‘State of Emergency’: The politics of Zimbabwe’s cholera outbreak, 2008-2009

In August 2008, the impoverished urban townships in Harare’s metropolitan area were engulfed by a devastating cholera outbreak. The disease rapidly spread into peri-urban and rural areas in Zimbabwe before crossing the country’s borders into South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Mozambique. With an unprecendented 98,000 suspected cases and over 4,000 confirmed deaths, Zimbabwe’s 2008 cholera outbreak has been deemed the largest and most extensive in recorded African history.  Epidemiologically, the outbreak can be explained by the breakdown and cross-contamination of the city’s water and sanitation systems. Such a reading, however, belies the complex interaction of political, economic, and historical factors that initially gave rise to the dysfunction of the water systems, that delineate the socio-spatial pattern of the outbreak, and that account for the fragmented and inadequate response of the national health system. In this way, cholera was not only a social crisis; it also signalled a new dimension to Zimbabwe’s deepening political and economic crisis in 2008, which brought into question the capacity and legitimacy of the state. In this thesis, I examine the cholera outbreak as a socio-political phenomenon. From this perspective, I suggest that cholera in Zimbabwe maps onto wider themes of livelihoods and inequality, humanitarianism and citizenship, and, crucially, the relationship between ‘the state’ and ‘the public’. Thus the key question that I seek to answer in my thesis is: ‘In what ways was the cholera epidemic imbricated in state-society relations in Zimbabwe and what did this mean for imaginaries of the state?’

Simukai Chigudu
Associate Professor of African Politics