Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Land as State Currency in Zimbabwe (Literally)

By Takura Zhangazha*

The revolutionary impact of the Fast Track Land Reform Programme (FTLRP) was already appearing ambiguous when it was declared to have come to an end in February 2016 by the Minister of Lands, Douglas Mombeshora.  Not in principle. But by way of any further redistribution of land until the long awaited national land audit is done. 

The quest for post-colonial social and economic justice initially having been politicized via radical Black Nationalism and continually analysed through research studies of varying ideological inclinations has now come full circle.  Even if it does not appear so. 

What was not declared to be over were envisioned changes in land use from agricultural to urban development.  And the reasons for this are now increasingly apparent.

Late last year (2016), the central government announced that it will pay civil servants bonuses (both outstanding and backdated ones) by offering urban residential stands to them. The offer of land in lieu of bonuses was initially rejected by the civil service associations but appears still set to be implemented.

Recently, the Harare City Council also sort of announced that it will be paying its workers backdated salaries by offering again, residential stands to them. 

And who doesn’t want urban land, also to be read as urban capital?

A greater number of younger urban residents, living on the edge due to high rents and astronomical city council charges in the major cities of Zimbabwe are only keen to have security of tenure. Or put in another way, they simply want to get rid of that monthly problematic cost that is also referred to as ‘rent’.  Even if at great cost that includes not having immediate access to electricity, poor road systems and distant schools for their very young children.

There will however be few questions asked about where this land is coming from.  Even if its being administered by suspicious cooperatives or individuals that are rumoured to be closely linked to cabinet ministers or even higher up the power ladder.
Or a mayor who is also looking to have a blind eye turned toward his or her pursuit of publicly owned land as capital in the more lucrative suburbs of a city. 

This is mainly because of the desperation for housing (even if its not decent) in all our major urban areas.   

For the state and now also some city councils, the central and all important commodity to dispense of what it owes employees is land.  Wherever it can be found.  Whether its on a wetland or a site designated for industrial or fast track agricultural use does not really matter.  As long as it can somewhat credibly be turned to residential use and offered as political carrot to civil servants and local government workers that are already desperate to own a piece of land to build their own home. It would therefore be fair to argue that state or public land has become a currency in and of itself. 

In the first place and with the current ruling party, land was presented to the Zimbabwean public as a social and economic justice issue.  It has since morphed into a sharing of the spoils process in which hapless villagers tend to be herded from one acquired farm to the next in the more fertile regions of the country or in favour of either mining or bio-fuel projects.  

More recently it has also become about a rapid and haphazard urbanization process that serves more ‘land barons/oligarchs’ who are motivated by the ridiculously huge sums of personal profit that they will acquire.  These haphazard urbanisation processes are accompanied by odd claims at relocating capitals or central government functions to the periphery of already murkily run urban capitals. 

Hence we have an odd intention to rebuild a new parliament on the outskirts of Harare and establish a new center of geo-political power in Mazowe and Mt Hampden as reported by the mainstream media.

The emerging habit of making land replace financial capital is the new land grab in Zimbabwe.  Not least because its conveniently dovetailed into the FTLRP but also because it has come to represent opportunities at a new private wealth acquisition process for the politically connected.  For the politically vulnerable it is more a take it or stay without property that you would never have been able to afford without the patronage that is now the hallmark of the ruling party.

The end effect of these moves to make land replace salaries is to reinforce a system of patronage and a continued indebtedness of civil servants and council workers to the state and local government.  In the beginning it may appear rosy and progressive for those that work for the state and local government but invariably they shall face numerous challenges in relation to repayment and will fall victim to land barons in their various forms (loan sharks, banks, political leaders).  But then again, who is thinking beyond their immediate concerns these days? A regrettable development and evidence of pitfalls in our national consciousness.

 *Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)