HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsThe City belongs to all, rich and poor

The City belongs to all, rich and poor

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A visitor to Namibia’s capital Windhoek’s poor neighbourhood of Katutura will notice one feature: The prevalence of the ruling party Swapo’s flags hanging on poles high above the tin houses, mostly in a section called Havana. The flags are a striking symbol of the relationship between the poor and politics; in other words, the urban poor and the political class who happen to be in government or senior civil servants.

Guest Column with Rashweat Mukundu

This relationship is as permanent as death and at various times exhibits itself in ambiguous terms, sometimes love and affiliation as represented by the high-rising Swapo flags in Katutura and indeed the thousands of Zanu PF T-shirts and caps in Mbare, Highfield, Glen View, Rimuka in Kadoma, Mbizo in Kwekwe, Lobengula in Bulawayo and Dangamvura in Mutare.

And at times this relationship is characterised by hatred and contempt for the urban poor. In the case of Zimbabwe, the ambiguity of this relationship is best described by government moves, fronted by the Deputy Minister of Local Government Joel Biggie Matiza to demolish unplanned houses and businesses of the very poor, who before July 31 his party was embracing as friends and mobilising to vote for them.

The relationship between the urban poor and the rich or those who see themselves as city “citizens” is in a continuous process of negotiation that is more defined by political cycles and the politics of survival. The “citizens” of Harare and other urban centres do not like the poor who are an inconvenience as they beg in the streets, throw litter from a kumusha/ekhaya (rural) bound-chicken bus, steal and prostitute in the streets.

The city poor are an inconvenient reminder of the poverty caused by lack of good governance and planning by the city “citizens” who happen to be leaders in local government, politics and business. If anyone is to be beaten or killed for politics it is more likely to be a poor person and politically motivated pitched battles are fought in Mbare and Budiriro, not in Borrowable or Greystone Park.

While harassed and neglected, the poor are needed for the obvious reason of providing cheap labour. In this way the “citizens” of the urban centres are always in the scheming mode, focusing on how to control the urban poor who, as is feared, may overwhelm the urban centres hence cause discomfort to the “citizens” or may get fed up with the “citizens” and rise up and overthrow them.

The planned demolitions of so-called unplanned houses in Harare and Chitungwiza have to be seen in the context of the “citizens” attempting, and this after securing power on July 31, to control the growing numbers and chaos in the city. While the language of order, and council by-laws was never mentioned pre-July 31, the by-laws book have since been dusted off and opened for all to see how a city should be managed.

While order is being talked of in the cities regarding housing, vending and many other such bad practices, the same order is being renegotiated when it comes to gold panning where the “citizens” of the cities have an interest as they constitute the majority of gold barons. The illegal gold mining activities are being tolerated and moves being made to legalise gold panning.

The interests in gold panning are becoming permanent as a source of easy money for the city “citizens” hence the moves to legalise gold panning to ensure a steady flow of easy and cheap money. Yet after securing power on July 31 the urban “citizen” now sees the ugliness of the poor urban dwellers’ homes in Harare and Chitungwiza, and the books are being opened to see whether the houses are legal or not.

The law that is being applied to gold panning is different from the one being applied to the so-called illegal houses. Not only that, the urban “citizen” is going further to ensure that the urban poor is denied essential services such as water. Harare City Council is now talking of installing pre-paid water meters.

This talk is not aimed at those who can afford water, but at those who cannot afford. The talk of pre-paid water meters is a slap in the face of the poor who have to limit the amount of water they can drink, bath with and use for other domestic needs. It does not end here, but the urban poor will ultimately have to limit the number of people, relatives and dependants who come and live in the city home.

It will increasingly become difficult for the urban poor to accommodate each other, but rather as many will be sent back to the rural areas because water will be too expensive, accommodation too scarce because of the demolitions and vending a risk as the council police will be out in full force to stop this means of survival. Instead of solving city problems, the housing demolitions and installation of pre-paid water metres will cause more diseases, homelessness, criminality and poverty.

At the end of the day, the contest over the city remains a poor and rich contest, and remains rooted in the exclusionary policies of the racist colonial powers that set up the city. The new “citizens” of the city black in skin colour still view the city as their exclusive space where they reserve the right to move the poor as they please. It is for this reason that local government, despite years of challenges with a lack of urban housing, has not come up with policies that ensure access to cheap accommodation.

Almost all pronouncements on providing housing for the poor have entered the realm of political rhetoric. Urban council by-laws that were crafted to deny the poor black African space in the city are still being used to date. No concrete efforts have been made to realign the urban by-laws with the developmental needs of Zimbabwe, more so the need to accommodate the millions of poor city dwellers, who in essence give the city a life.

There is need to revise the housing development policies, to make it an obligation on the part of the government to intervene directly in the provision of basic services, water and housing included. This not to make the urban poor clients, but citizens of the city as well.

The government, made up of the city “citizens”, must have plans that address housing and water problems in their totality, and not stop-gap measures or attempts to depopulate the city. The relationship between the urban poor and the “citizens” of the city needs to be defined by more than political expediency.

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