In May 2005, at the onset of winter, Zimbabwe’s government demolished people’s homes and forcibly removed hundreds of thousands from cities and towns in an exercise code named Operation Murambatsvina (“Drive Out Filth”). The exercise was officially known as Operation Restore Order, a large-scale campaign meant to forcibly clear shanty towns across the country.

According to the United Nations, as many as 700 000 people were directly affected through the loss of their homes or livelihoods, and about 2.4 million people were indirectly affected.

The campaign was naturally met with harsh criticism from Zimbabwean opposition parties, church groups, non-governmental organisations, and the wider international community. It was reported at the time that Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, the ousted Ethiopian dictator exiled in Zimbabwe, was involved in the planning of the exercise.

Fast forward 10 years, and we have something that resembles Operation Murambatsvina. In August, Zimbabwe’s High Court issued a ruling instructing the Harare City Council (HCC) to stop demolishing people’s houses in Budiriro and other suburbs around the city.

This has come as a huge relief to many residents who were going to suffer another merciless Operation Murambatsvina at the mercy of bogus “land barons”, scammers known in the words of a prosecutor, “Boko Harare”.

More than 100 houses, mainly in Budiriro 4, were razed. These properties belong to housing cooperatives, namely Ngungunyana, Tembwe and Tabudirira. The land barons coerce residents to join these housing cooperatives, most of them bearing the names of Zanu-PF motifs or heroes. They buy plots of land that belong to the city or on which building isn’t allowed.

Those behind the parceling out of land have been linked to the ruling party; it’s no secret as Zanu-PF flags fly alongside the national flag. The land scams in the city, you could say, are the urban counterpart of the land invasions up country.

At least 15 land barons have been arrested for illegally parceling out land, but some observers have said those who have been arrested are small fry.

Philip Chiyangwa, who claims to be related to Robert Mugabe, is believed to be central to the illegal land grabs. The controversial businessman is currently at loggerheads with Benny Matenga, chairperson of the Odar housing consortium development in Southlea Park in the south of Harare, in which he is demanding more than $100 million (about R1.3 billion) from Odar farm residents through his company, Sensene Investment.

Another bigwig with interests in land is former minister of local government and public works Ignatious Chombo, who was at the local government ministry for 15 years and has plots in Zimbabwe’s major towns. Observers have interpreted the transfer of Chombo to the ministry of home affairs as a way of the party cleaning up the mess he left.

Another Zanu-PF member, Energy Mutodi, was dragged before the courts early this year for allegedly defrauding $300 000 from desperate home-seekers through his company, National Housing Development Trust. It’s some of these houses, built on irregularly acquired land, that are now being demolished.

The demolition of illegal houses has come as a double tragedy to many residents. Since 17 July, following a Supreme Court ruling that reinterpreted the retrenchment clause in Zimbabwe’s labour laws, companies, both private and public, have laid off around 20 000 workers. The ruling gave employers permission to terminate contracts with three months’ notice.

But the demolitions ceased on 19 August following a court order passed by Justice Francis Bere after a court application that was lodged by the Combined Harare Residents Association (CHRA) through Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. The judgment was inspired by a clause in Zimbabwe’s new constitution, adopted in May 2013, which says, in chapter 2, under section 28: “The duty of the state and all institutions and agencies of government at every level must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within the limits of the resources available to them, to enable every person to have access to adequate shelter.”

Last month, the Harare Metropolitan Residents Forum, in partnership with the CHRA, held a land and housing policy dialogue forum, which was meant to debate issues concerning the demolitions.

The dialogue was also attended by officers from the ministry of local government and urban development, the HCC, and civil society organisations representing the residents.

Deputy director in the department of housing and social amenities, Mlindile Sayi, representing the ministry of local government, said the housing department didn’t condone pulling down houses without prior engagement. “A lot of perspectives should be taken into account before we go on to demolish houses. We advocate for dialogue with the local authority, even though they had a court order,” Sayi said.

HCC spokesperson Michael Chideme urged residents not to join cooperatives as some money-hungry land barons were taking advantage of ignorant residents. He said houses that were being destroyed were built on illegal land meant for schools, clinics and recreational facilities, among other things.

“We have 19 illegal settlements in Harare. Where demolitions were taking place, there are only two schools, and the other 17 sites that were under housing construction were meant for schools,” Chideme said.

He explained that erecting houses on land meant for infrastructure development could benefit only a few families, but said that infrastructure development would benefit many generations to come.

Chideme’s speech sparked criticism, with many residents asking him where the HCC was while people were busy building on the so-called illegal land. Some residents whose houses were bulldozed said they had lived on the properties for as long as five years, and some even claimed to be paying their monthly bills.



Gif Credit: A resident searches through ruins after 100 houses raised to the ground in the Budiriro district in Harare by Lloyd Gedye

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