Demolitions: Govt lacks moral high ground

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THIRTY-THREE-YEAR-OLD Talent Dhliwayo shakes his head and points to the rabble strewn on one side of the four-roomed house in Ruwa where his once vibrant tuck shop stood.

Herbert Moyo

The rabble, mostly consisting of crushed bricks, metal and glass, is all that remains of the tuck shop he constructed next to the house where he rents two rooms.
“There is nothing left for me but to go back to my rural home in Chipinge,” Dhliwayo laments.

“Everyone back home looks up to me to bring that Christmas cheer. I just don’t know what I am going to do this Christmas. Where am I going to get money to buy groceries and clothes for my siblings? In January, I also have to pay school fees for them.”

Dhliwayo’s tuckshop is one of the many informal business structures and houses destroyed last week when the Ruwa Town Board launched a blitz on illegal structures following repeated demolition threats from the Local Government ministry, which has since disassociated itself from the destruction.

“It was all without any warning and all of this was done by a council which knows fully well that there is little formal employment in the country. They are being extremely insensitive and inhuman,” Talent fumed.

Insensitivity is what Dumiso Dabengwa warned government against in 1995, during his tenure as home affairs minister.

“In these harsh economic times, vending not only creates employment, but is also a valuable source of income,” said Dabengwa.

“Therefore from a moral, social and economic point of view, harassing and arresting people who are trying to earn an honest living seems to be too harsh and unwarranted.”

It is the kind of warning that government failed to take heed of in 2005 when it launched Operation Murambatsvina to ostensibly rid urban centres of illegal structures such as tuck shops, while dealing a body blow to a constituency deemed sympathetic to Zanu PF’s opposition.

About one million people are said to have been adversely affected by the campaign which was condemned by the United Nations.

Back then, as now, government justified its campaign also code-named “Operation Restore Order” as necessary to rid the country of the unseemly chaos bred by haphazard and illegal constructions.

But analysts have strongly urged government to draw a line between the doctrinaire pursuits of legal purity at the expense of real needs of the country’s citizens who continue to wallow in abject poverty wrought by an economic meltdown.

While it is important to maintain the rule of law and ensure that all construction conforms to the demands of town planning laws, government needs to balance this imperative with sensitivity to ordinary people’s needs, particularly at a time when unemployment is at a high of over 80% and there is a general economic decline, analysts said.

Dhliwayo and many others like him generated at least US$200 a month from the sale of various wares including cellphone batteries, chargers, airtime and even sweets.

This enabled him to pay his monthly rent of US$60 and send money for his parents’ upkeep.

“To just destroy without even providing alternatives is plainly callous,” said analyst Godwin Phiri. “The government and local authorities should have at least given the people alternative properly serviced areas to operate from. After all, they have been talking about empowerment and trumpeting the informal sector as one way of arresting the economic downturn.”

In the absence of alternative places from which to operate, Nyasha Rungano, also from Ruwa, has taken to selling his wares from his car. Parked adjacent to the shopping centre, one cannot miss the light blue vehicle plastered with the logo of a mobile service provider.

Although he is lucky to own a car where he conducts his airtime business from, he is still a bitter man after losing stock worth over US$500 when his tuck shop was demolished.

“Nobody wants to engage in illegal activities,” he said. “So many people have applied to be licensed and given proper market stalls. I have been waiting for two years despite paying council US$350.”

Even at law, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) contend government would be wrong to proceed with the demolitions.

“ZLHR demanded (from Local Government minister Ignatius Chombo) to be advised of the steps that the ministry has taken to ensure that all families are provided alternative accommodation by the ministry and local authorities concerned, considering the ministry’s obligations in terms of Section 28 of the Constitution,” reads a statement released by ZLHR spokesperson Kumbirai Mafunda.

Still others say government lacks the moral high ground to demolish or even condemn the structures because it has sat idly by and even abetted the development of such structures over the years.

One such area is Hopley, south of Harare, which is an unplanned settlement and a Zanu PF stronghold which has been allowed to expand allegedly for political expediency.

Harare Residents Trust director Precious Shumba said: “It is common knowledge that these housing developments were being aided and abetted by known Zanu PF officials and MDC councillors and very corrupt council officials.”

The government may well be right in demanding respect of town planning laws, but such arguments mean very little to Dhliwayo, Rungano and many others whose only source of income has been destroyed. Even in terms of the law the government has been trumpeting, there is a principle that states necessitas non habet legem (necessity has no law).

There can hardly be any greater necessity in a country where there is high unemployment than to allow people who have no formal employment to sell their wares from informal structures until such a time that government provides them with proper lawful structures for their operations.

“Therefore from a moral, social and economic point of view, harassing and arresting people who are trying to earn an honest living seems to be too harsh and unwarranted.”

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