Political corruption leaves families landless

By Muchaneta Mundopa and Gareth Benest

In June 2005, demolition crews destroyed hundreds of homes in an impoverished suburb of Mutare, Zimbabwe under ‘Operation Murambatsvina’ (Move the Rubbish), the government’s campaign to forcibly clear ‘slums’ across the country. Many of those made homeless joined housing cooperatives to collectively purchase land, on which to rebuild their lives, only to have that land taken by Zanu-PF supporters with backing from government ministers. This is the story of how political corruption in Zimbabwe left an 82-year-old grandmother landless and destitute, and how she and fellow cooperative members are fighting back through a legal action to be heard at the High Court early next year.

Mbuya Banda has lived her whole life in Mutare, Zimbabwe’s fourth largest city nestled at the foot of the Eastern Highlands. At the age of 82, Mbuya is the sole caretaker for her five grandchildren, following the death of her husband and their two children. She and the children lived together in a small rented house in the densely populated western suburb of Sakubva, until one morning in 2005.

Without warning, teams of men tore down the family’s home and destroyed their few meagre possessions. Mbuya was not even allowed to retrieve the only remaining photograph of her late husband. The bulldozers that followed wiped everything clean.

Operation Murambatsvina (Move the Rubbish). Image by Sokwanele

Section 74 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe is meant to protect citizens from arbitrary eviction, stating that: “No person may be evicted from their home, or have their home demolished, without an order of court”; however it afforded no such protection to Mbuya Banda and her neighbours that day.

Mbuya is a strong and determined woman. She immediately set about buying a small plot of land to build a new home for her family. However, buying land is an almost impossible aspiration for most citizens in Zimbabwe. Affording the astronomically high land prices is only the first of many hurdles to overcome. Getting ‘connected to the right people’ and paying the numerous bribes that are required to ‘facilitate transactions’ are the next challenges to face. Without connections and deep pockets, there is little chance of buying land. And so it was that Mbuya found she was unable to secure a plot of land for her family and was forced instead to move, with her five grandchildren, between the homes of relatives.

Aftermath of Operation Murambatsvina. Image by Sokwanele

Vast swathes of people in Zimbabwe find themselves in the same position as Mbuya Banda. In response, many have formed housing cooperatives. Through pooling resources and undertaking collective bargaining, housing cooperatives have proven to be an effective mechanism by which those on low incomes can realise their constitutional right to shelter. Gathering together her last remaining savings, Mbuya joined the housing cooperative Homeless People Federation of Zimbabwe in Mutare.

In 2012, the city council finally offered Mbuya and her fellow cooperative members a parcel of land upon which to construct their homes. But while they waited patiently for the authorities to install basic services (water and sewerage), which the council insisted must be completed before the members could occupy the land they had purchased, squatters moved on to the land and started building houses illegally.

“I thought the matter would be resolved when the Minister (Youth, Indigenisation and Empowerment) visited our plots,” says Mbuya Banda. “Instead he told the squatters that they would not be evicted. He said those already occupying the land were the rightful owners”.

It soon became apparent that the squatters were supporters of Zanu-PF, the ruling party in Zimbabwe. It is widely recognised that those who oppose Zanu-PF risk intimidation, physical beatings, and death threats. The squatters had the political protection they needed to illegally occupy land owned by the cooperative members, with impunity.

“The government is also an accomplice sometimes in this corruption where you find ministers of local government collaborating with city officials to virtually drain the city of its resources. We have a corruption problem in this country that is endemic,” says Mfundo Mlilo from the Combined Harare Residents Association.

In 2016, after four years of unsuccessfully appealing for assistance from various government ministries, Mbuya contacted Transparency International Zimbabwe through its Advocacy and Legal Advice Centre (ALAC). Staff from the anti-corruption organisation undertook a thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding the disputed land. They concluded that Mbuya Banda and her fellow cooperative members had been illegally dispossessed of their land, through acts of political corruption.

A case was subsequently filed in the High Court of Harare (Homeless People’s Federation vs City of Mutare) and is currently awaiting a hearing date.
Transparency International Zimbabwe offers free legal aid to victims and witnesses of corruption. However, resources are scarce, and these services are entirely dependent upon the generous donations of supporters around the world. If you would like to help Mbuya Banda, and the thousands like her across Zimbabwe, to get justice and secure a place for her grandchildren to live, please contact us through our website and follow our updates on Facebook and Twitter.

* Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

For more on this case, watch this documentary on urban land corruption in Zimbabwe.
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