Zimbabwe should prioritise returnees in land allocations

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Admire Mjamaru

By Admire Mjamaru
I WOULD like to make reference to statements made by South Africa’s minister of Social Development Lindiwe Zulu last week which gave a very clear signal that a quantum shift in immigration policy is looming in South Africa.

She boldly reminded neighbouring States that: “As the African National Congress (ANC), we believe that all countries need to take responsibility of their own citizens.” She made the loaded remarks while addressing the media in her capacity as chairperson of the ruling ANC party’s sub-committee on international relations.

Her remarks come hard on the heels of that country’s minister of Home Affairs’ decision not to extend exemption permits issued to Zimbabweans in South Africa.

This comes against the backdrop of a resurgence in xenophobic sentiments and vigilante-style violence directed mainly at Zimbabwean migrants living in South Africa.

An estimated more than three million Zimbabweans work and reside in South Africa and the nationalistic rhetoric emerging from the corridors of power in Pretoria should be a huge cause for concern for the Government of Zimbabwe which seems unperturbed by the welfare of its nationals across the Limpopo.

An recent International Organisation for Migration (IOM) World migration report indicated that, by the end of 2021, over half a million Zimbabweans had been forced to return home since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the imposition of lockdown protocols.

The IOM report showed that Zimbabweans in South Africa suffered the brunt of their host country’s lockdown measures which excluded them from social safety nets.

The IOM report pointed out that “most of the returnees were arriving in communities with limited means to cater for them”. As we count down the year 2022, the tide of returning migrants will certainly intensify as the grace period for exemption permit holders lapses.

As Zimbabwean migrants living in South Africa ponder their next move, knowing that ready-or-not, willingly or by force, they will be compelled to retrace their steps back to their country of origin. Zimbabwe’s so called second republic government of should, therefore, commence preparations to receive and integrate returnees from South Africa and elsewhere. Neglecting to do so will trigger otherwise avoidable humanitarian crises which will negatively impact on social cohesion and national security.

The question is, how can the Zimbabwean government take responsibility of its returning nationals? The parlous state of our national economy and social services indicates that government is constrained by lack of resources to cater for citizens within its borders, let alone those returning. This leaves one option on the table: Land! I hereby proffer that to successfully accommodate and integrate returning nationals, the Government of Zimbabwe needs to democratise land governance and prioritise returnees in new land allocations for housing and productive purposes.

It is common cause that Zimbabwe has plenty of land for human settlement and even much more land for agricultural production is underutiled.

I recall President Emmerson Mnangagwa threatening to repossess underutilised farms from locals and absentee landlords and avail them to Zimbabweans in the diaspora.

The Zimbabwean leader made the remarks while briefing government officials after touring the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The key takeaway from the President’s remarks is the tacit admission by the highest office in the country that land for agricultural and residential developments is available in Zimbabwe!

This admission is at variance with the lived realities and experiences of the common man in the urban streets and rural village.

Access to land remains problematic for the majority of Zimbabweans who fall into the low-income social group.

Given their prolonged absence from Zimbabwe and limited financial means, Zimbabwean migrants, displaced by changes in immigration policy and xenophobic violence in South Africa, are failing to access land for housing and livelihood purposes.

The returnees have limited information on opaque and often politicised procedures for accessing land in Zimbabwe, and cannot turn to the open market due to limited resources and prohibitive prices.

The legal frameworks and procedures for accessing land are difficult to navigate for the ordinary citizen who lacks political connections or financial muscle.

While conceding that there is growing land hunger in both urban and rural areas of Zimbabwe, the urgent need for a roof over the head of the returnees and their families, and their vulnerabilities as a social group displaced without notice or support, makes them a special case! Decision makers within government need to be reminded that Zimbabweans residing in neighbouring countries chose migration as a stepladder to better economic and social opportunities, and continued to contribute to the welfare of their families and prosperity of the nation through remittances!

The President’s gesture to avail land to land hungry Zimbabweans in the diaspora is a welcome move that needs to be applauded by all progressive Zimbabweans.

The target group of his remarks following the UAE visit is, however, well-heeled migrants, earning thousands of petrodollars in the oil-rich gulf country and, therefore, can afford to access land on the market and inject capital in order to develop and fully utilise it.

The president should, thus, direct his efforts at returnees who are already in Zimbabwe and are failing to access land from government and traditional leaders.

It is pertinent to note that unlike their counterparts in the UAE and elsewhere, Zimbabwean migrants in South Africa have literally become persona non grata in South Africa and are literally being pushed back to retrace their steps home.

They are caught up between a rock and a hard place as the social, political and economic conditions in their homeland have been deteriorating in their absence.

Our image as a nation is seriously impaired so is the dignity of every Zimbabwean by continuous reports of our nationals border jumping into neighbouring countries in search of livelihoods, while perennially enduring bouts of xenophobic violence.

The image portrayed by media reports on Zimbabwean migrants paints a picture of Zimbabwe as a chronically poor and failed State, akin to Somalia, Yemen or even worse, with nothing to give to its citizens who are then forced to migrate for survival. It goes without saying that such an image is detrimental to our development as a nation and works against the Zimbabwe is open for business mantra favoured by the Mnangagwa dispensation.

To redeem our image as a nation, the Zimbabwean government should play its role in resolving the migrant crisis manifesting as xenophobic violence in South African cities.

It must begin considering strategies that incentivise Zimbabwean migrants in neighbouring countries to return home with dignity and hope for a better tomorrow. Given the dire state of our national economy — the policy options are constrained by lack of financial resources and that is exact point that land as our most abundant resource comes into the picture.

Land for agricultural and residential purposes is one resource that that Zimbabwe has in abundance and can be leveraged to entice our diaspora back home.

What is required is a functional and transparent land market supported by pro-poor policies that democratise access to land for marginalised social groups. These policies would ensure that citizens who need land for residential and livelihood purposes can easily access it, preferably at local government level.

For Zimbabwean migrants in the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) region to seriously begin considering returning back home! Government must consider dangling enhanced land and housing rights as a carrot. This can be achieved by consolidating the legislative framework governing land allocations into user-friendly and transparent procedures. There is also need for a social land policy to benefit vulnerable groups who lack the financial clout to acquire land on the open market. Without tangible guarantees of access to land for housing and livelihood purposes, Zimbabwean migrants will continue shunning making the return trip home with their families.

In conclusion, the primacy of housing and land rights cannot be overemphasised in contemporary Zimbabwe. Housing anchors persons, families and communities, ensuring security of persons and access to basic social services such as water and sanitation, education and health. Human development and the enjoyment of basic rights is totally negated or compromised by housing and land legal frameworks and policies that do not respond to the needs and depravations of vulnerable social groups. It is such situations of protracted displacement, homelessness, squatting and informal housing that pushed millions of Zimbabweans to skip the country in the first place.

  • Admire Mjamaru is a social justice activist . He can be contacted atmjamaru@gmail.com