29 January 2016

Zimbabwe: Demolitions and Lessons Unlearnt

The past couple of years have been dominated by the salary scandals in parastatals and other quasi-government institutions. This year has begun ominously with the destruction of illegal settlements which have sprouted around Harare over the past few years.

People watched with shock as council bulldozers razed what looked like upmarket houses on Arlington Estate along Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo Expressway near Harare International Airport.

These were juxtaposed with the typical unsightly eruptions consistent with the efforts of the poorest of the poor in our society desperate to provide shelter to their families, which is most likely what caught the President's eye on the day he officially opened that highway.

Those who should have approved or disallowed the construction of such structures, this being an urban area, now claim they don't know how they came about.

Those with keen eyes estimate the cost of building houses at between $30 000 and $50 000.

The resultant destruction doesn't paint a profile of a Government and a ruling party with human heart but provides gratuitous, unsolicited propaganda grist for their enemies. But that is only part of the story.

At the core of the current trauma and heartbreaks of those affected is a question we asked soon after President Mugabe ordered that the people illegally settled on what should be land reserved for the expansion of the Harare International Airport.

We asked whether the President had to move around the city to point out illegal settlements when he has foot soldiers who are his ears and eyes and are employed to administer the law? They are clearly not doing that.

The people responsible for the administration of Harare have reportedly denied any association with the letters the local authority signed, paving way for the construction of houses on Arlington Estate.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe has also washed its hands off the mess.

Both institutions, we assume, should have maps of the masterplan of Harare.

The local authority should be pointing out the pegs of every possible structure around the city, whether its shops, recreation, school, church or a gravesite.

For its part, we assume the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe is in charge of the country's airports, their sizes, handling capacity and limitations and future expansion plans.

Both, we assume, know and share knowledge and information on who owns what land around the city and how Government can in future acquire such private land for public purpose under powers of eminent domain.

The feigned ignorance of the two institutions about the construction of houses near Harare International Airport borders on criminal dereliction of duty. Or tells us of grand corruption involving senior officials.

It is inconceivable that the noble institution of housing cooperatives can be solely blamed for Harare City Council neglecting its core business of not only providing sufficient residential accommodation for residents but also failing completely to supervise and oversee the construction of houses suitable for human habitation in its environs.

What is the role of its department of housing? Whose housing? Where?

The trouble is that this is not a new discovery. It is like a replay of Operation Murambatsvina of 2005. That too was a result of local authorities not exercising their oversight mandate in the construction of houses in and around the city.

People were left to make additions and alterations to existing, approved houses. The result was unhealthy overcrowding of both the houses and the sewer system, overburdening water and road infrastructure. Government had to intervene to avert a health catastrophe.

Overnight, we could see the original houses in Mufakose, Highfield, Mbare, Dzivarasekwa, Kuwadzana and other high density residential areas.

People could breathe again. We thought we had seen enough of that and lessons had been learnt. How wrong we were!

Since then, we have witnessed a lot of backsliding into the bad habits of the past -- houses being constructed in graveyards, under electricity pylons, along river banks, on wetlands, on private land and sometimes too close to roads, leaving very little room for future expansion. In most of these projects, there is no sign of council supervision. There is no evidence of sewage or water infrastructure. There are no roads.

But people live there. Zesa has connected electricity. It is only council officials who have no eyes to see what everybody else witnesses without even the aid of an investigation.

A drive along Mutare Road in Ruwa will show you houses under tiles built on a stream. Council can't see.

Opposite Maranatha High School near Haig Park in Mabelreign are houses under tiles built on a stream. Council can't see them.

In the city centre one, can park anywhere, facing whichever direction. Council can't see. A vendor can set up his stall in front of OK or Town House. Council can't see.

Perhaps somebody has blinded council officials with the flash of US dollars.

The latest haphazard projects and the subsequent destruction stand out as the most unkind cuts of all on the poor and a stab on the back of Government.

Zanu-PF won the 2013 harmonised elections on the strength of its black empowerment policies.

No empowerment is better than providing people with accommodation and jobs in the short-term.

In the face of local authorities crippled by extravagance and corruption in the provision of residential accommodation, many people deployed their resourcefulness to empower themselves instead of waiting and blaming Government and the ruling party.

Few have ever had faith in the feckless opposition councillors, most of whom were homeless in 2000 but are now multiple home owners.

We have an economy crippled by sanctions.

A majority of the people have no formal jobs. Most have accepted that this is the price we have to pay for challenging the capitalist minority system.

Those are people who feed their families toiling in the informal sector, scrimping on every cent to build shelter for their family, literally brick by brick.

The least they can expect from Government is support for their efforts by whatever it can manage, whether it be by provision of land, tarred roads, water or lighting.

Instead what has emerged are so-called land barons who have taken over what normally should be the responsibility of local authorities supplemented by housing cooperatives.

They have assumed control over all urban land. They know no rules. They can bypass councils or buy the silence or blindness of its officials. They have made money out of the sweat of struggling masses using the name of the ruling party, in some cases even that of the First Lady.

These are the people both Government and the party don't need. They have succeeded more than the opposition could ever have done to alienate from the ruling party and Government the poor and their families to the third and fourth generation.

Government only rubs in the salt when none of these greedy fellows is ever punished and the poor are not compensated.

The poor whose houses have been wantonly destroyed, whatever their perceived sins of omission, demand no more no less than compensation and punishment for the wrong done.


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