by Daniel Moshenberg, Stuffed & Starved, 29 August 2008
It’s August in America, the dog days of summer. Soon, predictably, the news media, the blogosphere and the punditocracy will take time to remember August 2005, in particular August 29, 2005, the day Hurricane Katrina took up residence in the fair city of New Orleans, the day the levee system failed, the day the storm came. They will try to remember New Orleans before `all that’.
There are many accounts and many stories about Katrina, about New Orleans during and after, about the meaning of the event. There is as well a stunning silence. The United States lost a city that day, and that loss has not become a core of the politics, new or old, of the nation. The reconstruction, such as it is, has occurred sporadically and thanks largely to the work of those on the ground, those who have struggled in New Orleans, and those who have struggled often against the national government, local and state officials, members of neighboring communities and jurisdictions, and so-called forces of development, such as real estate developers. Meanwhile, the mental health system is in a shambles as are pretty much all social services. But New Orleans is not a national project nor is it a national concern. Don’t let the opportunistically sentimental commentary of the end of August fool anyone.
What happened in New Orleans? Murambatsvina. Conceptually, Katrina can be intimately tied to Operation Murambatsvina. You remember Operation Murambatsvina also known as Operation Restore Order also known as Operation Clean Up also known, finally, as Operation Get Rid of the Filth. In May 2005, just after the elections, the government of Zimbabwe unleashed its forces on the urban poor neighbourhoods, markets and business centres. Across the urban landscape, market stalls and homes were bulldozed and vendors and residents were sent to the rural areas. As with post-Katrina New Orleans, there have been many accounts and many stories, and there has been deafening silence. Even now, in the aftermath of the elections in Zimbabwe, as the MDC and the ZANU-PF government do and do not negotiate, who discusses Operation Murambatsvina? Who recalls that event that at the time was referred to as the Zimbabwean Tsunami?
What constitutes the roaring silences of the Katrina – Murambatsvina articulation? They both occurred in 2005, within months of each other. They both represented the only urban examples of mass displacement of populations that year. As events, they were both engineered and run by the respective national governments. That is, they are both products of a `duly elected’ ostensibly representative nation-State. These terrifically violent events produced periods of even greater and more extensive violence, which continues to this day. They both resulted in condemnations of the regime in power. Both of those regimes remain in power. The poor were particularly targeted, or `hard hit’.
Targetted and hard hit, but not different. This was the first time that whole sectors of `filthy’ people were removed from urban zones without any ostensible `scientific’ or `biological’ justification. While the politics of reconstruction has demonstrated powerfully the deep structures of gender, race, ethne, class, disability, age, these were not invoked in the `helluva job’ that was performed immediately after the storm, and continues to be performed to this day. Likewise, the poor residents and vendors of urban neighbourhoods, in Bulawayo, in Harare, and in the other cities of Zimbabwe, were not identified as foreigners or as members of other religions or as any other Other. Instead, they were formally identified as informal residents of the metropolis, and so a danger that had to be removed, sent `back’ to the countryside. In New Orleans and in Harare, the victims of the violence are characterized by their indifferentiation. Formal citizens, they are residents of the informal. They carry the informal that lurks in all citizenship. They are the blur in the city of sharp reliefs, the smudge on the photo in the identity card.
The survivors refer to Katrina as “the storm,” the survivors refer to Operation Murambatsvina as `the tsunami.” In both instances, four years later, the survivors still wait for decent housing, the survivors still wait to go home.
Daniel Moshenberg is Director of the Women’s Studies Program, George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA, and the co-convener of Women In and Beyond the Global: an Open-Access Feminist Project.