In recent years urban, and perhaps especially peri-urban, land has become the centre of major political struggles for control in Zimbabwe. There is huge demand for housing in urban and peri-urban areas, very often from people with a foot in the rural areas but a need for an urban base. The costs of plots has sky-rocketed, and there are many, including those with resettlement farms making profits from farming, investing. As with any valuable resource, this attracts those who want to control it.
The control of urban land has become intensely political. Notionally controlled by municipal councils, urban land use and house building is supposed to be highly regulated. Indeed the building regulations in Zimbabwe are some of the strictest in the world. However in areas of the urban periphery there is more ambiguity. Former farm land that is being bought and sold illegally for new housing developments, creating often massive new settlements around Harare in particular. These areas are becoming a site of major conflict as chiefs or other local officials sell of land parcels to developers disenfranchising local people. This land market boomed particularly during Zimbabwe’s economic crisis, when land was privatised, and deregulation occurred. Those able to exploit the ambiguities of the system, and make gains on currency deals profited massively. The result has been significant accumulation by certain elites, along with invasions of land for new quasi-urban settlements. Mandi Rukuni has called for new regulations to manage such land, and for a more effective land use planning and zoning system.
However a technocratic land use planning system may not be enough, as such areas are also sites of political contest and patronage. Electoral politics have had a big influence. ZANU-PF’s electoral strategy in 2013 was focused on such areas, with enticements being offered to people joining ‘housing cooperatives’ that were controlled by individuals with close ties to the party. These new urban voters, often poor and in need of housing, duly repaid their debt, and voted in ZANU-PF in areas previously controlled by the opposition. Some housing coops turned out to be bogus and people were enticed there without legal rights often to stands with multiple claimants. Some were later evicted to make way for big-time developers with political connections, while others remained living in appalling conditions in unserviced shacks with limited facilities. After the election, ZANU-PF again announced its intentions to consolidate its gains by ‘regularising’ illegal settlements, including proposed demolition of informal settlements. With land consolidated in the hands of well-connected developers, their aim is to again hand out plots and assure electoral support in 2018.
Focusing on Ruwa and Norton near Harare, as well as Harare’s central markets, Jo McGregor shows in a recent paper how MDC councillors and municipal officials were intimidated, often violently, and were unable to fulfil their duties, and an alternative system of authority was established through party officials, youth militia and housing cooperative functionaries, supported by surveillance and control by the Central Intelligence Organisation. This was all allegedly coordinated from the highest levels, with key individuals, most notably the Minister of Local Government, Ignatius Chombo, being implicated. Some party-connected elites reputedly made huge amounts of money.
Rudo Gaidzanwa in a recent presentation retold the same story, but also asked who these new urban residents were, and what their aspirations and motivations were. While the political machinations around land and votes in urban areas drove a lot of the process, there were people who benefited from this. Gaidzanwa identified women as prime beneficiaries. She argued that due to lack of rural land rights due to ‘customary’ law, and lack of inheritance rights in practice, many wanted urban land and housing for alternative livelihoods. These included widows, divorcees, single women with families as well as entrepreneurial women with a rural base but in need of a stable urban home to raise their families, and gain access to schooling and health care absent in the rural areas, particularly the new resettlements. A diversity of such people were happy to join the coops and play along with the political game in order to gain much needed security of housing and land, unavailable to them elsewhere. Others were looking for sources of investment from the profits of farming. In our work in Mvurwi in Mazowe district, the high profits from tobacco are fuelling investment in land and housing in towns and cities, including in the politically-run housing coops, but also in other less controversial private schemes. An agricultural boom presents some new challenges, including the question of where the surplus money goes.
Jo McGregor’s paper was based on discussions with MDC councillors and activists, and clearly reflects that standpoint. She concludes that the ZANU-PF driven land acquisition, replanning and housing investments are a clear example of state-directed party-based patronage, geared to electoral gain and personal financial benefit of an party-connected elite, including ministers, senior military officers, and others of high status. In this, she is clearly correct, and the scandals that surround urban land and housing are regularly in the newspapers, particularly in the peri-urban settlements on the edges of the main conurbations, are witness to how this is an important and widespread phenomenon. Deep forms of corruption have become, in Sarah Bracking’s terms, a ‘technology of governance’.
However such accounts do not offer the perspectives of those who benefited. They may well have voted for ZANU-PF, but they are not the elite who are extracting the massive rents from dodgy deals, illegal sales and housing scams. Instead they are a significant group of often younger people, very often female, who have not got land in the rural areas. Some are displaced farmworkers or those whose housing was destroyed by Operation Murambatsvina; neither likely ZANU-PF supporters. Also, the land reform is now 14 years ago, and there are plenty who did not get anything. Equally, many do not wish to make a living solely on the land, regarding it as too much hard work, and would prefer to use their education to get a chance in town. Still others want to maintain a bridge between town and countryside, investing the agricultural profits in housing and urban land, guaranteeing a good return. Those now living in these new (peri)urban settlements are a diverse group, with different interests, affiliations and needs. They are embroiled in a political contest over land, resources and political control, but should be part of the story.
Expanding opportunities for low-cost urban housing in the end must be a good thing. And if this is part of an electoral strategy, then ZANU-PF seem to have followed rather successfully in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher in the UK in the 1980s. Stories of ruthless property developers linked to local political elites making huge profits from the poor in the context of a land and housing bubble is of course not exclusive to Zimbabwe either. Although it is no excuse, the urban politics of the US and Europe can be read in a similar way. However, for Zimbabwe, removing corruption and patronage, and excessive rent-seeking, from such land and housing deals must be a priority, as this offsets the potential redistributive gains to be made. As urban land is transformed from the exclusive preserve of the propertied elite to open up opportunities for land and housing for others, the new peri(urban) land users urgently need a voice.