Harare, Zimbabwe – Chengeto Tapfuma, 59, has become accustomed to pain and loss.
Three years ago, she lost her only daughter after a long illness and became the sole provider for her four grandchildren, who are now aged between eight and 13.
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The oldest will start secondary school in Harare’s Budiriro suburb, close to where they live, next year.
While she was still mourning her daughter’s death, her two-roomed cottage, the place she has called home for the past 10 years, was levelled after being declared an “illegal structure”, leaving her young family homeless.
As a bulldozer roared into the sprouting suburb on December 8, residents were ordered from their homes with the few possessions they could grab, and then the demolitions began.
Together with 134 other households in Budiriro 5, an extension of Harare’s Budiriro suburb which has grown up over the past 10 years as people have built informal structures there, they stood in the heavy rain and watched as their homes were pulled down.
Like councils in other urban areas of Zimbabwe, Harare City Council is facing a rise in illegal settlements which have emerged as powerful businessmen known as land barons have parcelled out land without proper planning and approval.
While many legal housing cooperatives, which are approved and registered by city councils, do buy land in order to help local people build homes, some land barons have set up illegal housing associations and have illegally sold land they do not own to unsuspecting residents.
As a result, Harare City Council has taken legal action to deal with the malpractice, targeting more than 20 housing cooperatives it says are operating illegally.
“Due to the rampant illegal occupation on open spaces of land by land barons in Harare, the Harare City Council took illegal occupants of such land to court,” the minister of local government, July Moyo, said on December 16, one week after the demolitions in Budiriro 5. “To date, Harare City Council has secured 23 court rulings in their favour, and 22 are yet to be executed.”
The Budiriro 5 demolition was the first of these 23 orders to be executed and the casualties are the local residents, who say they believed they had bought their land plots in good faith from a legitimate housing association.
Waiting in vain and in the rain
After the demolition gang departed Budiriro 5, mountains of crumbling brickwork and rubble remained, a reminder of more than 10 years of investment and sweat by the homeowners gone to waste in an instant. With her grandchildren wailing in the rain, clinging to her arms and legs, Chengeto says the agony of losing her daughter came right back to her.
Her pain and frustration are evident. “It seems like a vital organ was forcibly extracted from my fragile body,” she says. “Speaking to anyone, even you journalists, is helpless because nobody is willing to listen and help us anyway.”
After the demolition of her home, Chengeto managed to put up a small shack on the site, but all of her personal possessions were lost when the bulldozers came.
At night, Chengeto and her grandchildren shelter in the shack. But when the rain is too heavy, the family tries to stay with relatives in the area. Meals most days are donated by well-wishers.
Feeding a fire to boil water for tea, Chengeto says, “The government promised to bring us food and tents to shelter us, but they haven’t come back yet. We have nothing to feed the children, after everything was damaged by the rain.
“We have nowhere else to go, this is our home.”
Game of thrones
Chengeto’s life – and the lives of her neighbours – has been thrown into chaos because of a dispute over ownership of the land on which their homes were built.
Residents say they bought their plots of land from Tembwe Housing Cooperative in 2010, making them the lawful owners. Members of the cooperative have paid monthly subscriptions for their plots; in total, the 134 members of Tembwe Housing Cooperative say they have each contributed $3,600 since 2010. It is a large sum considering that many families here earn about $50 per month.
They say that Tembwe Housing Cooperative, whose name is derived from the armed struggle against British colonial rule, which ended in 1980, told them it had acquired the land lawfully from the council.
But Harare City Council claims it did not sell the land to Tembwe Housing Cooperative and instead, it announced in 2015 that it intended to sell the land to another cooperative – Events Housing. The resulting dispute has been raging ever since.
In a December 16 statement following the demolitions, July Moyo, the local government minister, said, “While it is a fact that Events Housing Cooperative was in the process of being allocated the said piece of land, Tembwe Housing Cooperative invaded the land resulting in the Harare City Council and the two cooperatives dragging each other to court.
“The occupations are also championed by individuals who are seeking to profiteer from the ordinary peoples’ quest for land and housing. These land barons are causing chaos and frustrating orderly development in Harare.”
The residents do not agree with this version of events. Jennifer Mtami, 31, a mother of five who has been displaced by the demolitions, says, “We were told by both the city council and the government department that registers cooperatives that our cooperative was legally registered with the government. Every member contributed US$30 per month as subscription fees, and we wanted development to take place. We got water connection that was inspected by the city council.”
Land disputes between cooperatives or with the city council regarding boundaries and proper use of an area are not uncommon, particularly where land is of high quality.
Unlike other wetlands in the area – areas where water covers the soil, or is present at or near its surface – this portion of land has attracted a lot of interest from rival developers because of the good quality of its soil, and its suitability for building and habitation. Other wetlands which have been occupied across Harare and neighbouring towns have, by contrast, been frequently flooded.
A 2019 inquiry commissioned by President Emmerson Mnangagwa into the sale of state land by land barons and the city councils in and around urban areas since 2005 observed that “land was either invaded by home seekers, invaded by war veterans for agricultural purposes, which subsequently morphed into urban settlements, or allocation to cooperatives, trusts and land developers by the responsible ministry, who pocketed proceeds”.
The report noted, “Aspiring or sitting Members of Parliament created new urban settlements as a way of mobilising political support, and use of names of top ruling party leadership to exert undue influence on government institutions and processes.
“Housing development has occurred on unplanned areas such as wetlands, under power lines, on top of sewer lines or sites designated for schools and clinics.”
Who is to blame?
Further complicating the dispute over Budiriro 5, the opposition-controlled Harare City Council, which claims ownership of the land, has denied that it is responsible for bulldozing the houses there. Instead, it blames the ZANU-PF government.
Hostilities between opposition-controlled city councils and the central government date back to the 2000 elections when the new main opposition Movement of Democratic Change (MDC) won an unprecedented 57 parliamentary seats in mainly urban areas, a record for the MDC since independence in 1980.
Currently, the MDC Alliance (a grouping of opposition parties which includes the original MDC) controls 28 of the country’s 32 municipalities in towns and cities, while the governing party has much greater support in rural areas, and exists in urban areas primarily as the opposition.
The resulting political feud between the governing ZANU-PF and the MDC Alliance over control of urban councils has caused upheaval for common residents.
The MDC Alliance, in particular, complains about interference from the governing party over the running of council business, resulting in disruption of water and refuse collection services.
The MDC Alliance also says it has inherited chaotic services, inefficient administration systems and a scourge of land barons protected through their political links.
Neither side will officially take responsibility for ordering the demolition of people’s homes and the dispute over who exactly is to blame continues on social media channels.
On the day of the Budiriro 5 demolitions, December 8, Information Permanent Secretary Nick Mangwana tweeted: “I am told @cohsunshinecity [the Twitter handle belonging to the City of Harare Council] is going to demolish 134 houses under Events Housing Cooperative in Budiriro. They obtained court order to carry out the demolitions.”
Nelson Chamisa, the main MDC Alliance opposition leader, denied his party was to blame. “The heartless and cruel demolitions of citizens’ homes is a violation of the dignity and security of persons,” he told the media two days after visiting the affected residents. “This command politics based on iron-fisted governance style must be resisted by us all. Those responsible please stop it.”
Harare City Council Mayor Jacob Mafume did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
In previous statements, however, he has stated that residents will be given the chance to prove ownership of land if they can do so. On December 10, he wrote on Twitter: “I have asked the officials to compile the court orders that are there advertise them on all platforms. Those with a legal basis be allowed to prove. Need to be humane always in Covid-19 times. In the meantime, we hold in abeyance all processes.
“I am sorry for the pain that have been caused to the victims who have been victimized twice. Land barons should be brought to account first. We now have a humanitarian crisis which should have been foreseeable. We need to show empathy in this hard times.”
‘We have nowhere to go’
Martha Samanga, 43, is one resident of Budiriro 5 who has not yet lost her home. However, she says, the bulldozers could be back at any time. “Ten years since the suburb started being built, we are now called illegal residents by the city council and the court but this is not a wetland compared to some areas in Budiriro [which are waterlogged and not fit for building],” says Martha. “They promised to return and destroy the rest of the homes, including mine, and we are still waiting for them.”
At least Martha still has a home, unlike Vimbiso Farasi, 41, and her three children, for whom every day is a struggle, sleeping in the rain in temporary shelters.
“I have three young children, and we have nowhere to go,” she says. “We built this temporary structure, but it is not safe for my family.”
The met department has forecast more rain in the coming days.
The residents of Budiriro 5 are yet to meet the relevant authorities from the council to discuss the way forward. The government has suggested relocating them to an open ground, far from Budiriro 5. The proposed area is still within Harare, but, while close to shops and schools, has no running water.
“The authorities don’t want to come and address us. They must come and meet us, and tell us the way forward,” says James Chimeramombe, 46, a now homeless self-employed father of six.
History of corruption
Opposition and ruling party politicians, councillors and officials have been among those who have pounced on vacant land, parcelling it up and dividing it among themselves, or selling it on illegally to home seekers, even land located on top of sewer lines and other reserved amenities on which it is illegal to build.
In a bid to clean up such corruption in urban areas, the late opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, led a purge of corrupt councillors in 2010. But the rot had already set in.
A November 2020 report by Tabani Mpofu, head of the Special Anti-Corruption Unit (SACU) in the office of the president, singled out city councillors. It said: “Corruption has a direct and adverse effect on the society within which it is practised. There is no better illustration of this fact than the dire circumstances that residents of Harare and other urban centres find themselves in.
“Service delivery in Harare has deteriorated to such an extent that garbage collection is almost non-existent in most suburbs with many urban centres going for decades without water,” the SACU report added.
In 2005, just as winter began, nearly 700,000 citizens of Zimbabwe were rendered homeless and destitute when then-President Robert Mugabe demolished houses deemed as slums in a campaign said to be targeting illegal housing and commercial activities in a bid to reduce the spread of infectious diseases.
Nearly 2.4 million people were indirectly affected. The directive was viewed by the MDC opposition as retribution towards urban voters for electing them into power in their areas. The United Nations called the episode a “humanitarian catastrophe”.
Voices of defiance
As the 2023 general elections draw closer, residents of Harare suburbs like Martha, Chengeto and James anticipate that politicians will flood the area, as usual, canvassing for votes. With the majority of their identification particulars destroyed by rain during the demolitions, their lives are in disarray, though residents of the area are confident they will rise again if they get assistance from charities and government.
“We need assistance urgently to get identification documents for us and our children because they were destroyed by the rain,” says Jennifer Mtami, 31, a mother and one of the displaced residents of Budiriro 5.
The residents say they are not going anywhere; that they just want to restart their lives.
“We are ready to rebuild but we are afraid the homes will be destroyed again and bring others in our place,” Chengeto says. “Corruption is ruining our lives because we were here for the past 10 years, and they should have sorted the area and given us the first priority. We are prepared to pay the council whatever they want for the land.”
Meanwhile, the cabinet has directed the demolitions to stop, for now, until the rainy season is over, by around March.
The word Budiriro means “prosperity” in the prevalent Shona vernacular, but for the affected residents, their neighbourhood has brought them very far from that.