President Robert Mugabe's iron-fisted Operation Murambatsvina in 2005.
Operation Murambatsvina left hundreds of thousands of people homeless after "illegal" structures were demolished by soldiers and police on the orders of the then ruling ZANU-PF government, and was widely seen by analysts as the punishment of city-dwellers for giving their overwhelming support to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
However, the proposal for an urban clean-up this time comes from the MDC city council, in the wake of a cholera epidemic that has killed more than 4,000 people and affected about 100,000 others, and the growing perception that Harare is turning into "another Kibera", a reference to one of Africa's largest slums, on the outskirts of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
Harare mayor Muchadeyi Masunda told IRIN: "We cannot have a situation where we allow another Kibera to thrive here in Harare. We have council by-laws, which we have to enforce in order to bring sanity in all council business." He said by-laws were being selectively applied.
"For example, if we allow illegal settlements to continue increasing, and then we get another cholera outbreak during the coming rain season, such illegal settlements would certainly encourage the spread of waterborne diseases because they don't have proper water and sanitation facilities," Masunda pointed out.
"I recently visited one of the vending markets and I was shocked to learn that instead of just 62 stallholders operating from the market, there were more than 800 vendors, which obviously means facilities there are being strained and are compromising health standards."
An audit of rented council accommodation, occupied by illegal tenants over the years, will also be instituted. The council is particularly concerned about mushrooming illegal settlements in the affluent suburbs of Gunhill and Borrowdale, and along the city's watercourses.
"We should not promote anarchy; let us remove all the illegal structures as soon as possible and bring back order," said deputy mayor Emmanuel Chiroto.
The mid-winter timing of the clean-up project is reminiscent of Operation Murambatsvina (Throw out the Trash), which left more than 700,000 people homeless, and affected more than two million throughout the country.
Murambatsvina drew international outrage and prompted the United Nations to dispatch Special Envoy Anna Tibaijuka, who condemned its "indiscriminate and unjustified manner" and "indifference to human suffering."
|Another clean-up exercise could turn out to be very costly politically for the MDC because people will say there is very little difference between ZANU-PF and the MDC|
In 2005, informal trader Tichaona Shambare's unplanned dwelling in the western Harare suburb of Kuwadzana was destroyed by army and police units. He has since slowly rebuilt it, but now fears it will again be destroyed.
"I have read in the newspapers that there are plans to launch a clean-up exercise, which will be well-coordinated and will not harm the poor, but I don't believe any of that. We, as the poor people, will be affected, but this time we are prepared to defend our houses and will not allow anybody to demolish them," he told IRIN.
Eldred Masunungure, a political science lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, said the decision to launch the clean-up campaign could be defended from an urban planning and public health perspective, but "another clean-up exercise could turn out to be very costly politically for the MDC because people will say there is very little difference between ZANU-PF and the MDC," he told IRIN.
Mayor Masunda said the city's long-term plan was to provide low-cost housing to the urban poor.
"When the informal settlements are brought down people will be vetted and deserving cases will be housed in council rented accommodation, while we are also looking at long-term solutions like building more houses."