Thousands of residents in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare and surrounding areas are facing eviction from their homes as local authorities embark on an operation to demolish all illegal structures.
At the end of last month, city authorities turned 70 residential and business buildings into rubble overnight in the dormitory town of Chitungwiza, 25km north of Harare, and served 324 settlers in the high-density suburb of Glen Norah with 48-hour eviction notices.
However, the demolitions in Glen Norah did not proceed, as residents armed with axes, knobkerries and other objects faced off with police who eventually retreated.
Last week, hundreds of houses in Epworth, a high-density settlement southeast of Harare, were also demolished before a high court ruling on 10 October granted residents a temporary reprieve.
A government audit of illegal structures made public in December 2013 found that more than 14,000 residential stands in and around Chitungwiza had been illegally sold by housing cooperatives, councillors and village heads, all of them with ties to Zimbabwe’s ruling party ZANU-PF. Much of the land where stands were illegally created for the building of homes and businesses, had been earmarked for other purposes such as for clinics, schools, cemeteries, roads and wetlands.
Following the release of the report, Local Government, Public Works and National Housing Deputy Minister Biggie Matiza was quoted in the state-owned daily, The Herald, as committing to a “well organized, humane” process in demolishing the illegal structures that would ensure all affected families were offered alternative land.
However, residents like Eleanor Magaya, whose house in Chitungwiza faces demolition, have not been offered alternative land. “I will not leave my home,” she told IRIN. “I am living in fear that the demolishers can come and I can’t even sleep. They have served us with a seven-day ultimatum to vacate the area as it is reserved for recreational purposes and built on wetlands.”
Magaya showed receipts of payment she made for the stand to former ZANU-PF Chitungwiza Councillor Frederick Mabamba, who was behind one of the housing cooperatives identified in the government audit as illegally selling stands in the area.
“We were even given the go-ahead to start building and occupy the land before the general elections [in July] last year,” she said.
Businessman Boniface Manyonganise has started reconstructing his demolished building in Chitungwiza claiming that he got it lawfully.
“I will demand my compensation later, but for now I need to rebuild my business premise to continue operating,” he told IRIN.
In a statement, Harare City Council Spokesperson Leslie Gwindi urged residents who had been served eviction notices to voluntarily leave or face forced removal.
However, residents are adamant they will not leave stands they had paid for. “We will remain here, even if they kill us, let them kill us here,” said Nomatter Matikiti, a Chitungwiza resident who had been served with a seven-day eviction notice.
Before demolitions in Epworth were suspended, local human rights NGO Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) reported that 33 people had been injured there.
Harare residents have been experiencing severe housing shortages for a number of years with an official housing waiting list of 500,000, although the actual number of residents in need of housing but not on the waiting list is thought to be much higher.
Dzimbahwe Chimbga, ZLHR programmes manager said: “The demolitions are quite devastating and disturbing as most of these people have only these homes and no other place to seek refuge. The demolitions have happened at a time when not only is the economy ailing, but rains have also started.”
The country is currently experiencing a severe economic crisis which has seen wide-scale company closures and downsizings, forcing many Zimbabweans to rely on the informal sector to make a living.
The demolitions have evoked memories of the 2005 Operation Murambatsvina urban clean-up campaign which left an estimated 700,000 people homeless across the country.
“It’s difficult to see the difference between these demolitions and Operation Murambatsvina, as the people were served with short notices and under very unclear circumstances,” said Chimbga.
Chimbga alleged that so-called land barons with links to the ruling party had illegally settled people, not only for financial gain, but in an effort to boost support for ZANU-PF in the run-up to the 2013 elections. However, local authorities in affected areas have been overwhelmed by the pressures on resources from the new residents and can no longer sustain service delivery.
“Once these people had been used by their political party during the last elections, there was no need to maintain them,” Chimbga told IRIN.
Organizations representing residents facing eviction, together with ZLHR, filed a court order on 7 October to stop demolitions in Epworth until affected residents could be relocated or offered alternative accommodation.
On 10 October, the court ordered the Epworth Local Board (ELB) to stop the demolitions citing section 74 of the Constitution which guarantees the right to shelter, and a law which requires local authorities to obtain a court order before demolishing illegal structures.
The judgement pointed out that land barons had taken advantage of desperate home seekers and that the ELB had turned a blind eye to the illegal structures mushrooming in the area.
“Having allowed these illegal settlements to take root, at the expense not only of the settlers but also of organized urban planning and public health, local authorities are now waking up and by force and power demolishing the structures without regard to the law and human dignity,” stated the judge.