THIS morning (Sunday) I accompanied a new MDC MP on a brief two-hour tour of his constituency. He won this constituency from his Zanu PF predecessor by nearly 20 000 votes to 12 000 in a closely fought contest.
We first drove to an informal housing settlement containing about 90 000 people.
We started at the top end in a high-density settlement that had been developed some 15 years ago when Trudy Stevenson was the local MDC MP.
This was quite neat and there were well-planned roads, but no water, electricity and sewerage system.
Dirty roads by and large but with trees and gardens and some social amenities.
All homes were registered with the local authority (Harare City Council), paid rates and had title deeds.
But then we drove into a considerable area of housing in various states of repair and construction.
In some place large middle-class homes were under construction, in others high-density housing resembling what existed where we had been earlier.
In other parts, the newer areas, only shacks and temporary structures.
The MP explained the origins of each area and the reasons for the different levels of construction.
It became apparent that the majority of the informal housing was the product of a programme that Zanu PF had initiated in 2005 in an effort to regain control of the urban areas.
This involved taking over commercial farms on the outskirts of the cities and towns and granting selected Zanu PF leaders the right to take control.
In most cases a plan for the area was developed by the Department of Physical Planning and a layout incorporating provision for roads and amenities and also services of all kinds was agreed.
Included was thousands of small stands for housing. The “land baron” then sold the stands on a first come first served basis and gave the people involved a receipt for the stand.
This was most often co-ordinated by a “housing co-operative” which in reality was simply an agent for the land barons.
The purchase price of the stands was supposed to be used to provide essential services, this was simply ignored.
The people buying stands were required to become party members and in addition were closely monitored for loyalty to the party.
In elections, these new home owners voted at polling stations established in the area and these were monitored.
If the polling station returned an opposition candidate, some form of collective punishment — even destruction of homes, was ordered.
But the overall effect was the opening up of thousands of hectares of new land for housing and the subsequent construction of hundreds of thousands of homes.
Partly-funded by the diaspora, the resulting building boom has created so much demand for cement and bricks that shortages have emerged despite the production of over three million tonnes of cement each year.
But, like the “fast track land reform” programme in the rural areas, this programme was not designed to provide homes to the absolute poor, but to create conditions of near total political control for electoral purposes.
In the farming areas, this resulted in the collapse of the industry, while in urban areas the programme has had a dramatic impact on the national economy and on the shortage of basic housing.
Almost every urban centre now has a necklace of informal housing surrounding it and in 2013 the system enabled Zanu PF to roll over the MDC and return the party to control of the country with a two-thirds majority in the House of Assembly.
But like all such programmes, the system created a number of extremely wealthy individuals — essentially a new cadre of slum landlords with control over the lives of thousands and supporting the Zanu PF both financially and electorally.
In some areas, gangs of paid thugs acted as enforcers and collectors.
After two hours of driving through these areas of informal housing, we spent an hour driving through the wealthiest suburb in the whole country, Borrowdale, which was the “other half” of the MP’s constituency.
Even though I have lived in the city for many years and often gone to homes in the area or had coffee in the many local coffee shops, I was not prepared for what we encountered.
The MP showed us one luxury home after another — kilometre after kilometre of pristine, newly-tarred roads, beautiful manicured gardens, golf clubs and acres of houses that would not look out of place in an American millionaire’s community.
The contrast with what we had just seen was just astounding. Homes that must have cost millions of dollars were common place.
I asked who lived in these mansions and the reply chilled me — “civil servants, army officers, pastors and prophets”.
Very few owned by self-made men and women who are in business.
There were a number of homes from the Rhodesian era, but these were by and large smaller and in some cases, run down.
The tour culminated with a drive by one of the homes occupied by the past President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe.
In 1975 I had interviewed Mugabe after he had been released from prison after 10 years.
He outlined his vision of a socialist, almost Khmer Rouge State — the capitalist State wiped out, everyone equal and no one having excess income or assets.
He openly espoused a Marxist and Leninist approach to national affairs.
He was a real revolutionary.
His home in Harare (one of his homes — he has many) is on a sprawling 40-acre site surrounded by a four metres high security wall and massive gates.
His home is hardly visible, but he has three artificial lakes and a house that is renowned for its luxury and Chinese-designed and constructed roof in blue tiles.
The land it is built on is among the most expensive real estate in the country and not satisfied with this massive property, they have tried to buy all the properties that surround themselves.
In the end it did not protect them and in 15 minutes last November, their guards were overpowered and they were put under house arrest and in a few days, removed from power.
Zimbabwe is not alone in this sort of disparity between the poor and the rich, I heard today on the BBC that 50% of all income in the United States goes to 1% of the population.
But in a poor, marginalised country like Zimbabwe, which has one of the lowest incomes per capita in the world and where the great majority of people are living below the poverty line and suffering from shortages of food and everything else, this sort of disparity between the rich and the poor is just appalling — especially when you know that the wealth of the minority has been obtained by corruption or exploitation — on the massive scale I had seen earlier.
The MP was sceptical about the new President’s intentions.
He explained that one of the arguments he had used in his campaign, was to tell people in the informal housing areas to stop paying the land barons and to fight back when threatened.
In addition, he promised them that he would get them title rights in his first term, but he complained that he was not getting any co-operation from the ministry responsible.
I have heard that the new President intends to try and put things into some sort of order in these areas and is planning a massive campaign to deal with the slum lords and give people security and title.
Plans are being laid to incorporate all these new housing areas into the towns and cities, to incorporate them in the rates system and to start providing roads and water, waste disposal and social services.
Both the parties in this country have a serious challenge ahead of them.
The people are fed up with the situation they find themselves in, they want changes, radical changes and if we do not deliver, both parties face oblivion.
As for all those living in those obscene houses, I want to remind them of the reaction of Julius Nyerere in Tanzania when offered a mansion after his retirement as a gift from the army.
He turned to his benefactors and asked, “why is it so big, do you think I am an elephant?” He never lived there and lived out his retirement in his own modest home in Dar es Salaam.