Zimbabwe’s illegal urban settlements: A blessing or curse for government?

By Farai Shawn Matiashe

Posted on Thursday, 1 April 2021 19:29
Residents watch as municipal police demolish illegal structures during a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Harare
Residents watch as municipal police demolish illegal structures in Harare, Zimbabwe, April 24, 2020. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

In Zimbabwe, over 20,000 families are facing displacement from urban areas following a crackdown on land barons by President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government. Many of these residential settlements were created under Mugabe, when the ruling party Zanu-PF used land in urban areas to lure voters.

Many residents today are earmarked for relocation after being hit by flooding following the heavy rains of 2020/2021. Others will be forced to move because their houses had been built near railway lines and under electricity cables.

“Cabinet noted that following a countrywide assessment by joint ministerial teams, the number of households facing displacement stands at a national total of 21,852,” information minister Monica Mustvangwa said while addressing journalists after a cabinet meeting in Harare in mid-March this year.

The capital Harare, which tops the list of relocations, will see more than 15,000 families be displaced.

Zimbabwe’s land allocation system in the urban areas has been marred by corruption and often abused by politicians and business people linked to top government officials.

Scramble for land under Mugabe

In 2005, under the Mugabe regime, 700,000 people around the country — nearly 6% of the total population — were forcibly evicted from their homes through Operation Murambatsvina (clear the filth), according to the United Nations.

A report by Human Rights Watch alleges that the evictions were an act of retribution against those who voted for the opposition party, MDC, during elections in March 2005.

Armed police keep a close eye on people loading their property into a truck at Porta Farm, 15 kilometres (9 miles) west of Harare, Thursday, June, 30, 2005. (AP Photo)

Even though Mugabe’s regime cited the need to bring order in the city as the reason behind the demolitions, this statement did not address the issue of illegal settlements. The country began to witness a mushrooming of illegal structures in urban areas, parcelled by land barons a few years later.

Political analyst Alexander Rusero says the massive expansion in urban areas over the last 15 years also coincided with Mugabe’s populist sentiments of black empowerment and economic redistribution policies.

“A Mugabe philosophy of black owning property and seizing farms also contributed to the current urbanisation we are now witnessing, as indigenous black people with political connections could easily access State land and become land developers,” he tells The Africa Report.

The MDC also triggered the situation, says Rusero, being a party that resonated much with the urban populace and the realities that it controlled much of the local authorities in the urban areas resulted in them joining the scramble to parcel out the land.

“As Zanu PF was parcelling out farms, MDC was parcelling out residential stands in urban areas. Zanu PF did not seek to stop but rather locked with MDC by also forming several cooperatives that would also be allocated land,” he adds.

Luring voters in urban areas using land

The land is used as a tool to intimidate and cow the people. As a result, voting statistics in the past two elections show a trend of voters succumbing to the threats of evictions and demolitions of shelter. – Sesil Zvidzayi, MDC Alliance secretary for local government

Rusero says illegal settlements in urban areas were deliberately created under the Mugabe regime, to either lower urban voter margin or cajole some urban constituencies.

“Zanu PF created these urban settlements ‘parcelled’ by land barons to reduce MDC urban vote dynamics as well as amassing few urban seats, [in] Harare South for instance from MDC. They are a conduit used to reduce MDC influence,” he adds.

Sesil Zvidzayi, MDC Alliance secretary for local government, says the emerging settlements built without services and infrastructure, surrounding all urban areas are an attempt to influence the voting patterns in urban areas.

“Where poverty, [and] lack of shelter reigns, some voters are bound to respond to such cheap and dirty stimuli as to vote for Zanu PF. In any case, they have the threat of eviction hanging on their necks if voting patterns fail to favor Zanu PF,” he tells The Africa Report.

“The land is used as a tool to intimidate and cow the people. As a result, voting statistics in the past two elections show a trend of voters succumbing to the threats of evictions and demolitions of shelter.”

Mnangagwa declares war on land barons

Land barons must know their party is over. Tafadzwa Mugwadi, Zanu PF director of information

In 2018, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who came to power following a military coup that toppled his mentor and long-time ruler, the late Robert Mugabe in 2017, appointed a Commission of Inquiry on State land which was headed by retired judge Tendai Uchena.

After investigations in all 10 provinces, the Commission unearthed over 300 cases of State land theft across the country.

“The identification and occupation of farms in and around urban areas was a complex process which involved [the] creation of new urban settlements by aspiring or sitting members of parliament as a way of mobilising political support,” reads part of the report which was presented to Mnangagwa in December 2019. Its contents have not all been made public.

In December 2020, at least 190 houses were demolished in Budiriro, a high-density suburb in Harare as Mnangagwa cracked down on land barons.

Zanu PF director of information Tafadzwa Mugwadi says his party does not support land barons. “Land barons must know their party is over,” he tells The Africa Report.

“There is a false narrative that land barons have the support of Zanu-PF. That is a misconception. This is just namedropping by the MDC Alliance. They use names of liberation heroes and members of the public become gullible,” he says.

He denies that Zanu PF uses illegal settlements to lure voters. “We have won support in urban areas because of sound policies such as the Transitional Stabilisation Programme which has been replaced by the National Development Strategy,” he adds.

Zanu PF is not engaged in any housing scheme, Mugawadi says, and even if they decided to do, so they would do it through responsible ministries and not land barons.

Rusero, however, believes Mnangagwa is using the whip on land barons as a weapon to target G40 cabals: a faction that was aligned to Mugabe and his wife Grace.

“Land barons are falling because they were a G40 design, not Mnangagwa’s sincerity. He is annihilating and grounding G40 to the core. It is a weapon he shall conveniently use to target perceived G40 sympathizers,” he says.

And in doing so, the people at the centre of the disputed land, will once again be used as pawns for political gain or loss.

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