Social Engineering

Down through the centuries authoritarian States have attempted to socially engineer their societies, sometimes on a grand scale. The consequences have always been extremely serious for the targeted communities, tribes or language groups.

In Nazi Germany they attempted to wipe out the Jews and other groups (Gypsies) as well as many with disabilities. Some 12 million deaths followed with unspeakable suffering and cruelty. In the 30’s Stalin tackled the continued opposition of the small independent farmers (Kulaks) who were fiercely resisting the “Sovietisation” of Russian society. He wiped them out, men women and children.

In the Red Revolution in China up to the death of Mau Tse Tung in 1979, he attempted to eliminate the elitist elements in Chinese society – those with a western education, wealthy individuals and those perceived as being opposed to the emergence of a truly socialist Chinese society. 30 million people died in the campaign. In Cambodia in 1975, a small group of intellectuals trained in Paris sought to eliminate a similar sector of their society in the name of the Khmer Revolution and they killed 3 million people under conditions of terrible cruelty.

In Rwanda, in a frenzy of tribally motivated killings 80 000 people a day were massacred for months. Inspired by a small regional radio station, the killings were exacerbated by centuries of tribal and cultural conflict. In South Africa under apartheid, the regime attempted to divide the population along tribal and racial lines, in the process destroying family life for the majority and inflicting decades of almost indescribable suffering.

Now we are seeing the same thing happening in Iraq and Syria on the back of the long ignored genocide of Kurds in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The deaths from these “moments of madness” (Mugabe speaking of the Ghukurahundi genocide from 1983 to 1987) have resulted in more deaths than all the wars combined in the past few centuries. They have all been deliberate, considered and popularly supported.

In Zimbabwe we have seen several large scale attempts at social engineering in support of the efforts of the Zanu PF Party to entrench its grip on power at all costs. After Independence when the only significant opposition was located in Zapu, the Ghukurahundi campaign which ran from 1983 to 1987 was mounted using all the resources of the State.

The real number of those affected will never be known but in my own opinion, based on listening to those affected and reading what little research has been done, I estimate that the number of deaths ran to many tens of thousands – perhaps as many as 80 000 people, with probably five times that number displaced and driven into exile – mainly in South Africa. The cruelty and suffering was indescribable – whole families burnt alive in their homes, armed men shooting people and throwing their bodies into mass graves and mine shafts, bayoneting women and using rape as a political tool. Mass deprivation of food and other basic essentials and services was commonplace and involved whole regions.

The obvious objective was to crush the Zapu Party and subjugate the Ndebele people. When finally Joshua Nkomo conceded defeat and allowed his Party to be absorbed into Zanu PF in 1987, the campaign was halted but the affected communities have never been allowed to bury their dead or mourn their loss. The campaign had a profound effect on the south western regions of the country and Zanu PF has been unable to reestablish its hegemony in these Districts since then despite its absorption of the Zapu leadership into their structures.

In 2005, after 5 years of struggle with the MDC which was largely urban based, the State again used its overwhelming power to attempt mass social engineering in the urban areas. Operation Murambatsvina was mounted and in a period of three months 1,2 million urban residents were displaced and forced back into the rural areas. 300 000 homes were destroyed and over 700 000 small informal sector businesses were destroyed.

The UN called this campaign a crime against humanity but no action has been taken by anyone against the perpetrators. A study done in the Bulawayo region of the displaced families showed that nearly half the men affected by the programme died within two years, women seemed to be more resilient.

In 2000 when the Zanu PF Party was almost defeated by the MDC, the Party and its State functionaries conducted a detailed review of the electoral dynamics. They concluded that the population on the commercial farms – 2,2 million people and 600 000 voters, held the balance of power between the Communal Areas and the Urban Areas. Like Stalin in the 30’s they concluded that this group should be eliminated or neutralized.

The campaign began immediately and over the next five years some 6000 farmers and their staff and their families were displaced. 8 million hectares of land was taken by force from the owners 80 per cent of whom had bought their properties after Independence with a certificate of “no interest” from the State. Perhaps $15 billion in assets were taken from their rightful owners – many leaving their farms with their clothes in a suitcase. The subsequent losses in terms of agricultural output I value at $20 billion over the past 14 years.

But the effect was to transfer nearly 30 per cent of all seats in the House of Assembly from the control and influence of the MDC to near total control by the Zanu PF. Even physical access to these areas is tightly controlled and monitored. No farmer can operate in these areas without the express approval of the Zanu PF authorities in the area. The goal was achieved, but at vast cost in both financial and human terms.

In the period up to 2008, Zanu PF experimented with urban gangs of thugs (Chipangano) and informal sector housing. The former proved to be highly effective and when they saw the opportunity to rebuild and control the informal sector in selected urban areas they took action. As a result the markets in Mbare township and in a number of other centers have come under the control of local criminal gangs who extort funds from the operators and act as enforcers both for the rent collection activities and political allegiance.

Having suppressed the development of shack dwellings and slums in urban areas since Independence and at the same time failed to build significant numbers of new low cost houses and then in 2005 having destroyed a quarter of the available formal sector housing, they suddenly spotted the opportunity to use the demand for housing to drive the development of large informal sector housing estates that could be controlled and directed politically. In 4 years they settled nearly 300 000 families in shacks on land controlled by Zanu PF through the “Land Reform Programme”.

The Zimbabwe form of social engineering has all of the characteristics of historical events of a similar nature but in addition, they have the new feature of providing tools for manipulating the democratic process and directing the outcome in targeted constituencies. What we have to recognise is that State driven attempts at social engineering are never in the interest of the people they target or their countries. The scars can last for centuries and can cripple affected societies, Zimbabwe is no different.

Eddie Cross
Nyanga, August 19th 2014