Demolitions: Spare the innocent poor

The current attempts by the government to legalise settlements in urban areas through the demolition of illegal structures that have sprouted over the years unfairly places poor citizens at a disadvantage and fails to acknowledge that the blame lies elsewhere.

Tawanda Majoni
Tawanda Majoni

If anything, the potential victims of Murambatsvina II – which intends to tear down tens of thousands of housing and income-generating structures – must be spared the ill-conceived, if not illegal, destruction of their properties. Those who have directly and indirectly spawned the sprouting of these structures should shoulder the burden of righting the problem at minimal, if any, cost to the victims.

That the unofficial structures have spread, not only in Harare and Chitungwiza but across the country in recent years, despite the spine chilling memories of 2005 when government launched Operation Murambatsvina, betrays an acute hunger for accommodation and extreme poverty of so many.

This is the first reality that Local Government Minister, Ignatius Chombo, and the government must appreciate. People need shelter and they don’t have it. They need jobs and they don’t have them. They need to make ends meet somehow. They are desperate and would cling to any opportunity to get a roof over their heads and a semblance of food on the table. That is why they have jumped at the slightest available chance to build a house and set up tuck shops whenever they have been offered the space to do so.

It is a fact that some powerful people have taken advantage of their vulnerability to dupe them of their modest earnings for space to build their structures. In most cases, my own investigations show, the poor people have paid for land ill-gotten by some influential community leaders and proceeded with construction under the belief that everything was being done above board.

When you have lived as a backyard tenant vulnerable to all sorts of ill-treatment by landlords for so many years, and your family is growing, you don’t think twice when you are offered a stand at what seems to be a manageable price.

It turns out that these new home owners are victims of cheating and corruption by powerful people who have formed all manner of cooperatives that they claimed were legally registered. These are the people who need eviction, to the farthest corner of Chikurubi Maximum Prison, not the poor home-seekers. When I talked to Minister Chombo last week on this matter, I was heartened by the fact that, at least, he acknowledged where the primary blame lies. My hope is that he will take note of this when his ministry comes up with its intended action plan regarding illegal structures.

While some sharks took advantage of a hapless population desperate for accommodation and a means to make a living, the government should accept blame as well. I don’t understand why it had to wait for so long to appreciate that there was a problem with the illegal structures. It turned a blind eye to a disease that has now spread widely, instead of nipping it in the bud. In that regard, it ought to accept that it is also a culprit.

Not only has government ignored a growing malaise; it has also reneged on its core duty of providing shelter, as spelt out under the constitutional Bill of Rights and also as promised in Zanu (PF)’s election manifesto. Chombo told me that Harare alone has 60,000 housing stands available for low income earners. If that is the case, why has it taken this long to make them available to deserving beneficiaries?

Instead, the government has been busy parcelling out available land and commercial stands to the Chinese and the Nigerians (what happened to the indigenisation policy?) Locals have been singing the blues, apparently because they lack the capacity to pay bribes to municipal authorities.

Even if those who are now illegally settled were to be given those stands now, the problem is that it is too late; the poor have used their meagre resources to build their houses and are unlikely to receive compensation. The proposed allocation of stands is prone to further corruption as those that would be given the mandate to do so are bound to demand kickbacks from an already vulnerable and impoverished mass.

The government must just fix the economy and create employment if it wants people to desist from building tuck shops everywhere. It must take away the land it has given to the Chinese and Nigerians and find a cheap way of ensuring that our enterprising locals get space to sell their wares and earn a decent living.

I acknowledge that there were extreme cases, such as when people were given land under high voltage power pylons or on existing sewer points. For their safety, these are the ones who need to be resettled. However, the burden of compensation lies squarely with those who gave them the land in the first place, among them local authorities and the government, which is guilty of neglecting its duty of providing decent shelter for all citizens. – For feedback, please write to [email protected]

Post published in: Analysis

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