Politics of land baron-ship in Zim
“PAMBERI neZANU-PF!” a well-built man with an Osama Bin Laden beard matched with green para-military fatigues — who thankfully appears to be on the less worrisome side of 50 — shouts with a voice that insults the intelligence of the person who invented a loudspeaker.
“Pamberi!” the hundreds of people at the gathering respond with so much gusto that would leave a leader of an average Pentecostal church green with envy.
“Pamberi naComrade Robert Mugabe!”
The fiery man asks for one member of the gathering to bless the meeting with a prayer.
A woman volunteers with so much alacrity that would make God himself very proud.
Her teary prayer opens with heartfelt supplications to God and the gods to give President Robert Mugabe an everlasting life, even dutifully quoting the Good Book’s Isaiah Chapter 54 verse 17.
The woman goes on to unspool an elaborate tale of grievances for which she passionately pleads with God and the gods to unleash the harshest punishment possible on Zimbabwe’s enemies — the British and their equally evil American cousins — for imposing illegal sanctions on the country, which sanctions have caused untold suffering among peace-loving Zimbabweans, in their wicked regime change agenda… blah, blah!
After the “prayer” the charismatic man breaks into the most energetic dance ever seen — a dance which sees his legs harshly punishing the ground under him with more force than that of all the pistons of a diesel engine combined — as he leads his thoroughly overjoyed followers in an incomprehensible ditty that praises everything from the legendary spirit mediums Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi, to the thoroughly well-deserved defeat of the British imperialists, to ZANU-PF’s win in the last election, to the “success” of the country’s land reform programme, right to the “guaranteed” success of the country economic turn-around programme, the Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Socia-Eonomic Transformation.
It would be an unforgivable cruel injustice not to forgive a stranger at such a meeting for innocently concluding that Zimbabwe is on the verge of another election.
But this is just a gathering of members of a housing co-operative on the outskirts of the now ever-expanding capital, Harare.
Abundantly resourceful as Zimbabweans are known to be, there has never been a shortage of colourful, revolutionary-sounding names and every housing co-operative that mushrooms to lay a God-given claim on any open space of urban land makes sure it gets its fair share of these names that primarily serve to give prospective detractors good reasons to have second thoughts.
The names of these co-operatives could be anything from Magamba eChimurenga, Mbuya Nehanda, Rakadeuka, Third Chimurenga, Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo, Ivhu Ratakafira, Ropa Remagamba, Mwana Wevhu, Takasunungurwa, Rambai Makashinga and some such.
The meeting progresses very well as the fearsome chairman updates his subjects on the progress the co-operative is making, ending his remarks with threats to eject those members who are not up-to-date with their payments as well as suspected opposition members and sympathisers.
Very few questions are asked as members know that posing any knotty question to the chairman could earn them the tag of being an opposition member, an unforgivable crime that can lead to a summary dismissal… or worse.
However, a few months down the line, these cheerful and seemingly fearsome members of the housing co-operatives are crying tears of blood.
A team of suddenly energetic municipal workers — who would certainly be assured of sweeping clean the medals’ table if sadism were an Olympic sport — descends on the housing project with front-end loaders and no-nonsensely armed police details in tow to “assist” the co-operators in pulling down their illegal structures.
Houses — among them beautiful mansions — some of which would have cost their owners thousands of dollars to build, are reduced to rubbles in a matter of minutes.
By this time, the man in his trademark green fatigues — a self-styled land baron with rock-solid political connections within the ruling elite — is nowhere to be seen. He could possibly be on a cosy holiday in Cape Town, China or even Dubai, enjoying the proceeds of his “hard work”.
No matter the level of their patriotism and repeated assurances from the land baron that “this is our land and we own it whole and raw!”— sometimes supported by seemingly genuine documentary evidence that the housing development is above board — the painful truth remains that this particular housing co-operative is one of the several dozens of illegal outfits that have no right what-so-ever to be parcelling out land to desperate home-seekers in exchange for their hard-earned money under the law.
It is highly unlikely that President Mugabe is even aware that his name (and sometimes that of his wife, Grace) is routinely used by rogue members of his party to fleece Zimbabweans of their money.
A number of ZANU-PF members, including its youth leader, Godwin Gomwe, are currently standing trial for using either ZANU-PF or President Mugabe’s name or that of his wife to extort money from hapless Zimbabweans.
Analysts this week pointed out that the emergence of these untouchable land barons who wantonly give desperate home-seekers real nightmares only serves to highlight the level of lawlessness that the country has degenerated into.
Takura Zhangazha, a political analyst, blamed the problem of land barons on the chaotic land reform programme that he said created a breed of party-aligned criminals that seized the confusion to become a law unto themselves.
“It is the murky linkages of politicians, property developers and the potential abuse of the land reform programme that should worry all Zimbabweans,” Zhangazha said.
“Even more important questions relate to examining the link between urban land and the fast track land reform programme (FTLRP). Are there emerging land barons/baronesses who are unprofessional and take advantage of citizens that are desperate to own urban houses? And by so doing, utilise the FTLRP to, not only get the land for a pittance but to also make huge profits from it.
“The only problem is that sometimes these approvals from both central and local government are not necessarily transparent and clear. This was the case in Chitungwiza and Manyame where houses were demolished and the potential case in other areas where people are set to lose homes or their investments.”
So big has become the problem that even those in government circles are beginning to clamour for action.
Writing in a local daily, former editor of a State weekly, Edmund Kudzayi, said only the arrest and prosecution of land barons would end the problem.
“What often goes unmentioned is that many of the people whose houses are being demolished actually had authorisation from council, or what seemed to be. Whether or not this is the work of rogue officials is another matter,” Kudzayi pointed out.
“What is clear is that no right thinking person would simply wake up and start building a US$70 000 house on land they know fully well to be illegal.”
Harare mayor Bernard Manyenyeni told the Financial Gazette in an interview that the problem could be tracked to individuals with political connections and it’s clear that they share their loot with their political godfathers.
“The perception is that there are some godfathers in these illegal housing developments and there are both political and economic dividends accruing to those responsible that are widely shared,” Manyenyeni said.
“Previous ‘actions’ have at best been token but more likely ‘insincere’ (but) I sense a greater and more genuine commitment to arresting the menace (this time around as) there just seems to be a greater resolve to sort out the problem.
It may not result in arrests or convictions but will probably be enough to reduce the chaos. We don’t see blazing guns but enough noises to correct aspects of the menace,” added the mayor from the opposition MDC-T party.
The political dividend accrues to the godfathers in the form of short-term popularity of the party dishing out land the way ZANU-PF has been doing in Harare South where it went on to win in the past two elections.
Added Zhangazha: “Government may claim to be investigating these only for expedient reasons but essentially it is the politics and political connections that will determine the outcome.”
One junior land baron in Caledonia, to the east of Harare, reportedly sold more than 300 stands which, at an average price of US$5 000, could have earned him a cool US$1,5 million.
Zimbabwe has other bigger and more powerful land barons some of whom are reported to have sold as much as 20 000 stands.
In 2006, this writer visited a renowned Harare project manager he had known while he (the manager) was working on a local platinum firm’s highway project.
Working as he was doing for a regional construction journal, the writer had been summonsed for a briefing on “something big” that was about to happen.
Upon being ushered into the manager’s spacious office, he was confronted with a whole wall plastered with site plans of detailed residential stands to the south of Harare where a retired army general was planning to develop “the biggest residential suburb in the country” — over 200 000 stands in total.
“We will start selling them shortly,” he told this writer. “Let me tell you this in total confidence — this is what caused Murambatsvina… to create demand for these stands!”
More than a year later the project manager’s all-white firm (possibly carefully chosen to squelch any lingering suspicions among ordinary Zimbabweans who appear to trust whites more) had not put the stands on the market.
This writer passed through to solicit a progress report.
“These bloody diamonds! The general has abandoned the project for diamonds because he can make quick cash from the diamonds instead of waiting for home-seekers to pay him over 25 years when he could as well be dead!” the manager told this writer, again in confidence.
Until now, this writer — who spent a cold winter month living in a roofless house as a result of Operation Murambatsvina — has had no way of verifying if it was a fact that the influential general had a hand in the ghastly operation that, according to United Nations’ commissioner Anna Tibaijuka’s report, left more than 700 000 people homeless.
There have been suggestions that ZANU-PF wanted to disperse opposition supporters who were concentrated in urban centres, but the operation was curiously unleashed just three months after the party had won the 2005 elections. Such could be the power of land barons. - Cyril Zenda