Photo: A resident ponders the rainy New Caledonia landscape in January. New Caledonia is one area which has seen illegal land grabs abound. (Harry Davies)
Story by Harry Davies and Farai Dauramanzi
With the 2018 elections drawing near, residents and analysts fear an increase in corrupt land grabs as the ruling party shores itself up financially and politically to hold onto power. Such activity has serious social, economic, and environmental implications.
A long history of land theft
Senior officials in Ministry of Local Government and City of Harare have for many years used Harare as a cash cow, asset stripping public property for personal gain. Successive ministers have removed councillors from office or coerced their acquiescence to allow for to allow for the flouting of council procedures surrounding land distribution, employment contracts, and tender allocation, often behind closed doors.
Although the story of land grabs in the city stretches back to the 1990s, the first comprehensive report on the subject was released in 2010. The report was commissioned by a majority MDC-T council, and covered the period 2004–2009 when Ignatius Chombo was Minister of Local Government. Lead investigator Warship Dumba was arrested days after its release on charges of defamation, but these were dropped after various council resolutions were presented to the court.
2010 Special Investigations Committee Report: Massive revelations go unpunished
Running to 54 pages, the report details the period following the illegal sacking of Executive Mayor Elias Mudzuri by then Minister Chombo in 2003. Chombo installed Deputy Mayor Sekesai Makwavarara as Acting Mayor, and subsequently head of a Commission that would run the city for 4 years. Makwavarara had joined Zanu PF as a councillor after her expulsion from the MDC for corruption in June 2005. Most of the unprocedural land deals were carried out during the commission period, and still have bearing on the city today – for example the Borrowdale wetland development has come about after foundations were laid under the commission.
The report implicates numerous people to various degrees, but the top beneficiaries were commission chair Sekesai Makwavarara, flashy businessman Philip Chiyangwa, property tycoon Ken Sharpe, and the minister himself, Ignatius Chombo.
Map of Harare indicating just a few of the contentious land deals from 2004 to now
Graphic by Graham van de Ruit
The report by the Special Investigations Committee noted how the minister had used his influence to acquire prime pieces of land in Harare. The land acquired by Chombo includes 61 Helensvale . Several other applications from as far back as 1996 had been made for the land, but all were turned down up until the Minister himself applied in writing to Tendai Mahachi in 2006. In addition to acquiring this property for himself, the report details several other instances of Chombo exerting undue and inappropriate influence over land deals at the time.
The 2010 report details how Chiyangwa, through his company Kilima Investments, managed to swap a tract of land (Stand 389 Derbyshire) measuring 17.6Ha that was zoned for industrial purposes, with Stand 19345 in Gunhill measuring 10.23 Ha – prime land that was zoned as residential. The swap deal was approved on false grounds that council had run short of industrial stands.
The Commission rescinded the land swap, but, according to the report, “the deal continued between Director Psychology Chiwanga and Mr. Phillip Chiyangwa without council’s involvement.”
Augur Investments led by Ken Sharpe capitalised on the Commission, which was now operating illegally to the anger of residents, many of whom protested through a well-supported rates boycott. It was during this time that Augur sealed the controversial airport road deal. Moreover, the report notes a blatant conflict of interest on the part of Michael Mahachi. Mahachi started out as a council representative, even heading up the illegal commission which signed the deal with Augur, but later became a project manager for Augur, under what some believe to be a golden-handshake arrangement for facilitating the deal from the inside. Curiously, the land given to Augur by the City in exchange for building the airport road, which totalled 93 Ha, was divided up between seven shelf companies, with no legal links to Augur.
Chombo appointed Makwavarara as Commission Chair in 2004. The commission ran for four years, of which she was in charge for three before handing it over to Michael Mahachi. Legally, the commission should not have run past six months when fresh elections should have been held for council positions. During her tenure, Makwavarara managed to acquire a council house located at 19 Nigels Lane , Highlands. According the report, the decision to sell the house to her came as a verbal instruction from Chombo himself, flouting council procedures. Makwavarara was well positioned to help or hinder in the numerous land deals at the time, but instead, is named in the report as an ally of Chombo, and a beneficiary of the corrupt dealings.
These are just some of the instances of misdealings outlined in the report. Shockingly, it was none of those named in the report who faced any consequences. Instead, the investigative team were harassed by police, with lead investigator Warship Dumba being arrested three times, though he was never held for long. “To this day I feel betrayed by the government itself, by the President, and my party (MDC-T) too didn’t help me enough to achieve justice for the work we had done,” Dumba told Harare News recently.
Following this period demand for land was steadily rising as the city’s population swelled, and the government and council set eyes upon formerly white owned farms on the periphery of the city. Following in the footsteps of the land reform programme, a new era of land allocation, including land theft dawned brightly. This period is still alive, and the victims are the poorest residents of all.
Land barons – scourge of the poor
From the year 2012 to 2015, like other towns, Harare saw a spike in the number of land barons) who illegally sold vast tracts of council and state land in dozens of schemes to unwitting victims, causing the mushrooming of unplanned and unserviced residential areas, including Budiriro, Southlea Park, Caledonia, Arlington Farm, and parts of Hatcliffe. Some tenants later faced eviction after the real owners stepped forward, whilst others have been allowed to remain on humanitarian grounds, though council has lost as yet unquantified but significant amounts of much needed revenue from the sale of the land. It could have been used to service the plots, thereby creating new ratepayers. Instead, the existing ratepayers must shoulder the burden.
There have to date been very few successful prosecutions of land barons. The lack of meaningful intervention by the authorities including the police and the courts signifies political immunity likely obtained through the payment of money to collaborating senior government officials. Former councillor and lead investigator in the land grabs report, Warship Dumba, told Harare News that, “The land barons are agents for individuals in the ruling party. Most of the agents worked hand in hand with Chombo, and now Kasukuwere has taken over. They cannot be in the open selling land themselves, the ministers, so the land barons to do it for them.”
It is not just self-enrichment motivating these illegal sales of land. Speaking to Harare News, political analyst and Chair of the Zimbabwe National Editor’s Forum, Njabulo Ncube, outlined how land barons are playing a role in Zanu PF’s plans to retake Zimbabwe’s urban areas.
“Zanu PF covets seats in the capital which dramatically rejected it in the 2000 polls. It is worth noting that when the invaders were being expelled recently their defence was that their land allocation was approved by local Zanu PF officials. Some were offered stands in exchange for voting for the ruling party. In Glen Norah, people had to go as far as buying party cards to qualify for the stands.
“The grand idea is to dilute opposition power and influence in the capital. Zanu PF is still seething with anger it lost near all major towns and cities, hence it’s machinations via land grabs to try and claw back the capital. There is methodology in this Zanu PF madness.”
One instance of a successful conviction was the case of Simon Boora, an ex-employee in the Ministry of Local Government. Court documents show that Boora had used fake government stamps and documents to dupe his victims. For once, justice was served, and Boora was sentenced to an effective five years for defrauding home seekers of more than $80,000.
Kasukuwere takes his turn
In July 2016, one year after being appointed Minister of Local Government, The Herald reported that Saviour Kasukuwere had dished out thousands of hectares of peri-urban land in Shawasha B , originally earmarked for youth to friends, relatives including his brother, and political associates. Kasukuwere was rebuked by President Mugabe, but denied the accusations and took the moral high ground claiming that he had blocked some of the recommended allocations intended to benefit bigwigs.
Perhaps just as telling was Kasukuwere’s highly controversial amendment to the Urban and Rural Councils Act in June 2016. It was described in the press as a ‘blitz on MDC councils’, as it gave the minister unconstitutional authority to suspend and appoint elected council officials. Public hearings on the matter were marred by violence as Zanu PF youths allegedly bussed in from rural areas disrupted the Harare meeting. Kasukuwere is now well-positioned to wield the same influence over council procedures as Chombo was in his day – coercing and silencing councillors and the mayor over decisions such as appointments and, of course, land allocations. He has already overturned the appointment of James Mushore as Town Clerk in fraught circumstances, during which time Mayor Bernard Manyenyeni was suspended, and repeatedly arrested.
Civil servants co-opted
In late 2016, government announced a scheme that, although not yet started, will breathe new life into Zanu PF’s control over an increasingly restless civil service. By allocating land to civil servants under low-cost mortgages to be deducted from paychecks, the Zanu PF government will reduce its dangerously high wage bill and induce long term loyalty from ordinary workers including teachers and nurses, but also, critically, the army and police.
Writing on his personal blog, political analyst Takura Zhangazha says that civil servants are being “sprung up the ladder of privilege”, and identifies several ways in which this will contribute towards Zanu PF’s continued rule.
“The allocation of land to so many government workers will no doubt have a significant political impact, not only in terms of establishing new demographics to the voters roll, but also inducing loyalty to the party that has gone the extra mile of providing elusive and expensive urban land/capital…mitigating any intentions by the civil service to undertake national strike action similar to that of July 2016.
“It will also make the civil service much more close knit socially (almost setting them apart as a distinct social group) because of geographic proximity. This may induce a strong sense of community among citizens that work for the government and with that may come a certain pride (or restoration thereof).
Zhangazha notes that civil servants and their association/union leaders have welcomed the move, but urges them to be aware that “they are essentially being co-opted into a materialistic silence.”
This move may be easy to justify and eventually carried out transparently, but it does not take cognisance of the tens of thousands of other citizens of Zimbabwe already on the housing waiting list, desperate for a chance to build homes of their own.
Demolitions and evictions which have become a constant feature in Harare have left thousands of families stranded, and children out of school. One of the residents who had his house demolished in Budiriro two years ago said that he was still to recover from the loss.
“I bought a stand in 2010 through Tembwe Housing co-operative. My house and those of others were then demolished leaving us with nowhere to go. After sleeping in shacks for weeks hoping for redress which never came, I later sent my family to the rural areas while I looked for a room to rent,” said the resident who declined to be named.
Besides demolitions and evictions, land theft has also resulted in many people in the City living in substandard conditions after being allocated un-serviced land in areas such as Southlea Park, New Caledonia, Hatcliffe, and other parts. The Director of Harare Residents Trust (HRT) Precious Shumba also pointed out that unplanned settlements were overloading existing services and infrastructure as the City had no capacity to match the growing number of housing units.
“Disease outbreaks become more frequent and the pressure become more unbearable on ratepayers on the municipal property database..the people living on these illegal housing developments have to be sustained by legally recognised properties,” said Shumba.
Un-regularised stands do not yield any revenue for the city. Though council and government’s housing development arm Urban Development Corporation (UDICORP) is now moving in to regularise some of the illegal settlements, it is clear that millions of dollars in potential revenue through rates and land sales will never be recovered. The chairperson for the Combined Harare Residents Association (CHRA) Simbarashe Moyo said that the City is losing out potential revenue due to illegal land allocations.
“The City is not able to provide services to illegal settlers as it is not getting the revenue it is supposed to generate through the sale of land and services that are supposed to be sold to people who are legally settled. The illegal sale of land seriously impacts the City’s budget and service delivery,” said Moyo.
Moyo said that CHRA is planning an economic assessment of the land grabs to see how much Harare has lost. “The evaluation will assist in our programming and the statements we give to the city,” he said.
Illegal land allocations and land grabs have also resulted in the destruction of wetlands which are an important component in water conservation. Spokesperson for the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) Steady Kangata explained that illegal allocations on wetlands are causing irreparable damage to the Harare’s natural water system.
“Wetlands are water banks that absorb excess water therefore reducing overland flow. They (wetlands) also assist in storing water that will then flow into the rivers during droughts. We have seen wetlands being developed in areas such as Chitungwiza and this can cause flash floods,” explained Kangata.
Kangata revealed that all local authorities including Harare were culprits in the destruction of wetlands, “As EMA we are up in arms with city fathers over wetland development because they are the ones who are responsible for planning. In fact, Harare has since appeared before EMA’s disciplinary committee over the issue of allowing developments on wetlands.”
Although self-enrichment continues to be a major motivator, the control of state and council land is also proving to be a huge asset in the government’s election-winning toolkit. CHRA’s SimbarasheMoyo believes that the historical inability of council and the courts to punish offenders will result in more violations over time, and that land allocations in exchange for political support such as Zanu PF’s ‘Million Man March’ of 2016 will increase.
“As elections are around the corner, soon we will have populist politicians coming in to dish out land to unsuspecting land hungry citizens only for the people to lose the land soon after elections. Anyone who has been observing previous trends can tell that we are going to have populist land allocations,” said Moyo.
Ideally the housing alloocation list should be made public, and a parliamentary enquiry held to restore order. In addition, it is the duty of the public and the media to watch out for those looking to abuse public assets.
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This report was published with support from the Investigative Journalism Fund.
Sources include state and private media, council reports, court judgments, and interviews with stakeholders.