TALK of demolitions of houses in Zimbabwe invokes memories of the 2005 brutal slum clearance operation dubbed Murambatsvina (restore order) which left more than 700 000 people homeless and was described by the United Nations as an “unjustified violation of international law which created a humanitarian crisis”.
Images of riot police and municipal officers evicting thousands of people and bulldozing homes are still fresh in the minds of Zimbabweans.
Pictures of pick-up trucks and rickety handcarts groaning with the belongings of evicted families remain vivid in the memory.
That horror is set to be revisited in Chitungwiza whose houses are under threat from government which has threatened to demolish close to 14 000 structures allegedly built on illegally acquired land.
The houses are scattered across various suburbs in Chitungwiza and Seke rural.
The Chitungwiza Municipality, engaged in a legal battle with residents, last week filed a High Court application seeking permission to destroy the houses and evict families illegally allocated stands as was revealed by a government land audit.
However, the Chitungwiza Progressive Residents Association (Chipra) has expressed shock at the news, arguing the current Local government minister Ignatious Chombo presided over the council which allocated land through corrupt means.
Reads a Chipra statement: “This message comes as a shock because Chombo has been the minister of the same ministry for the past decade.
He presided over Chitungwiza municipality through a commission when he sacked the then elected Mayor Misheck Shoko, and when he suspended former Town Clerk Godfrey Tanyanyiwa and brought in a commission led by Fungai Mbetsa.”
The statement also states that “all and sundry are aware that during this period land was being parcelled out to people through corrupt means. We at Chipra do not condone corruption and its ill effects, but demolishing houses that were bought legally from the council and council-accepted cooperatives is a violation of human rights.”
Chitungwiza Residents Association (Chitrest)’s secretary Tinashe Kanzuru condemned the move by government to demolish houses and said his association will continue to fight in the residents’ corner for justice to prevail.
“The land audit commissioned by minister Chombo speaks to the arrest of the land barons but now it seems the pain has been directed to the victims who occupy those stands,” Kanzuru said.
“It is crucial to note that some of these people are pensioners and would have invested all their pensions on the construction of their homes … demolitions by their nature bring misery to the majority of people.”
He also said the municipality should have stopped the sale of the land instead of waiting for people to spend their scarce resources building, only for them to be demolished.
Constitutional law expert Chris Mhike said while there is a legal battle between Chitungwiza municipality and the residents over the impending demolitions, it was crucial that the constitution is respected.
“Although there are court cases pending, it is important to look at the legal provisions of the current constitution in terms of these demolitions so that no one’s right is violated,” Mhike said.
In terms of the new constitution, section 74 provides that: “No person may be evicted from their home, or have their home demolished, without an order of court made after considering all the relevant circumstances.”
One of the Chitungwiza residents whose house has been earmarked for destruction, Kudakwashe Mlambo, said government must not destroy the houses but rather arrest those who illegally sold council land to them.
“I bought this stand four years ago and built this eight-roomed house,” Mlambo said.
“It is devastating that after all the sacrifices in putting together resources in order to build this house we are told the stand was illegally acquired so the house is going to be destroyed,”.
“What is needed is to arrest those who stole council land and parcelled it to the housing co-operatives for personal gain because the buyers, like me, were not aware the stands were not properly allocated to the co-operative.”
Chitrest lawyer Marufu Mandevere of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said Chitungwiza Municipality should follow all legal procedures and make sure those victims are compensated.
“There is need for a court order to effect demolitions because there are a lot of issues which need to be determined before demolitions commence,” Mandevere said.
“There are issues to do with compensation, alternative accommodation and at times just to regularise some pieces of land so that the residents are not evicted.”
Social commentator Godwin Phiri concurs with Mandevere, saying government should engage the affected people and find a way of regularising the stands instead of destroying them.
“Instead of creating an environment of homelessness, government should focus on ways of regularising the stands. Government has to engage the affected people because given the state of our economy it would be impossible for government to compensate them,” Phiri said.
Last year, government abruptly halted the demolitions of illegal structures in Ruwa after a public outcry because the demolitions were done without a full assessment of the socio-economic effects of the destruction.
The demolitions would worsen the housing problem in the country by swelling the large number of people on the housing waiting list.