18 July 2012

Zimbabwe: Single Men's Hostels - Have They Outlived Purpose?


The 58 single men's hostels in Mbare were one of the worst inheritances of the settler era: just what was to be done with these well-constructed buildings, in a city with housing shortages, but which had served a poor purpose?

The idea behind the hostels dates right back to the first mine compounds in Kimberley, developed by Cecil Rhodes and his friends, which presented the dark vision of pools of cheap temporary labour locked away from real world with the men returning to their "native" areas after earning trivial sums to pay taxes.

Families were forbidden to come and live with the worker; only labour was wanted, not people.

More enlightened settler thinkers over time saw the stark horror of that labour system, and created even within the apartheid and apartheid-type systems new suburbs with family houses, which presented no problem with Zimbabwe's independence, just an opportunity for families to now buy the homes they had rented for so long.

But unlike most of the rest of the colonial Rhodesian cities, the then Salisbury was still obsessed with migrant labour and during the 1950s and 1960s built those 58 hostels with the municipality forbidding residents of its own "townships" taking in lodgers.

Other cities were smarter. Bulawayo has just one municipal hostel block, plus a handful that were built by the railways.

Residents were encouraged to take in lodgers so they could buy their homes.

At independence no one really thought about what could happen.

The rules banning families were left to die, so the men brought their families to Harare and, finding nowhere else to live, started subdividing their rooms.

Now close to 60 000 people live in the worst slum in Zimbabwe.

The original inhabitants have long gone, but families who can afford no more than US$20 a month still crowd into a corner of an old room that has not been painted or maintained for more than three decades.

Lots of plans have been made, most seeing the conversion of the blocks into flats since the outer structure is still sound.

But every single plan has run into a brick wall; what do we do with the people, the 55 000 to 60 000 men, women and children who have nowhere else to live?

We need to remember that a step up for these families was renting a shack in a back yard, and then a single room in a real house.

No family stayed once they could afford to make even that move.

Once the people were allowed to move in an insurmountable problem was created.

If the hostels were empty, and converted into even basic flats, others would buy or rent them. It is unlikely that more than a tiny handful of present residents could afford the new flats.

Local Government, Rural and Urban Development Minister Ignatius Chombo is clearly fed up and frustrated.

He now wants them demolished. We agree "renovation" is out. Who needs renovated single men's hostels?

The choice between conversion to another use or demolition is largely economic. Would it be cheaper to convert 40-year-old plus buildings or cheaper to start from scratch.

But as we stress, all solutions depend on empty buildings.

Obviously the problem is so large that we cannot move the people out immediately, but the city council can start by taking control of these hostels and forbidding any new residents from moving in.

We need to remember that no one lives in these hostels by choice.

The minute a family hits the minimum wage they rent a room somewhere else. Up to now that constant procession of families moving out has been matched by new families moving in.

Block the inflow and decongestion starts immediately.

As numbers fall then the solutions, from conversion to low-cost subsidised housing to outright demolition all become possible, and the final result can be based on a host of economic, social and political factors.

But taking up the Minister's argument, we would say that either the conversion is so thorough going that the area changes its outlook totally with no chance of reversion to a slum, or the hostels are demolished so that they cannot ever revert if the authorities take their eyes off them for a minute.

So the city council, for a start, has to seize control of the hostels from the lucky few who official rent the rooms, but all live elsewhere, register the residents and collect the peppercorn rents itself, ensure that no one new moves in and then just wait.

Within a very few years most people will have moved out.

No one wants to live like that.

For too long the council has abdicated responsibility, pretending not to see what has happened. If the Minister's wake-up call forces creative action then he has achieved his purpose.

We cannot let that slum continue, getting worse by the year as the buildings deteriorate further. One way or another it must go.

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