Nearly exactly a year ago, Justice Uchena to little fanfare or political noise handed over the Commission of Inquiry into the Sale of Urban State Land. For those lying on the periphery of burgeoning cities in the country, especially Harare and Bulawayo, this commission held results and recommendations that had tangible effects on their lives. Would their houses be demolished? Would land barons be arrested? Would the ministry or city council come in and take over? So many unknowns. The commission unfortunately and expectedly has never become public. What has become a stark reality over the last 3 months is systematic demolition of houses, arrests of land barons and growing inequality in urban areas. What does it all mean? Among other questions, is President Mnangagwa following the recommendations of the Commission without publicizing the report?
What did the Land commission say?
The only parts of the Commission that were made public was the executive summary that Justice Uchena presented to the President. In his summary, the learned judge stated that over 170 farms around urban areas were handed over for development into residential areas. Because of a spiderweb of corruption, maladministration, incompetence, the state had lost about US$3 billion worth of land, to land barons through a mixture of co-operatives, trusts, and land developers. The main reason this commission was important was its ability to create a broad map of what was happening in this sector of Zimbabwean life. The President not publishing the commission in full made a known secret a fact; most of the land taken from the state belonged to people in the ruling party, ZANU-PF and/or their connections. This state land was used as a political tool for votes and more importantly for the self-enrichment of land barons.
Land barons, rightfully so, have received the strongest hate from the general public for the last decade. As noted in the Commission, land barons are usually politically connected, powerful, self-proclaimed illegal state land ‘authorities’ who illegally sold state land in and around urban areas without accounting for the proceeds. They were able to sell this land to desperate buyers because of the severe housing shortage in the nation especially in cities were the opportunity for economic and social mobility are highest. Selling stands became one of the most profitable methods of wealth accumulation. Stands were being sold in areas were no infrastructure such as roads, electricity, or water had been set up. This was legally possible through laws pushed through by the former minister of Local Government Ignatious Chombo that allowed land developers to side-step these basics. The loopholes created in the law and corruption also led to shortcuts being taken regarding dishing out of title deeds and maps with road designs and social amenity allocations such as schools and clinics. Gradually, home buyers built houses were roads, houses, and clinics were meant to be.
It is in this context that the current drive of demolitions is taking place. Desperate house seekers who built and invested in houses worth atleast US$10 000-US$50 000 are seeing their house being demolished. The Minster of Housing and Social Amenities, Daniel Garwe has unapologetically taken the hard stance of destroying any houses that were allocated and built illegally. This places thousands of houses in jeopardy of being destroyed. Demolitions in Chitungwiza, Zimre Park and most recently Budiriro have received media attention. This immediate result although very important dwarfs in comparison to the long-term effects of housing inequality.
A remnant of colonialism is that our financial industry is intrinsically linked and heavily biased towards home-ownership when it comes to accessing finance. This affects the speed at which houses are built, access to business or education loans. In other words, it is very difficult especially for working/middle class families to increase their income, take their children to good schools, start, or grow their businesses without a house in their name they can use as collateral. It is why the regularization of houses is vital for thousands of families. It will provide a platform from which to launch their family and indeed the country to a higher level of investment and saving.
Additionally, housing and location of ones’ house has a long term effect on access to social and economic amenities such as schools, shopping areas and proximity to the Central Business district. Very little has been done to build new schools or shopping areas as urban areas have grown. This has partially led to a concentration of wealth in already established suburbs as evidenced in the growing sub-dividing trend.
Authentic Co-operatives and POAs.
A combination of the demolition programme, land barons, growing housing inequality and the side-lining of the MDC-Alliance opposition and councils (whose official position is regularization rather than demolition of houses) leaves home-seekers and owners with few options. Regardless, they still have options which are ‘authentic co-operatives’ and Property Owners Associations (POAs). Firstly, I argue for authentic co-operatives because the co-operatives that we know of mired in scandals do not function as housing co-operatives. In housing co-operatives, each member of the co-op has a voice and vote regarding usage of funds and what needs to be done. The co-ops that have proliferated all over urban areas rarely function in that manner.
The other option is that of Property Owners Associations (POAs). POAs for all intents and purposes function like a housing co-op but are differentiated by the laws that the residents would have used to set it up. Rather than the Co-operatives Act, they set up a Trust. This system has had notable successes. For example, the leafy suburb of Borrowdale Brooke has the Borrowdale Brooke Home Owners Association. The Association were recently successful in the construction of a sewage system for their area. The land commission also called the ministry of local government to set up “interim management body or structure for areas such as Caledonia, Nyatsime and Crowhill in order to fill the administrative vacuum and spearhead development.” In accordance with that recommendation, the Crowhill community have set up an Association which is currently registering (online and digital) all the 5000+ homeowners in their area and have produced a development budget for roads and water in their area. They have managed to come together and connected the community to the national electricity grid. The make-up of this community, which is teachers, lecturers, secretaries, drivers, self-employed entrepreneurs and some professionals shows that the Association structure is one that can be used by any urban community.
It is clear that President Mnangagwa’s government is implementing recommendations provided in the in the Uchena Commission report. The implementation is not wholesome however as they are cherry picking the parts of the commission that will not cause instability among the elites who were or are land barons. This also means that the desperate homeowners need to find ways to strengthen grassroot structures to organize and legitimize their ownership. Genuine co-operatives where homeowners vote and control finances, property owners associations as seen in Borrowdale Brooke and Crowhill are tangible alternatives that homeowners need to look into and take action on.