Zimbabwe’s housing crisis far from over
RUBBLE of broken farm bricks, coated by dried up cement mortar lies strewn over an area as large as a football pitch on the outskirts of Harare’s Budiriro 4 high density suburb.
The scene, strikingly reminiscent of the country’s 2005 Operation Murambatsvina or Operation Restore Order that directly affected 700 000 people and another 2,5 million indirectly, is so close to call.
The latest demolitions are sending shockwaves across the country.
A week after the Harare City Council, backed up by the Zimbabwe Republic Police details, razed dozens of houses at the site, an eerie silence is thick in the air.
Occupants of nearby houses, that survived the demolitions, nervously gazed at the Financial Gazette vehicle as it bumped and swayed along a rugged path that serves as the access road to a settlement that can easily pass for a squatter camp.
While their neighbours’ houses were destroyed because they were said to be occupying land earmarked for a school, the residents’ general uneasiness at the sight of strangers is telling of a community that is ever edgy and vigilant to any possibility of further demolitions that may target them.
Just a quick glance at the general outlook of the rest of the settlement that was spared from the council bulldozers, clearly reveals that there is nothing legal about it and the call for a cease fire on any further planned demolitions has brought some form of relief.
Local Government, Public Works and National Housing Minister, Saviour Kasukuwere, has asked the country’s local authorities to shelve any further plans to demolish houses illegally built on council or State land.
Instead, Kasukuwere has asked councils to hunt for the land barons that allocated people the stands on which unsuspecting residents built their houses.
Whether the Minister’s call has effectively stopped the demolitions for good or not is anyone’s guess since he merely said councils should first gun for the land barons who parcelled out the land to desperate home seekers.
Kasukuwere wants the land barons to compensate the home seekers, but was mum as to what happens afterwards.
Council spokesman, Michael Chideme, refused to be drawn to comment on whether the demolitions will resume again, but only said their brief as council was to hunt down the land barons, in the interim.
Driving around the city’s suburbs, especially the high-density areas, something painfully sticks out like a sore thumb.
Zimbabwean urban populations are desperate for not just descent housing, but eager to also have something above their heads, they can call home.And both government and its local authorities have evidently been sleeping on the wheel in terms of planning and providing the means for people to own homes.
It is disturbing to realise that in a country where land is not in short supply, people have been allowed to be so desperate as to fall prey to land barons who neither had title deeds to the land they were selling nor authority to do so, serve for, in most cases, two flags: The Zimbabwe flag and another belonging to the ruling ZANU-PF party.
Some council officials were also known to have offered nothing, but their council positions, to show desperate home seekers that their land allocations were above board and genuine.
When one day the full story of the country’s urban housing chaos is finally told, it would be amiss not to mention that Zimbabwe’s urbanites, once upon a time, exhibited extraordinary naivety and desperation just to have a roof over their heads.
Also, the country’s housing disaster would be incomplete if there is no mention that government lassitude and self-serving political manoeuvres by some influential politicians conspired to prey on people’s desperation.
The United Nations Habitat Zimbabwe report states that Zimbabwe may have seen the current housing disaster coming and twice tried to bring sanity, but rapid urban population growth has been its major arch-enemy.
According to UN Habitat, the country’s 1980 independence ushered a rapid growth in urban population that increased by 23 percent in 1982 to 30 percent by the early 1990s.
UN Habitat has thus concluded: “This trend, typical of many developing countries, can be described as the ‘challenge of rapid urbanisation’ whereby people migrating to urban areas improve their livelihoods in terms of income opportunities and access to social services, while cities, as economic units, witness impoverishment.
“This impoverishment arises from two inter-related phenomena.
“First, many migrants to the city operate in the informal economy, despite their active contribution to the urban economy, and they rarely pay taxes or fees in direct proportion to the services they use. Second, most local authorities depend, to a large extent, on central government transfers which rarely increase in proportion to demographic growth, thus contributing to declining municipal revenues and expenditures in per capita terms. This vicious circle translates into a serious erosion of local government capacity in terms of planning, environmental management and the provision of basic services… This strained the capacities of both central and local spheres of government to provide housing and basic urban services for the urban poor.”
As things stand, everything points to a crisis far from over.