By Takura Zhangazha*
Harare City Council’s (HCC)penchant for cruelty cannot be stopped or stemmed. Even on December 10, 2015 when the world pauses to remember international human rights day. It was business as usually cruel for Harare’s City Council. It undertook yet another housing demolition. It has been doing so with renewed fervor over the last half year. Its argument, a legal one, is that the houses, some of which have been standing for more than a year were built without council permission or on land that it argues is allocated for purposes other than housing.
On the face of it, this appears to be perfectly legal. HCC however will not own up to the fact that its legalistic arguments do not for once explain or justify its thoroughly cruel and inhumane actions. The houses that were demolished on international human rights day, together with those that are regularly being demolished almost as habit are the houses of the desperate for housing in Zimbabwe.
And there are many other humanitarian arguments that can be made against the cruel actions of HCC. The first is obviously a political one. The eviction and demolition of housing or squatters is a characteristic of colonial administrations. These demolitions and evictions regularly targeted unwanted persons in urban areas. They would use such arguments as planning and health considerations in order to exclude others from shelter and other ancillary amenities. This while never providing cheap and affordable housing for a majority poor rural-urban migrant family.
Fast forward to today and a council led ironically by a party referred to as the Movement for Democratic Change (Tsvangirai) is spearheading a return to the past. Using legalistic argumentation and in part colonial Salisbury’s urban plans, they are undertaking what essentially is potentially as heinous an operation as Murambatsvina.
Insensitive and probably housing secure pundits and opinion makers tend to argue that there must be law and order in the city. They are however not being entirely honest. It is well known that some of these now destroyed residential stands were built on the basis of political patronage, especially via some Zanu Pf and MDC-T activists who used influential positions in councils to undertake their own version of an urban fast track land reform programme. They collected money in a fashion similar to housing co-operatives that also had political linkages. After elections, these housing co-operatives are no longer seen as useful to a political agenda and there is quick resort to legalistic arguments and going back and forth between courts.
Yet the issue is very clear. It is cruel, inhuman and degrading to destroy someone else’s housing and shelter without offering them an immediate alternative safe and clean place to reside. Especially after you have allowed them to reside at a given place for a period in which they manage to actually build immovable structures. At the same time while the council in some instances, was collecting not only rates but also accepting building plans.
These all being key traits and hallmarks of the infamous Operation Murambatsvina. The fact that the demolitions appear phased or a result of agreement between central and local governments, Zanu Pf and the MDC-T, does not make them any less cruel.
All of this while at the same time allowing bigger tracts of property to be leased to what are now referred to as land barons and baronesses.
The big lesson that has clearly emerged is that there is no major difference between MDC-T and Zanu Pf approaches to local government. It appears that both parties intend to milk it for what its worth, and use colonial style eviction and demolitions to appear to be solving problems that they themselves created. Zanu PF with its borderline stands for votes strategies in urban areas, inclusive of land barons/nesses and the MDC-T with its stand soliciting, selling and shockingly neo-liberal councilors.
In the final analysis, what is now very evident is that we need to urgently democratize local government beyond issues of harmonised elections and token decentralization or devolution. We need to redefine the specific democratic value that local government brings to both the urban and rural poor in very basic, fair and people –centered terms. We need to take back local government to the people and not leave it in the hands of oligarchs, inept and patently undemocratic political parties who see with each poor urban Mai Ezra, an avenue through which to expand their feeding troughs.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity.