Pitfalls of selling communal land

Pitfalls of selling communal land

By Miriam Tose Majome                                                                                              ABOUT 40km from Harare due east immediately after Ruwa Growth Point is a road to the left, which leads to Goromonzi communal lands. The road is just one of many entry points to Goromonzi, which is a large district under Goromonzi Rural District Council.

Its vast fertile lands are divided into commercial farms and communal land. There is also a reservation for growth points and residential land. Goromonzi High School — a sentimentally historic  monument for being one of the first of only two high schools for black African students which went up to A-Level before the 1970s is just a short distance from the turn-off.

The school marks the demarcation of the communal lands and commercial farms. A large faded but still legible billboard near the school ushers visitors into the communal lands with a dire warning that it is illegal to sell and buy communal land in terms of the Communal Lands Act.

As one inches closer to the nearby district administrative centre, the road thins into a strip and one is greeted by the most peculiar view. Ultra modern brick under tile spacious high-value homes compete cheek by jowl with simple rural houses in the unmistakably rural environs.

This is the sight that welcomes visitors into Goromonzi. It is a district in transition that has not decided what it wants to be — an urban area or a rural area. Leaving the main road into the heart of the land in any direction, one is met with even more confusing views.

Even more fancier suburban houses interspersed in unplanned fashion sit on small pieces of land in between round thatched and mud thatched huts dotted all over and small simple houses — farm brick houses the kind found in poorly-resourced semi-urban settlements.

It is the most awkward sight. In that melee, cows, goats, vehicles and humans mingle in the access rudimentary dusty roads.  The confusion and lack of planning is evident.

This scene is replicated in other communal lands surrounding Harare like Seke and Domboshawa. Domboshawa and Seke communal lands were the first to be informally and illegally transformed from purely rural land to the present-day non-descript settlement status.

Goromonzi was late in opening itself to unregulated haphazard illegal sale of communal land, but caught up quickly in spite of the ominous warning on the welcoming big billboard.

Original occupants of communal land around Harare are hiving-off their family and ancestral land and selling it to land seekers. The same scenario is replicated in other communal areas countrywide but is more prevalent in the Mashonaland provinces.

A mix of factors attract buyers which include ease of buying, cheap prices, proximity to Harare, availability of land, soil fertility and favourable climate. Communal land buyers come from all over the country and even from outside the country. Zimbabwean communal land is open to anyone who wants it for a few thousand American dollars.

The standard legal and scientific tenets of buying and selling land do not apply in these transactions. The land is plentiful and cheap and easy to buy.

No scientific measurements are applied such as land surveying and demarcation using standard units of measurement. Measurement is done in the crudest way possible.

The size is determined by the number of foot strides along and across the field being sold. Parties may or may not enter into formal written agreements, but no other paperwork is involved or deemed necessary.

After the sale, the buyer has to ensure their name is recorded in the sabhuku or village headman’s records after payment of an amount of money deemed suitable. The buyer has to declare regardless of truth that they are related to the seller.

There is a reason for feigning relationships because legally, only people with kinship ties can acquire communal homesteads in those conditions. In some cases, depending on area protocols, a trip to the chief is necessary to register and pay some money to be registered in the jurisdiction books. The new land owner can now move onto their land and start building a house as their budget allows — anything from a mud hut to a grand double storey mansion — no one cares.

It goes without saying that no title deeds or valid cession agreements are possible because the transactions are all illegal and, therefore, invalid. All settlers on such land can be evicted and removed any time if government decides to wake from its slumber or stop turning blind eyes. There is no regard to any town or country planning laws.

Settlements are haphazard without regard to future developments such as roads, water pipes and sewer lines. Almost every unoccupied piece of land is up for grabs, including vital and rare grazing fields and cropping fields.

On the surface, nothing seems wrong. They are willing-buyer-willing-seller arrangements. The excess land to sell is there and everyone is happy no one is harmed.

In some cases, the land belongs to long deceased relatives or family members who permanently emigrated and have no desire to ever return to Zimbabwe let alone settle in a rural area and lay claim to their great-grand father’s plot of land.

In some cases there will be only female children who would have since married and have no interest in their paternal inheritance.

For these and other reasons it makes sense for those presiding over it to sell their family’s lands and derive value out of it, otherwise it would just lie idle permanently yet there will be other people needing it and prepared to buy it.

It is a chance for ordinary people who otherwise would never own land of their own anywhere to also have land to call their own without any of the administrative costs and hurdles.

Illegalities aside, it serves immediate ends. However, the entire practice is fraught with many invisible detrimental long-term consequences.

The one thing that was unique to almost every Zimbabwean was having a rural home.

The majority of working average Africans have never owned much wealth in the way of pension policies, disability insurance policies, stocks, bonds, land, etc.

Their rural homes have always served as their last hold social security in times of crisis.

Rural land is the one sure security to fall back on upon retirement or when urban living does not work out and there is nowhere else to turn to.

One always has a home to return to and cropping fields to subsist on if it comes to the worst.

The security of rural land no matter how impoverished the area may be has gone a long way in ameliorating the problem of homelessness and street living in town and cities so far.

This, however, is slowly changing. Living dynamics in both urban and communal areas are shifting and not always for the better.

Government is not seeing the potential problems that lie in the future such as increasing homelessness, rural crime and violent conflicts over communal land as the land certainly becomes more scarce.

More people of diverse backgrounds with nothing in common and nothing to lose will live closer together and compete for limited resources.

A disaster is in the making for future generations.

There are deeper legal and social implications attendant to this phenomenon and deeper discussions which need to be had about this and the role of the government and local authorities.

  • Miriam Tose Majome is a lawyer at Veritas and she writes in her personal capacity