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Small towns and economic development: lessons from Zimbabwe

At Independence in 1980, the new government set about investing in new infrastructure aimed at redressing the imbalances of the colonial past, as described by K.H. Wekwete. This included a focus on small urban centres. The 1982 Transitional Development Plan stated:

“Existing discrepancies in the ordering of urban settlements will be corrected by balanced investment in growth and rural service centres. The intention is to bring the rural population into close contact with services and markets, thus forging linkages with the national economy and stimulating the development of local markets with regional specialisations and a multitude of informal employment opportunities”

The Department of Physical Planning proposed a seven tier hierarchy of urban areas – consolidated villages, business centres, rural service centres, district service centres, growth points, towns and cities. This built on attempts from the 1970s to create ‘African’ towns in ‘African areas, and the emergence of the first set of ‘growth points’ supported by TILCOR, the Tribal Trust Land Development Corporation. This was aimed at maintaining the dual economy, and racial separation, while encouraging economic growth in ‘African’ areas.

Urban and regional planning theory had long argued for a distributed approach to infrastructure development, in order to generate balanced growth and effective service delivery. New urban areas should be aimed at facilitating economic activity through ‘linkage’ and ‘multiplier’ effects, while providing sites for markets and services. This might involve significant infrastructure investment to encourage industrial activity (as in ‘growth poles’) or a more incremental approach through planning support for the growth of ‘nodes’ of economic activity – as in the arguments of ‘central place theory’.

However in the context of a highly uneven economy, with spatially concentrated populations – the legacy of colonial land allocation and racialized settlement policy – simply investing in infrastructure and services was not enough. In the colonial era towns grew where there was economic activity. There were the mining towns, such as Zvishavane, Mashava, Hwangwe, Shurugwi, Kadoma and Kwekwe; there were the estate towns, such as Chiredzi and Triangle; and there were the white farming towns, such as Chinoyi, Bindura or West Nicholson. These had their own growth dynamic; but expecting similar patterns to emerge simply through planning edict and limited investment in infrastructure was bound to fail.

The TILCOR growth points that included Sanyati, Maphisa, Gutu, Mrewa, Nkayi, Wedza and others were incorporated into the post-Independence investment strategy. District centres and growth points were placed under the control of local government, with all districts across the country having investment plans that included the supply of water, electricity, feeder roads, sewage systems, and the establishment of government offices. But these centres suffered many problems. They were not necessarily integrated into local economies, and the dualistic pattern of economic development continued. Some prospered, but many remained more in planners’ imaginations than in reality. Those that grew significantly included Gokwe, which prospered due to the cotton boom. Meanwhile, Gutu-Mupandawana took advantage of its location at a distance from other larger towns and in a communal area that had agricultural potential. Mrewa and Mutoko similarly grew through the links to farming and particularly as staging posts for small-scale horticultural marketing to Harare from the communal areas. Meanwhile places like Chivi, where I spent a lot of time in the 1990s, and many others like it languished.

The lesson of course was clear. You need things happening in the economy around an urban centre, and this cannot be conjured up by grand plans and infrastructural investment. For it is the wider structural constraints that hold economies back. In Zimbabwe of course this was substantially to do with access to productive land. Gokwe had plenty of land nearby, and new migrants profited from cotton and Gokwe boomed, but at the same time, peasant farmers in Chivi communal area were barely surviving on small plots and without access to resettlement and the economy remained depressed; more so from the early 1990s with the squeeze on the economy due to structural adjustment policies, and the decline in off-farm opportunities and remittance flows.

At Independence there was much policy discussion about reshaping the economy, and investing in ways that created a ‘rebalancing’ from the skewed racially-defined economy that Zimbabwe inherited. Despite the high rhetoric and the impressive plans little of course happened, and the ambitions of new small town growth were largely dashed. Following land reform post-2000 however the economy has been substantially restructured, with new areas of economic activity – combined of course with declines elsewhere. This requires new thinking, and a new set of ambitions. Not based on the false promises of planning, but linking new investments to existing dynamics of economic activity. Lessons today should not draw on the (largely) failed growth point approaches of the 80s and 90s, but focus on how to capitalise on the new economic activity prompted by land reform through an integrated regional economic development approach.

For sure, growth and economic activity is tentative, and much of it is informal but it is certainly there – and in places like Mvurwi or Chatsworth covered in previous blogs in this series, and often not in those places that the old economy worked for. Comments on the blog series on various platforms over the last few weeks have offered a number of critiques. People have said, look at my town, it’s declined and it’s not like you describe. Well that may be the case, as the restructuring of the economy has resulted in the collapse of certain industries, and the spatial redistribution of economic activity. Those reliant on large-scale commercial agriculture have unquestionably suffered, but in areas where land redistribution has occurred there has been a growth in other activities, as the blogs have shown. Equally, some large mines have closed in some places, while others (often smaller, more distributed) have opened elsewhere. This all means economic activity has a new spatial pattern, one that investment needs to be linked to if the multiplier effects are to be realised. While the economy is certainly depressed currently, and issues of cash liquidity and lack of investment are restricting growth seriously, it is not without potential, but the future spatial pattern of economic development will certainly not be the same as the past.

Others have argued that the new growth is not ‘real growth’ because it is informal. This is a common refrain, and one that needs more than this blog to tackle. But we must not simply dismiss the informal economy because it’s informal. It is massively important in Zimbabwe today and the basis of significant employment and generation of substantial numbers of livelihoods. It may not result in huge tax revenue streams, which is a problem, and it may be fragile, poorly remunerated and operating with poor working conditions, which is a problem too, but it is unquestionably the basis for significant accumulation and wide economic activity, linked to wider economic growth, and must not be ignored. Informal economies across Africa are huge, but poorly understood. This is perhaps especially the case in Zimbabwe, where research and statistical data and so much policy commentary seems to ignore the new dominant pattern, and the places – including the growing small towns and the new (mostly A1) resettlement areas – where things are really happening.

As the economy restructures – painfully, slowly and with all sorts of hardships resulting – there is an urgent need to rethink how we look at issues of economic development – and especially where. Small towns in new farming areas, I have argued in this blog series, are a good place to start.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

For further information on the history of small town planning and policy in Zimbabwe, see Wekwete, K. 1991. Growth Centre policy in Zimbabwe: with special reference to district service centres, in: Mutizwa-Mangiza, N. D., and A. H. J. Helmsing. Rural development and planning in Zimbabwe. Avebury.

 

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The new land frontier in Zimbabwe: urban land for housing

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.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

 

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