Zimbabwe’s shaky pillars of land, property rights

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By Kudakwashe Manjonjo
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 a house, but to get a house that is recognised both legally and economically.

A case in point is that of a single mother who lives in Crowhill, a sprawling residential area 35km from Harare city centre. Every working day, she engages a similar routine, waking up her daughter at 5am so that she can be ready for school, which starts at 7am.

Her daughter attends Greystone Primary School, which is 20km from home. She 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 to her home from the Harare city centre comprises 20km of good tarred road. The last 15km does not have a tarred road, but dirt road.

A developer, who was supposed to build the road and basic infrastructure did not build them, but sold the stands with a promise that the roads would be built later.

She bought her stand in 2009, 12 years later, every morning she trudges along 15km of badly-maintained dirty roads. She does not have a 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 her neighbours will not be going to work, she waits two hours for transport to take her home at the point at which the tarred road meets the dirty road.

Her case highlights a general socioeconomic struggle that is being faced by desperate home-seekers acknowledged in the Justice Tendai Uchena commission of inquiry into urban State land.

In addition to the poor infrastructure, desperate home-seekers are suffering from double allocation of stands and fake title deeds, as well as the surcharge 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 corruption have far-reaching consequences that go beyond the community to affect the general economic activity in the country.

It took her 12 years to build a home, which cost her US$20 000.

Unlike a number of desperate home-seekers and builders in these peri-urban communities, she holds title deeds to her 1 200m2 of land.

She has repeatedly tried to access a loan to grow her chicken-rearing business, using her house as collateral.

The 10 banks she has approached have all refused to give her a loan, arguing that although she has a home which proves her ability to save and invest wisely, because of the community she lives in, and the corruption surrounding the developer she bought the land from, her title deeds did 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 stated in the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe monetary policy statement, only 3,52% of loans in the banking sector were advanced to women. This is a trend that is likely to continue. Women like her 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 women, there is potential to unlock massive wealth that is currently inaccessible to them because of lack of land and housing rights.

Another salient effect of 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 peri-urban areas (where the support for their party is dwindling) by ensuring that residents do not hold property rights. This serves a number of political purposes.

Firstly, land in peri-urban areas can be used as a campaign tool — young people and women without property are promised land through the establishment of 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 as “land barons”. The continued demolition of houses built in these communities by the government is not by accident, but is a continued manifestation of their desire to control land for political expendency; that is, to give it to the barons.

Lastly, with the increase in rural-to-urban migration, control over the land that surrounds urban areas is politically prudent.

An example is the Goromonzi West constituency in which she is based. To dilute the power and support that the main opposition, MDC-Alliance (now Citizens Coalition for Change), has in urban areas, constituencies can be delimited to ensure that peri-urban communities are merged with rural communities, in which Zanu PF has a stranglehold.

This helped Zanu PF to win a number of these blended constituencies in the 2018 election, including Goromonzi West and Harare South. This trend is likely to continue 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 peri-urban communities.

These are community bodies established by residents 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 to raise 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 taken the developers to court, with others winning the cases obliging the developer to provide roads, water and electricity infrastructure in their communities.

The most ambitious goals aim to have the property owners associations running as local councils, which collect levies from communities and the residents vote for where they would like their funds to be used.

She has experienced that inequality is one of the things that is affecting a number of Zimbabweans and Africans who live in the periphery of growing cities across the continent.

Lack of property rights has led to a situation in which 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 national politics in the country.

Ultimately, the most inspiring solution is coming from the residents themselves, who, in the 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 the panacea to people’s struggle for land and property rights.