Harare municipality criticized for targeting the poor …

The twisted steel of the doors and window frames protruding from piles of rubble is all that is left of around 100 homes after the demolition crew visited the area.

Chiwoniso Shoko, whose home in the high-density Harare suburb of Budiriro was among those shaved, remembers that rainy summer morning well.

“There was hardly any notice. We were still asleep… it was the sound and roar of the approaching bulldozers that woke us up, ”she said.

A widow and mother of three boys, Shoko was building the house. Two of its seven rooms have been made. The family occupied these rooms while the others were under construction. Some had already reached the height of the window.

Demolitions began at 9 a.m. on December 8, 2020 and ended at 3 p.m., carried out by order of Harare City Council.

Illegal construction has decimated wetlands in the Zimbabwean capital.

According to the Harare Wetlands Trust, a non-governmental organization called Budiriro, about 22 km from the city center, had lost 49% of its wetlands, about 237 ha, between 2008 and 2019. Harare as a whole lost 50% – that is, 784 ha – over the same period.

The consequences were serious.

Some houses in the suburb of Epworth in Harare were flooded due to occupation of wetlands during the last rainy season. (Photo: Lemuel Chekai)

The city’s water infrastructure, originally designed to serve 300,000 people, was collapsing under pressure from a population that had swelled to over two million. And with climate change believed to affect rainfall patterns, wetlands had become increasingly important to the well-being of residents.

In addition to reducing flooding and providing rain catchment areas that feed rivers and lakes, Harare’s wetlands allow water to seep into the ground, recharging the water table. The boreholes, which capture this groundwater, were the main source of water in Harare.

In recent years, the council has taken a tougher stance on the “illegal structures” that have mushroomed in the city’s wetlands. he accused “Bogus real estate developers” grab and parcel land in open spaces, including wetlands, which have been preserved in their natural state for ecological or national value.

But the city’s handling of the problem has drawn strong criticism.

Authorities sent the bulldozers to Budiriro during the height of the rainy season, leaving Shoko and her boys, aged six, 10 and 14, in the open. They rushed to build a makeshift zinc shelter that now stands on the ruins of their old home.

The gross structure was all that was left of the $ 11,500 that Shoko had invested in the project, the equivalent of six years’ salary for an average government employee in Zimbabwe. Some $ 7,000 of that – part of a benefit payment from her late husband’s employer – went on to acquire the land, a 300-square-meter residential stand, in 2016. The balance, which she took won as a small cross-border trader, paid for the construction work.

Shoko’s neighbors have suffered the same grief and most now live in shacks or temporary shelters amid the rubble.

The widow said she was a bit skeptical when she acquired her land, but a representative of the developers, the Masimba Cooperative, reassured her that everything was fine, pointing to other settlements in the city built on wetlands.

Many efforts to get a comment from the owner of the cooperative, Regynald Masimba, were unsuccessful. In the past, he has refused to discuss the matter with the media.

Chiwoniso Shoko takes a break after a long day trying to consolidate the exposed foundations of her temporary shelter. (Photo: Lemuel Chekai)

Shoko said she was unaware of the importance of wetlands at the time and accused the council of double standards.

She pointed out that a 10-minute drive from her ruined house is a thriving settlement built on top of a wetland in Belvedere, a middle-class residential area.

“Ever since the incident happened, I have always wondered if wetlands are only found in high density suburbs,” said Shoko as he walked through a field littered with rubble.

The Harare Wetlands Trust has confirmed that Belvedere lost 36% of its wetland from 2010 to 2019, but no eviction notice has been served for almost 10 years.

Selestino Chari, the trust’s program director, has categorically claimed that building on the wetlands is a violation of the law, but questioned what he sees as the council’s arbitrary and authoritarian way of enforcing its laws .

“[It] believes it has jurisdiction to save or destroy the ecosystem. Occupied wetlands in low density (relatively wealthy) suburbs have been parceled out by city council so they cannot drag themselves to court to reclaim the spaces.

“But in high-density suburbs, land barons are largely responsible for occupying wetlands, and in cases like this, the council is never slow to take cases to court for orders of. demolition.”

Twisted steel and rubble – the remains of demolished houses in Budiriro by order of the Harare City Council. (Photo: Lemuel Chekai)

However, the mayor of Harare, Jacob Mafume, who is currently suspended due to political feuds at town hall – but was in charge when the demolitions took place – insisted there was no had favoritism.

“We never favored anyone. The list may have only covered those areas because Harare has more high density settlements than low ones, ”Mafume said.

Harare City Council was approached for comment but had not responded at the time of publication.

Chari said that in the past decade at least 15 wetlands have been dedicated to housing in the low-density suburbs and satellite towns of Harare, and local councils have not acted against this. He said this reinforced the view that the demolitions were the result of the council’s frustration at not benefiting from the sale of the land, rather than a desire to save the wetlands.

“We need a neutral interlocutor, like our organization, or a complaint from residents, for a question of occupation of wetlands in low-density suburbs to be addressed.

A residential stand on a wetland cleared for the start of construction, in Monavale Harare. (Photo: Lemuel Chekai)

The Harare Wetlands Trust said it had more than 25 court cases against the city council and housing co-ops over the legality of some settlements, and three-quarters of those cases involved houses in the sparsely populated suburbs of Harare. However, business has dragged on since 2014.

Gift Kurupati, general secretary of the Chitungwiza Progressive Residents’ Association, a non-profit organization representing taxpayers and tenants in Chitungwiza, a dormitory town 25 km south of Harare, criticizes the role played by national authorities.

“What worries us as residents is that regulators like the Environmental Management Agency always talk about wetlands occupied by the poor. If it is (rich) areas like Longcheng [shopping centre] in Belvedere, Nyaradzo Funeral Services in Chitungwiza and the Old Mutual shopping center in Chitungwiza, nothing is said.

Kurupati said they and other individuals and organizations, including the Combined Association of Residents of Harare (CHRA), had tried to stop the development of wetlands in Belvedere, but to no avail.

Mfundo Mlilo, former director of CHRA, said: “We have tried to challenge the continued development of the region through legal requests and letters to various responsible offices, but a document has come from the government describing it as a project of national importance.

While the wealthy were apparently free to break environmental laws, including the Environmental management law and published notices, the effects of the occupation of wetlands were hurting the poor.

A stroll through one of the more upscale low-density neighborhoods reveals that almost every household has dug their own borehole. But private drilling is a luxury few in the high-density suburbs of Harare can afford.

At any time of the day, women and children can be seen lining up at communal drilling points serving a radius of a mile or two as the council’s water infrastructure fails to keep pace. of a constantly increasing population.

An almost completed house, built on a wetland in the bourgeois suburb of Monavale in Harare. (Photo: Lemuel Chekai)

President Emmerson Mnangagwa said in February he had set up a team to identify and develop areas to relocate families whose homes have been built in wetlands and other undesignated areas. But 10 months later, nothing has materialized.

Shoko would like to take the president’s word for it, but she has doubts. “So for now, while we want this to materialize, we are not expecting too much,” she said.

In January of this year, Harare City Council announced that more than 30,000 illegal structures, mostly houses in high-density suburbs, were to be demolished. This was in addition to the some 11,000 houses in Chitungwiza set aside for the bulldozer, as authorities pursued a program to transform the capital into a “world-class city” by 2025.

The program, which was launched in 2012, counts among its objectives the creation of well-oiled, coordinated and functional infrastructure offering many opportunities for the inhabitants of the city.

In 2005, the government of Robert Mugabe launched Murambatsvina, a campaign to eliminate slums across the country. Estimates put the number of displaced people at between 64,000 and 323,000, with the economic impact affecting up to 2.5 million people.

Murambatsvina appears to have been fueled by politics, with government critics seeing it as a way to punish the urban population for voting the opposition.

This time around, the wetland demolitions seem more motivated by money. DM

Lemuel Chekai is a 26-year-old freelance writer based in Harare and participating in the Accelerate Young African Journalists Program, which focuses on climate issues. This article is part of the Roving Reporters Biodiversity Reporting Project supported by the Internews Earth Journalism Network.