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Zimbabwe Briefing - Issue 122
Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition (SA Regional Office)
November 13
, 2013

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Illegal settlements demolitions: City beautification versus livelihoods

On Thursday, November 7, 2013 government started demolishing illegal settlements, beginning in the Ruwa District on the eastern outskirts of Harare, after government officials had already indicated that the demolition exercises would be carried out countrywide.

For anyone with an objective mind, it is undisputable that the proliferation of illegal settlements in the urban centres of Zimbabwe if left unchecked will slowly turn whole cities into unplanned settlements. One would agree with the government that there is need to stop the spread of illegal structures in urban areas, albeit with reservations in the manner and timing at which demolitions are being carried out to wipe out illegal settlements. The demolitions are happening during the rainy season.

Like everything that is done without looking at the context and adjusting to it, there is a danger of overlooking socio-economic realities in pursuing the ideal of beautifying cities, leading to collateral damage in the form of poor people’s livelihoods.

Memorably, the last time that the government carried out demolitions of illegal settlements was under the auspices of Operation Murambatsvina in 2005; where there was huge collateral damage in the form of disruption of the already difficult livelihoods of the urban poor.

Tellingly, this led to condemnation of the exercise, on human rights grounds, by the United Nations (UN) when it sent Human Settlements Special Rapporteur Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka to assess the situation.

No doubt, that there has been a link in the proliferation of illegal structures to the unique and clear recent socio-economic circumstances of the ordinary Zimbabweans.

Following over a decade of economic challenges beginning with the 1990’s impoverishing Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) and accelerated economic problems after 2000, poverty is endemic despite the economy having slightly improved from 2008.

More particularly, poverty among many people in the urban areas makes them unable to construct proper houses, or pay rentals.

Notwithstanding, the government might have not provided enough housing land for prospective house owners. This is true because, in some circumstances, the illegal settlements are in the form of houses which would fit urban plans, but built on land either not serviced by councils with roads, water and sewer networks, or not set aside for settlement purposes.

This shows that had adequate land been provided illegal settlers would have built proper houses. In other words, the settlers have the resources to build proper housing units, but cannot find land on which to construct them and this might point to shortcomings by government in terms of housing policy.

The lack of housing land has also exposed these prospective house owners to phony cooperatives in some cases created by politicians.

The above scenario means that the government’s preoccupation with repeated demolition of illegal settlements may be missing the point that there is need to address the shortage of housing land, or lack of affordable accommodation, than concentration on symptoms in the form of illegal settlements.

Though ideally there is no excuse for breaking the law, there is clear socio-economic justification and mitigating circumstances for some of the illegal structures. More precisely, there is a clear trend of economic desperation among the people whose structures are being targeted by the government.

For instance, most of the illegal structures destroyed in Ruwa on Thursday, November 7 were makeshift business structures such as tuck shops, workshops, barbershops and hair salons.

People have resorted to erecting the informal businesses structures due to lack of opportunities in the formal economy, to escape the prevalent poverty and high unemployment levels through illegal, but honest means – honest as opposed to theft and burglary.

This is more so given industry reports that 711 companies recently shut down and more continue to do so; that instead of employment creation in the economy, there are mounting retrenchments.

The trend is also affecting parastatals with the National Railways Association (NRZ) having recently proposed to a retrench 6000 employees, and the job looses in the economy have been going on for years.

The result could be that more people than in previous years cannot afford proper urban housing and resort to illegal settlements, or have no alternative means of income and resort to building illegal small business structures to survive. Under the circumstances, one would conclude that the demolition effort and its timing without proffering clear and timely alternatives for illegal structure owners will destroy livelihoods.

The dilemma is similar to the government’s fight against street vendors and touts. The desire to clean and beautify the streets has clear merits, but it is clashing with delicate socio-economic circumstances and fragile livelihoods; what is required is a more creative and thoughtful approach than peremptory application of the law.

One would think that it is the timing which is wrong, because the affected people have not had the opportunity to find alternative livelihoods as the economy is still trying to recover, especially looking at the informal business structures like makeshift tuck-shops, barbershops, workshops and hair salons. One would also urge the government to investigate and deal decisively with politicians accused of promoting the spread of illegal structures, especially illegal housing units for political mileage.

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