Harare—Land barons in Harare are taking advantage of the ruling Zanu PF party’s desperation to claw its way back into urban areas by parcelling out illegal housing stands to prospective home seekers ahead of the August 23 harmonised elections, investigations have revealed.
The illegal settlements are sprouting in Harare’s highly populated areas such as Glenview, Retreat (including in an area reserved for the Harare to Chitungwiza railway line), Budiriro, Mufakose, Crowborough, Kuwadzana, Tafara, Mabvuku, Kuwadzana, Warren Park, Glen Norah, Malberiegn and even affluent suburbs such as Chisipite and The Grange.
Zanu PF lost control of urban areas, including the capital Harare, during the 2000 elections following the emergence of the MDC as a strong opposition force a year earlier.
Since then the ruling party has been using land acquired from white commercial farmers at the height of the land reform programme two decades ago to secure parliamentary seats as evidenced by the creation of Harare South constituency.
Harare South has since been split into three constituencies namely Churu, Hunyani and Harare South.
The push by the ruling to win the hearts and minds of urban dwellers has led to the emergency of politically connected individuals that are using land as an economic and political asset.
They survive by recruiting people on behalf of the Zanu PF, especially in the run up to crucial elections.
Land, particularly in urban areas, has emerged as a political tool to control and amass votes for Zanu PF and people that have illegally settled on land use affiliation to the ruling party to ensure their continued occupancy.
According to the Ministry of National Housing and Special Amenities, there are an estimated 1.2 million people on the government’s housing waiting list and huge demand for land in urban areas has opened doors to land barons with Zanu PF political affiliations.
Illegal settlements sprout
An investigation by The Standard in partnership with Information for Development Trust, a non-profit organisation supporting investigative journalism in southern Africa, revealed that the illegal settlements are no longer restricted to peri-urban areas in Harare, but are spreading to old suburbs.
The latest scramble for votes is said to be fuelling the corrupt parcelling out of housing land and this has spread to vending sites across Harare where powerful cartels linked to Zanu PF are muscling out people trying to eke out a living from the informal market.
In Harare’s medium density suburb of Waterfalls, a new settlement is taking shape in the Retreat area and council says it did not sanction its creation by Zanu PF linked housing cooperatives.
Investigations revealed that groups such as the Retreat Youth Cooperative, Mapani Youth Housing Co-operative Society and 21st Housing Cooperative have been selling stands for between US$200 and US$1000.
Mnangagwa’s August 23 election campaign posters pasted on wooden cabins and incomplete houses are a common sight in the sprawling settlement.
Some of the beneficiaries of the illegal scheme raise the Zanu PF flag or Zimbabwean flag to show their allegiance to the ruling party.
Visitors are treated with suspicion and those brave enough to volunteer to be interviewed warned that leaders of the cooperatives were ruthless and do not hesitate to ‘deal’ with those that try to expose the criminality.
“These guys have become vicious, especially to people like you who can expose their dealings,” said one of the beneficiaries, who requested to remain anonymous.
“To be accommodated you must be familiar with the Zanu PF structures as people, who are getting stands here are deemed to be politically correct.”
Living in fear
He said the beneficiaries were under strict instructions to vote for the ruling party in the harmonised elections if they wanted to keep their housing stands.
“Everyone who has a stand here the hymn has been ordered to vote for Zanu PF in the forthcoming elections so that the stands are not repossessed,” he added.
“We are leaving in fear.
“There are the likes of Reverend Mudzamiri and youths like Behold Ndudzo, Jomo, Chamu or Clive and Dube Rasta who are well known here and are the ones being used by the land barons with Zanu PF links.
“A number of cooperatives also keep on demanding money from the residents and those that fail to pay are threatened with evictions.
Hope Chizuzu, a Harare council spokesperson, said the land invaders in Retreat had been reported to the police.
US$3 billion land heist
Six years ago, the Justice Uchena-led Commission of Inquiry into the Sale of State Land in and around Urban Settlements, said land barons, housing cooperatives and politically connected people had amassed over US$ 3 billion by selling urban state land in Zimbabwe’s urban areas since 2005.
The Uchena Commission’s report was handed to President Emmerson Mnangagwa in December 2019, but it is yet to be made public amid indications that it implicated influential Zanu PF politicians in the land grabs.
Zanu PF’s 2021 central committee report said the parcelling out of urban land by individuals and housing cooperatives could eventually backfire for the ruling party.
Mnangwagwa early this year also admitted while commissioning the Aspindale and Aspire Heights development in Harare that most land barons were high ranking government officials and his administration was paralysed to act against the malaise.
“I have realised that the people I send to solve the issue of land barons are also involved,” the Zanu PF leader said.
“They cannot arrest themselves because they are the thieves.”
Investigations revealed that the mayhem has spread to informal markets that are sprouting around Harare with people with Zanu PF links leading the illegal parcelling out of vending spaces.
In the newly created Churu Constituency, which encompasses new settlements on the outskirts of the capital along the Harare-Masvingo Highway, space barons are using Zanu PF affiliation to allocate vending stalls for a fee.
The space barons are targeting vendors that were displaced by the on-going construction of the Mbudzi roundabout that began in September last year.
Space barons use Zanu PF cover
A Zanu PF aligned outfit known as Youth Empowerment Centre, which is led by Zanu PF’s Harare provincial deputy chairperson Ephraim Fundukwa and fellow party activist Tichaona Garrison are said to be selling the vending stalls for between US$500 and US$1 200.
“Fundukwa and Garison are behind the group of space barons that are selling the vending stalls,” said a disgruntled vendor, who requested to remain anonymous.
“They are using Zanu PF’s name to pocket money through the selling or renting of the vending stands which they also gave to some to their friends.”
Garrison said the land in question was leased by the Youth Empowerment Centre from Harare City Council and the parcelling out of vending stalls was above board, a claim that was dismissed as untrue by the local authority.
“As Zanu PF we are not selling the land set aside for vending stalls,” he claimed.
“The land to build the stalls was given to our youths, some belonging to the Youth Empowerment Centre, as a way of empowering them and to alleviate poverty in Harare South.
“It has been under our control for years and we pay rentals to Harare City Council despite the fact that they are not developing it so that we can have amenities such as toilets and running water.”
Garrison said Zanu PF occupied the piece of land in 2008 and it was mainly used by traders during the tobacco selling season where flea markets were usually set up to target farmers.
“We have people, who are not affiliated to Zanu PF, such as those displaced by the construction of the Mbudzi roundabout that are leasing some of the land,” he added.
“As an association we have no control over such individuals and we don’t question what the beneficiaries choose to do with their stands, including leasing them.”
We’re not involved, says council
Council spokesperson Innocent Ruwende, however, said the local authority did not own the land and was never part of the move to parcel it out to vendors.
“It is not council land, we are not involved,” Ruwende told The Standard. “It is privately owned land.”
Godwills Masimirembwa, the Zanu PF Harare provincial chairperson, also contradicted Garrison as he maintained that the ruling party had nothing to do with the land where vending stalls are being parcelled out in Harare South.
“I am aware of those vending stalls, but I don’t know who owns them,” Masimirembwa said.
“I don’t know who is selling them. I saw them when the Mbudzi roundabout was closed and I saw that some vending stalls were being set up, by whom I don’t know.
“The vending stalls are not a Zanu PF project. As the chairman of Harare province, I am not aware that it is a Zanu PF project.
“Maybe they are doing it in Harare South, but I am not aware of the developments.”
Outgoing Ward 35 councillor Tendai Katsaira, whose area of jurisdiction includes the location for the vending sites said politicians were abusing their power to grab land that they intended to use to woo voters ahead of elections.
Katsaira said the land was initially allocated to some Zanu PF officials, but the situation turned into a free for all as the politically connected sought to position themselves ahead of the polls.
“The latest development in the area is not above board,” he said.
“It’s a mess as political parties have invaded the land and are the ones parcelling out the stands meant for vendors and they are taking advantage of vendors that were displaced by the construction of the Mbudzi roundabout.
“We toured the place about four months ago and a resolution was made (by council) that those people who are operating in that area must pay for the stands to council, but there are people with lease agreements and they cannot be made to pay twice.”
Rueben Akili, the Combined Harare Residents Trust acting director, said it had become a pattern to have a breakdown of law and order around land allocations during elections seasons.
“As Combined Harare Residents Trust we are not surprised that towards elections lawlessness around land and vending increases with those spearheading such lawlessness hiding behind political figures through name dropping,” Akili told The Standard.
“History has always repeated itself and we have seen structures such as those being put in Chiru being demolished after elections.
“It is worrying that towards any elections functionaries or technocrats within municipalities and local government become very weak as politics takes over.”
In 2005, the government embarked on a clean-up campaign known as Operation Murambatsvina where it sought to rid the country’s urban areas of illegal structures.
The United Nations estimated that the operation affected at least 700 000 people directly through loss of their homes or livelihood and could have indirectly affected 2.4 million Zimbabweans.
Taking a gamble
Akili said those that were moving into illegal settlements or taking up unsanctioned vending spaces in Harare and Chitungwiza were likely to face a similar fate.
“We always warn residents on such issues,” he said.
“However, the level of desperation due to poverty leaves people without any option and some of the beneficiaries have openly told us that they are taking a gamble.”
Harare residents Trust director Precious Shumba said in Harare South there were cartels that boast of Zanu PF links, who were behind the land grabs.
“There are some cartels, who are illegally selling and controlling vending spaces, but they are not being arrested because they are directly linked and get protection from top Zanu PF officials,” Shumba said.
“Apart from Zanu PF, the cartels and land barons are also protected by the police.
“We have since gathered from reports and our people observed that there are police cars that come from Glen Norah, Southerton and Machipisa for patrols, but interestingly there will be no arrests amid claims that money exchanges hands.”
He added: “Vending stalls and tuck shops have been built without the local authority’s knowledge in Harare South constituency.
“Residents are forced to pay some money to these known cartel representatives who don’t have proper offices.”
Police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi said he needed more time to investigate claims that law enforcement agents were protecting the cartels.
Bulldozers on their way
Council spokesperson Ruwende said the land barons were misleading people that the settlements would be regularised.
“There is no single political party that owns or encourages land barons to engage in their nefarious and illegal settlement on open spaces and ecologically sensitive wetlands and such settlements will not be spared from demolitions,” he said.
“Our development control section now has the database of old and fresh illegal land invasions and will soon deploy bulldozers to remove such illegal settlements in the coming weeks.”
This story was commissioned by Information for Development Trust (IDT) and published by The Standard