Zimbabwe: The shaky pillars of the right to land and property

Whenever the word “land” is mentioned in the same breath as Zimbabwe, it evokes images of the chaotic and controversial land reform programme of the early 2000s that changed the character and identity of the country’s politics and economy. Be that as it may, over the past decade, agricultural land has gradually become secondary to the closely related issue of land for housing. 

Currently, there is a backlog of more than 1.5-million houses in Zimbabwe. A perfect storm of the lack of infrastructural development and the burgeoning of rural to urban migration has led to a housing crisis that has left millions struggling to not only get housing, but to get housing that is recognised both legally and economically. 

A case in point of this situation is Fortunate*. She is a single mother who lives 35km from the Harare city centre in a sprawling residential area called Crowhill. Every working day, she follows a similar routine, waking up her daughter, Chipo at 5am, so that she can be ready for school, which starts at 7am. Chipo attends Greystone Primary school, which is 20km from home. Fortunate works as a secretary for a parastatal whose offices are 25km from home. She knows the kilometres by head because moving between work and home is a daily struggle.  

The road home for Fortunate from the Harare city centre comprises 20km of good, tarred roads. The last 15km, from which her community of Crowhill begins, does not have a tarred road, but dirt roads. The developer who was supposed to build the road and basic infrastructure did not build them, but still sold the stands with a promise that the roads would be built. 

Fortunate bought her stand in 2009; 12 years later, every morning she trudges along 15km of badly maintained dirt roads. Fortunate does not have a personal car and public transport is sparse because of the bad roads. She relies on the charity of her neighbours for transport to and from work. On the days she is unfortunate, she can wait two hours for transport home at the point at which the tarred road meets the dirt road. 

Fortunate’s case highlights a general socioeconomic struggle that is being faced by desperate home seekers acknowledged in the Justice Tendai Uchena commission of inquiry on urban state land. In addition to the poor infrastructure, desperate home seekers are suffering from double allocations of stands and fake title deeds, as well as the cost of administrative corruption. This is detailed in a report by Transparency International Zimbabwe, which outlines the rampant corruption occurring among housing co-operatives, private land developers, and ministry and council officials, as well as deeds and registry officials. 

The effects of this corruption have far-reaching consequences that go beyond the community and affect the general economic activity in the country. It took Fortunate 12 years to build a home, which cost her $20 000. Unlike a number of desperate home seekers and builders in these peri-urban communities, Fortunate actually holds title deeds to her 1 200m2 of land. 

Fortunate has repeatedly tried to take out a loan to grow her chicken-rearing business, using her house as collateral. The 10 banks she has approached to have all refused to give her a loan, arguing that although she has a home which is evidence enough to prove her ability to save and invest wisely, because of the community she lives in, and the corruption surrounding the whom from developer she bought the land, her title deeds do not have “bankable surety”. 

This has led to a situation in which “colonial neighbourhoods” — those that were established before independence in 1980 — are the only neighbourhoods in which title deeds hold proper value and are bankable. Moreover, title deeds in colonial neighbourhoods are held mainly by men and the white racial minority, which has led to the housing economy of the country being patriarchal and racist. 

As noted by a Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe monetary statement, only 3.52% of loans in the banking industry were advanced to women. This is a trend that is likely to continue: women like Fortunate are systematically excluded from the economic ladder because of non-recognition of their houses as a form of wealth and, consequently, collateral. 

Research by economist Hernando de Soto shows that by providing secure property rights to the poor, particularly to women, there is potential to unlock massive wealth that is currently inaccessible because of the lack of land and housing rights afforded to them. 

Another salient effect of the lack of property rights surrounds the issue of property and voting. There is a strong correlation between voting and a person owning property. Not only do people vote when they have property, they also are more politically engaged. Taking lessons from the land-reform programme, the Zanu-PF government has realised that it has more control in these peri-urban areas (where the support for their party is reducing) by ensuring that residents do not hold property rights. This serves a number of political purposes. Firstly, land in these peri-urban areas can be used as a campaigning tool: young people and women with no property are promised land through the establishment of land co-operatives. 

Secondly, property in peri-urban areas can be dished out to major supporters of the government who, in turn, become property developers or, as they are more commonly known, “land barons”. The continued demolition of houses built in these communities by the government is not an accident, but is a continued political manifestation of their need to control the land for political prudence; that is, to give it to the barons. 

Lastly, with the increase of rural to urban migration, control over the land that surrounds urban cities is politically prudent. An example is the Goromonzi West constituency in which Fortunate is based. To dilute the power and support that the main opposition in Zimbabwe, the MDC-Alliance, usually has in urban areas, constituencies can be delimited to ensure that peri-urban communities are mixed with rural communities, in which Zanu-PF still holds substantial control. This proved important in Zanu-PF winning a number of these mixed constituencies in the 2018 election, including Goromonzi West and Harare South. This trend is likely to increase in the next elections in 2023. 

The issues outlined above raise a pertinent question: How can this situation be turned around and lead to property rights being protected? The most important factor is a real-world alternative:  the creation of property owner associations, which has been growing in a number of these peri-urban communities. These are community bodies established by residents in which they seek to gain legal control over the land and communities in which they live. 

So far, property owner associations, such as the Crowhill Property Owners Association and the Charlotte Brooke Property Owners Association, have worked on establishing awareness of their unique problems at both national and community levels. They were involved in sending reports to the Uchena land commission, which led to their issues being acknowledged and the recommendation that local boards run by stakeholders, such as residents, be established. Some of these associations have worked on taking the developers to court, with some winning the cases obliging the developer to work on building the roads, water and electricity systems in their communities. The most ambitious goals aim to have the property owners associations running as local councils, through which they collect levies from communities and the residents vote for where they would like their funds to be used. 

Fortunate’s lived experience of spatial inequality is one that is affecting a number of Zimbabweans and Africans who live at the periphery of growing cities across the continent. The lack of property rights have led to a situation in which their land and property rights are not being protected, mainly because of the extensive systematic and systemic corruption occurring in the property sector. This also affects their ability to fully engage in the national politics in the country. 

Ultimately, the most inspiring solution is coming from the residents themselves, who, in a form of direct democracy, are working on regaining control of the future of the communities they live in. Such bottom-up approaches supported by civil society organisations can become an important panacea in people’s struggle for their land and property rights.

This article was a winner of the Troubling Power essay competition, part of the 40th anniversary celebrations of the Canon Collins Trust.

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Kudakwashe Manjonjo
Kudakwashe Manjonjo, a Canon Collins PhD scholar at the University of the Witwatersrand, is an activist for democracy and community-led political activism in Zimbabwe and the author Aluta Continua — The Struggle Continues, a book that details the role of political activists in the downfall of Robert Mugabe.

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