Exploiting Poverty and Desperation

The discovery of a small boy in a suitcase who was being smuggled from the Ivory Coast to Spain is just a small incident in what is a global problem. It is the exploitation of the absolute poor by powerful and connected political elites.

At the height of the forced migration of Zimbabweans into South Africa in the years up to 2009, I was told another story that has haunted me since then. It concerned a group of 60 who had decided to make their way to South Africa across the Limpopo River just east of the Beitbridge border post. The river was in flood and they formed a human chain and began to cross the river. In the middle of the chain was a woman with a small baby, half way across she lost her grip and was washed downstream, before she lost her footing she threw her child to the man in front of her.

When they had all reached the other bank – minus the women who had been washed downstream, they gathered to discuss what to do with the baby. After some discussion they decided that nobody was prepared to take on a small baby and the child was thrown into the river. The crocodiles would have made short shift of the two human beings.

If you know Zimbabweans you will appreciate how difficult that decision was, we love kids and are close to our families. The people in the group – faced with criminal gangs and the Police in South Africa who exploit their plight as illegal migrants, had little money and had to move fast to get inland and a baby was just too much to ask.

I have been reading the history of Central Africa in the 19th Century and one thing that struck me was the role played by tribal leaders in the slave trade. They participated in the trade; raiding their neighbors and helping the slavers take the new slaves down to the coast. The suffering and mortality was indescribable.

People in power, people connected to the political elite have little compunction about exploiting the poor for personal gain and rent seeking by these elites in Africa is so widespread that it is accepted as the norm. In the old Rhodesian days the Mayor of Salisbury – the Capital City, sponsored a housing scheme for low income families in Highfield. The Mayor was able to get control of 500 housing units and he appointed a local businessman as his agent. He simply told the “agent” how much he wanted each month from the houses and left the rest to his benefit. The agent collected the rents and ran an enforcer group who evicted any family that could not pay the rental.

The Mayor multiplied his fortune and the local businessman became one the most wealthy and famous of his era. He contributed to the political parties of the time – both Zanu and Zapu and thereby protected himself from any political threats. The only people who suffered were the poor overcrowded tenants who had not rights and no recourse and who paid rentals well above the commercial rentals that applied in other areas of the City.

Today we have a mafia that is directly connected to Zanu PF which is operating a wide variety of scams in Harare. In all cases the politically connected people involved are making a great deal of money, local thugs are given immunity from criminal prosecution and the absolute poor suffer. To make matters worse, much of this activity is linked to political activity deliberately designed to subvert our hard won democracy.

The epicenter of this activity is a high density housing area in the heart of the City known as Mbare. Here there are several large scale markets that are occupied by thousands of small scale traders and manufacturers. One of these is used to sell clothing and several thousand traders occupy an area of perhaps 4 hectares on the side of one of the main roads. Each trader rents a small stand from the local mafia chiefs who are three Zanu PF Members of Parliament. A small part of the rental goes to the City but 70 per cent is retained by the land lords.

The sums of money involved runs to millions per annum, the land lords employ a local criminal gang as enforcers and any traders who does not pay is evicted and if they owe money, this is extorted and the enforcers take a fee. When elections come around the land lords demand support from the traders and their families, any trader who takes any interest or shows sympathy for the opposition, is evicted or dealt with violently. Recourse to the Courts or the Police is simply impossible.

In the same area, there are large blocks of single quarter housing constructed during the Rhodesian era as housing for tens of thousands of single men working in the City. These are now bulk leased on a long term basis to local politically connected individuals who rent out the rooms – two families per room at $50 per month per family, a small part of the rental (5 per cent) goes to the City and the rest is simply pocketed by the slum lords. Again enforcement and rent collecting is done by criminal gangs who are paid for their services and will beat up “trouble makers” and evict families that do not pay on time and in full.

The “slum lords” are all Zanu PF and live in the wealthy suburbs of the City, their wives shop in Sandton, South Africa and Dubai. Those exploited are the poorest of the poor all trying to survive on prostitution and vending. When the Bill Gates Foundation offered millions of dollars to refurbish and upgrade these blocks, the effort was resisted by the slum lords and their enforcers and the Foundation backed off.

The same arrangements are in existence for all other markets – the Mbare Msika where some 70 000 people shop daily for fresh food, is totally controlled and managed on this basis. Access to the wholesale trade is politically controlled and tribute paid to connected individuals. Municipal staff is bribed and participate in the system which is then translated into higher prices for the consumers and lower prices for small scale farmers.

In 2005 when the regime here decided that as the Cities and the informal traders were mainly voting for the MDC and had to be “dealt with”, they took a bull dozer to a large area in Magaba in Mbare, occupied by thousands of small scale manufacturers. This lay empty and vacant till 2008 when Zanu was defeated. They then decided to reverse the process but this time using the techniques perfected in the township. They took occupation and offered sites to small scale manufacturers who had been evicted in 2005, but this time on condition that they joined Zanu PF and participated in local Zanu Cooperatives. Rentals go to Party functionaries and the enforcers are the same young thugs that are employed elsewhere – revenue to the City, zero.

Protecting the poor and vulnerable from these modern day vultures should be the concern of every decent Government. Instead the system is employed to undermine our democracy and deny poor people their most basic rights.

Eddie Cross
Harare 9th May 2015