Land grabs move to Harare

Just past one of Harare’s wealthiest northern suburbs, the road empties quickly into the squalor. On one side of the road in the Hatcliff area a Zanu-PF flag flies over a makeshift home, one of hundreds being illegally built by the party’s supporters on land that had been set aside for a new suburb.

There are shades of the farm invasions that started in 2000—when landless villagers invaded thousands of farms across the country—but this time the white farmer has been replaced by land developers and the landless villagers by housing cooperatives backed by Zanu-PF.

Amid rising controversy over the urban land invasions, the government announced this week that it was drafting the military into a new committee that would investigate the illegal allocation of housing stands in Harare “in a bid to curb corruption and ensure that the land is developed”.

The role of the military in the housing controversy will unsettle Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, which holds the urban constituencies that Zanu-PF is now taking over using its land barons and thousands of desperate homeseekers.

A Zanu-PF membership card makes you part of one of numerous “housing co-operatives”, which are run by the party’s kingpins looking to gain political clout and make a profit. In Hatcliff hundreds of homeseekers have paid subscriptions to the Harare North Housing Union, run by Justin Zvandasara, who is campaigning to be the Zanu-PF MP for the area.

Zanu-PF has little support in urban areas, but it has been using the hunger for urban land to parcel out pieces of land on the outskirts of Harare and other cities as a way to claw its way into the urban areas.

It is a strategy that has worked before. In a previous election the government shifted constituency boundaries in an area on the southern verges of Harare to include new settlements controlled by Zanu-PF. Scared of being driven off the land, voters in those settlements voted Zanu-PF, giving President Robert Mugabe his only constituency in Harare. Now Zanu-PF looks to be expanding that strategy, allowing what it calls “co-operatives” to occupy land set aside for new property developments.

More than 1 000 settlers have occupied plots of land here, each paying up to $1 000 to the co-operative. The co-operative has parcelled out stands of about 300m2 each and settlers pay $55 a month to stay. The money they pay, they have been told, is to “service the stands”.

Council laws state houses should be built only after the water supply and sewerage systems are in place. In addition, the city planner must approve plans and authorise construction of any housing.

But hundreds of makeshift homes are going up. There are no roads and residents have dug shallow wells for water right next to pit latrines.

Portia Manangazira, disease control officer in the ministry of health, said such settlements were contributing to outbreaks of typhoid in parts of Harare. “According to the Public Health Act, tap water is the only acceptable source of drinking water in urban areas,” she said.

But, just as was the case on the farms, Zanu-PF said the squatters are not going anywhere.

The invaded Hatcliff property belongs to Nyasha Chikwinya, a Zanu-PF official herself. She wants the invaders out but she has had to tread carefully.

“As a mother and grandmother, I have a heart. Some have begged me to spare them from evictions,” Chikwinya said. She explained that she would negotiate with leaders of the co-operative.

The high court has ordered the settlers off the property. Dismissing pleas to spare residents who have already built homes on the land, the court ruled that the “mere fact that the respondents have since unlawfully erected structures on someone’s land without her consent cannot sanitise or legalise their unlawful authority”.

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