Winston Antonio

Harare– Harare City Council is too compromised to take action against land barons behind the illegal settlements sprouting around the capital, including ecologically-sensitive areas such as wetlands, it has been established.

For over two years, council has been threatening to demolish illegal structures dotted across Harare but no tangible action has been taken even after courts have ruled against land barons.

Instead, authorities rush to regularise illegal structures in areas controlled by the ruling Zanu PF party.

According to government, Harare Metropolitan Province has 52 000 houses built in illegal settlements with 25 000 of the structures being in Chitungwiza.

In July, an investigation by NewsDay’s  sister paper The Standard in partnership with the Information for Development Trust, a non-profit organisation supporting investigative journalism in southern Africa, revealed that cartels linked to the ruling Zanu PF party were parcelling out housing stands and vending stalls illegally around the capital as a vote-buying gimmick ahead of the August polls.

There is a plethora of illegal settlements that sprouted in Harare’s highly populated areas such as Glen View, Waterfalls (including an area reserved for Harare-Chitungwiza railway line known as Retreat), Budiriro, Mufakose, Crowborough, Kuwadzana, Tafara, Mabvuku, Kuwadzana, Warren Park, Glen Norah and Mabelreign.

At the time, council said it was going to demolish the illegal structures without fear or favour, but a follow-up investigation four months later showed that no structure had been demolished. Instead, new houses are being built in different areas.

Council insiders, residents associations and some of the beneficiaries of the illegal settlements told NewsDay that the local authority will never take action because the cartels are protected by some council and government officials that are benefiting financially from the chaos.

Several top council officials and councillors have in the past been arrested for illegal land deals in Harare, an indication of the widespread corruption around the allocation of housing stands.

Business as usual

A survey in the Churu constituency where illegal settlements started mushrooming during the land reform programme at the turn of the century, showed that people were building permanent structures in undesignated areas, undeterred by council’s threats to evict them.

“In the run-up to the elections in August, we were told to vote wisely in order to keep our vending stalls and we did just that,” said one of the vendors who operates from an illegal site in Churu.

Zanu PF candidate Ephraim Fundukwa narrowly lost the seat to Traswell Chikomo of the Citizens Coalition for Change in the August 23 and 24 elections.

Harare land barons

Fundukwa is one of the Zanu PF candidates in Harare that were accused of using land as a bait to woo voters ahead of the polls.

Since the turn of the century, Zanu PF has been using land acquired from white former commercial farmers around Harare to win back support of urban voters after losing to the opposition during the 2000 elections.

In the last elections, Zanu PF was targeting Churu, Hunyani and Harare South that were carved out of the new settlements that emerged post-land reform.

Reuben Akili, Combined Harare Residents Association director, alleged that Zanu PF-linked land barons and captured senior council officials were operating with impunity.

 “When you look at the issues of land grabs and land barons, indeed, there is a network of people who are connected to council officials and powerful politicians,” Akili said.

“These are the same people that invade land and take advantage of a provision in the Regional and Town Planning Act, which provides for regularisation.

“Once they start building, they then seek regularisation after making a payment and the property is regularised.”

Regularising illegal houses

Zanu PF’s Trymore Kanopula, the new Harare South legislator, said he was helping 1 500 families from the Hopley area to regularise their structures.

“We are working with the council to regularise the residents’ stay. This is the only way I can say ‘thank you’ to the people who voted for me,” the MP told NewsDay.

Kanopula added that he was assisting illegal settlers in the Stoneridge area to get title deeds for their land through a government process.

The MP said he had also helped 500 families from settlements in an area known as Eyestone, which is close to a housing scheme developed by the Pungwe Chimurenga Housing Co-operative, to connect to the power grid.

Akili said the land barons were manipulating the legal provisions pertaining to the regularisation of illegal settlements with help from council and government officials.

 “The legal provision is being manipulated and this has fuelled the proliferation of illegal structures within the local authority area,” he said.

“It is the land barons who gain more than the local authority.

“The rule of law, especially around housing, is very important and the law enforcement agents, including the enforcement arm of the local authority, which is the municipal police, must be able to move swiftly to deal with illegal settlements.”

Precious Shumba, the Harare Residents Trust director, attributed council’s failure to deal with illegal settlements, especially in Harare South to political interference by Zanu PF officials.

 “It is unfortunate that land barons continue to make money out of council and State land without ever being held accountable,” Shumba said.

“Land barons are known and their political handlers, who control their activities are well known to the authorities,” he said.

“The Tendai Uchena Commission of Inquiry report into the illegal sale of State land remains the most recent document which remains unpublished despite thousands of taxpayers’ money having been used during the exercise.”

Land barons rake in US$3 billion

The report, presented to President Emmerson Mnangagwa in December 2019, noted  that land developers, housing co-operative leaders and politically-connected people illegally sold US$3 billion worth of urban State land to create unregulated settlements.

A number of land barons have since been arrested, but this has not stopped the emergence of illegal settlements around Harare.

Shumba said Harare residents expected the law to be applied without fear or favour to stop the scourge of land barons.

“The City of Harare is supposed to be guided by the Regional, Town and Country Planning Act (Chapter 29.12), the Urban Councils Act (Chapter 29.15), their bylaws and a host of related legislation and regulations,” he said.

“Illegally settled people should themselves be made to pay for their wilful collusion and collaboration with space and land barons illegally parcelling out council and State land in Harare.”

Akili said council must walk the talk on corruption by dealing with officials found to be conniving with land barons.

“There is need to ensure that the issue of corruption is dealt with,” he added.

“Some of the people from the council’s housing department were at some point suspended and some are, however, coming back.

“Harare City Council came up with an anti-corruption policy, it needs also to start to make it a living document and also change practice in the way it conducts business.”

Council not compromised

Harare City Council spokesperson Stanley Gama said it was not true that the local authority was too compromised to eradicate illegal settlements and to stop land barons from parcelling out land.

Gama said council will demolish illegal settlements, including in the politically-charged Harare South constituency, even though it was regularising houses that were built without its approval.

 “Council will demolish (illegally built houses) as previously advised,” he said.

“But council cannot demolish without a court order.

“The process of getting such court orders takes time. Once we get the respective court orders we will enforce.”

Gama said council would deal with the illegal settlements on a case by case basis to determine the ones that would be demolished and those to be spared.

“It is not true that council is afraid of land barons or that council and government officials connive with land barons,” he added.

“All illegal settlements served with eviction orders will be demolished.

“However, not all illegal developments will be demolished, some will be regularised where it is possible to do so.

“Each case will be dealt with on its own merits.

“No regularisation will be done on settlements on wetlands and also those settlements occupying institutional, commercial and other designated sites.”

Last year, former Harare Provincial Affairs and Devolution secretary Tafadzwa Muguti complained that government was having a “headache trying to clear the mess that has been created by some opportunists, who are not even council workers or government officials”.

This story was commissioned by Information for Development Trust (IDT) and originally published by Newsday.