Anticipating The Tsunami: Rumours, Planning and The Arbitrary State in Zimbabwe

J. Fontein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Using ethnographic material alongside newspaper and NGO reports, this article explores popular responses to ZANU PF's devastating Operation Murambatsvina, commonly dubbed Zimbabwe's tsunami, which targeted informal markets and 'illegal' housing across Zimbabwe between May and August of 2005, making an estimated 700,000 people homeless and indirectly affecting a quarter of Zimbabwe's population. The article argues that central to experiences of these dramatic events 'on the ground' (particularly in Harare's high-and low-density suburbs of Chitungwiza and Hatfield, where most of the ethnographic material was collected) was a profound tension between the resonances evoked by official appeals to a reassertion of 'order' and formal planning procedures, and the spectacle of ZANU PF's public demonstration of its ability to deploy state 'force' ruthlessly, and indeed 'arbitrarily'; that is, as, when and how it chose. Although the brutal execution of the programme was widely condemned by observers and victims alike, less reported has been the way in which official justifications for the operation were sometimes recognizable and salient to people living in urban areas across Zimbabwe, resonating with memories of past clearances, or with longstanding and divergent aspirations for respectability, urban 'order', and a functioning, bureaucratic state. It is argued that in the ambiguity and uncertainty generated by this tension the political advantages of the operation for the ruling party become most apparent. Relating the plethora of rumours circulating at the time (about the 'hidden agendas' behind the operation) to Mbembe's work on postcolonial conviviality, the article argues that like Mbembe's satirical cartoons these rumours did not so much undermine or subvert the authority of ZANU PF as reinforce its omnipotent presence. However, unlike the pessimism of Mbembe's vision of all encompassing power, it is argued that if the rumours that circulated about Operation Murambatsvina are an example of the constant re-making of 'stateness' on the margins, then the uncertain ambiguity of such rumours can not only reinforce the omnipotent presence of the 'state power', but also illustrate the omnipresence of its fundamental insecurity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)369-398
Number of pages30
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2009


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