House demolitions: Who takes the buck?

December 14, 2020

Tawanda Majoni

When demolitions happen in Zimbabwe—which they do with ritual frequency—you always wonder if we are not a limping imitation of the Gaza Strip.

Demolitions of houses and structures are as old as the country’s political independence, when the new “majority” government swooped largely on those that were perceived as enemies. In fact, demolitions in Zimbabwe started way, way before independence, at the advent of colonial rule in the late 19th century when peoples like the Tangwena and Seke clans had their homes razed down and they were forced off their ancestral land. 

In mid-2005, we had what is perhaps the biggest set of demolitions in the history of colonial and “independent” Zimbabwe combined. Operation Murambatsvina—a joint deployment by the Harare City Council (then led by political turncoat, Sekesai Makwavarara), the police, central intelligence and the local government ministry under Ignatius Chombo brought down hundreds of illegal structures and displaced some 700,000 people.

Big problem is, we are now into the second century since the demolitions started yet they are still happening. And there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight to these clearly untidy, sadistic and shameless demolitions. Just last week, the bulldozers were out in Budiriro. That’s the latest in the scrambled script of demolitions.

Activists, the victims and some concerned humanitarian agencies ask many questions around the demolitions, as if they ever expect a good answer. Why do you let people build houses and structures and then decide to raze them down when they are completed and people are already in occupation? Why do you always wait for the bad times to demolish the structures? Who, exactly, is responsible for the demolitions?

The last question is currently hot. With the evictions, they are happening in all the wrong times. Murambatsvina took place at the height of winter in 2005. Demolitions in Harare and other places almost always happen during the rainy season or winter. Families are thrown out into the cold. There is no alternative shelter—nor food and other socio-economic cushions—for the victims. The mere fact of this coincidence in timing patterns says to you that there are people and offices that must be held accountable, as the demolitions are clearly deliberate and very pre-meditated.

So, once again, who is to blame for the demolitions and the messy situation that home seekers always find themselves in? The detail is in the agency. Just about everyone, the victims included, must own the buck. Let’s start with central government. The Local Government ministry and other relevant ministries have an explanation to make. Not a long time ago, the government, which, naturally, is an extension of the ruling party, said it would build some 1.5 million houses nationwide. That was prior to the 2018 elections. But government has not build a single houses for desperate home seekers. Government, the so-called “new dispensation”, has played an active and also indirect role in worsening the housing problem buy not doing what it must do.

The constitution obligates central government and the State to ensure that citizens enjoy basic dignity, and the provision of shelter to the needy is actually one way of ensuring that dignity and social rights.  But then, the blame is bigger than that. In almost all the demolitions, government has taken an active role.

Don’t worry about Murambatsvina. That one is an obvious example of how government was directly involved in the controversial demolitions. Even where other agencies or institutions are the ones that move the devil’s message, the fact is that central government has an oversight role in such things like settlements, demolitions, evictions and land use on communal and publicly owned land. It’s a myth to talk about the independence of local authorities because the government can still advise against demolitions by local authorities.

Central government’s involvement in demolitions and evictions borders on vindictive sadism. It would always seem like the Zanu PF government has a whole boulder to grind with city and town dwellers. Murambatsvina purported to be cleaning up urban areas. Nothing wrong with driving out the dirt. But the coincidence is whispering another story. The demolitions came after the March 2005 elections. Urban areas—all of them except Harare South—went to the opposition. That must have driven the ruling party and its government. The demolitions became a scheme to inflict vengeful pain on the people who failed to vote “properly”.

This is the reason why, up to this date, whenever the demolitions take place, there is so much hidden and direct jubilation in government circles. Where the government sounds sympathetic with the victims that is only to shift the blame to the local councils that are dominated by opposition councillors, with the apparent plot to supplant the councils with hand-picked commissions.

Does this blame game win any victories for central government and, by extension, the ruling party? Yes and no.  The opposition-dominated councils are no saints, either. Some, if not most, of these councillors are street thieves. They have been illegally parceling out land to unsuspecting home seekers from the turn of the century. Once you allocate someone land for housing illegally, you are creating vulnerabilities for the home seekers because they can be evicted any time. The councillors fully know or are supposed to know the Urban Councils Act and relevant laws. They sell land illegally because of selfish greed, never to empower the people who voted them into office.

In any case, it’s never been clear where they would be looking when the houses are being built. It’s not as though they wouldn’t be aware of what would be happening in the illegal settlements. So, do they have to wait for so long to do reverse the illegal settlements? It’s rankly disturbing that, in those cases that they move in the graders on their own, they start arguing that the settlements were built illegally and without following procedure, as if they were not aware of this all the time. But the council scams don’t end there. It would seem that the opposition is using the home seekers as pawns in a political chess game, just like Zanu PF is doing.

It smacks of hypocrisy to see leaders of the opposition making impromptu visits to the sites of the demolitions. This is merely to gain political sympathy, currency and relevance. They are keen to shift the buck to the ruling party’s doorstep and make it appear as if they care. If they really cared, why didn’t they make good noise about illegal settlements early enough? And why have they failed to rein in their councillors? The last time the opposition, then led by Morgan Tsvangirai, took the offending councillors by the collar was prior to 2013, when several were fired and blacklisted. No such thing is happening these days.

Then comes the housing coops, other land barons and their intimate crony, Zanu PF. Who doesn’t know that the coops and land barons were given the space to parcel out land by the ruling party? These agencies cheated the home seekers by giving them false membership and extorting money from them. They were doing this to reap overnight profits, but also to bolster Zanu PF’s chances to win elections, as has always been the case with Harare South. Have you ever found an answer to the poser why the 2019 land audit has been kept under wraps?

Where the illegal settlements and the demolitions are concerned, it’s instructive to take a look at the relationship between central government and the local authorities. While urban areas are dominated by opposition councillors, the day-to-day running of the municipalities is done by the secretariats. These are heavily inclined towards the ruling party. They don’t find any problem executing the demolitions. This is then used to smear the opposition because, in almost all the cases, it’s the councils that do the evictions.

And the home seekers, despite their desperation to get their own houses, have painfully failed to do independent checks. In fact, in some cases, they know that they are building the houses on land acquired illegally and just hope for the best. If you associate yourself with the corrupt like that, you are also correct.

It never pays to be rigidly legalistic and ignore the moral side of these settlements. Where the illegally built houses and settlements are already under occupation, there is no reason to move in a strait jacket. Since government doesn’t seem to have the alternative to move the victims to new and formal settlements, why not just regularise those settlements as we have seen in the past?

Tawanda Majoni is the national coordinator at Information for Development Trust (IDT) and can be contacted on

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