The nightmare continues for poor Zimbabweans

Despite rhetoric of new regime much more is needed, particularly in addressing accusations of corruption in the housing sector

A queue for meali meal in Mutare, Zimbabwe. The poor and impoverished citizens wait patiently for their free food. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

As dark clouds began to build on the horizon, Tarisai Nyakunu Zimunya, a single mother-of-three, looks worried.

The fragile structure she calls home would struggle to withstand a drizzle, let alone a storm.

Ms Zimunya is one of thousands of people living in expanding illegal settlements in the eastern city of Mutare, one of Zimbabwe's largest, with a population recorded in the 2012 census of about 187,000.

Like her, many live in squalid conditions.

"With the rainy season coming, it is going to be difficult for me and my family. I cannot afford to pay rent for a better house, so I have no option but to live [here]," Ms Zimunya says.

The daily quest for clean water and firewood is an unceasing nightmare for the residents of Mutare's slums.

"We get water from a deep well a few kilometres away," the 37-year-old says. "The water is not all that clean, but we have no choice."

And without electricity - and gas stoves unaffordable - the women must head to the nearby mountains to forage for firewood. It adds hours to their working day.

"But the wood is becoming scarce and we are now travelling long distances to get it. It's not safe, but that is the only way for us to survive," says Ms Zimunya, who ekes a living by selling vegetables to support her children, who range from three to nine years old.

Her story is repeated across Zimbabwe, which remains in the grip of a deep economic crisis. Unemployment is above 80 per cent; as a result, illegal settlements are growing in every major city, says the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions.

But those settlements lack running water, sewerage, paved roads and electricity. Health experts fear when the rainy season comes in November they will become havens for disease.

World Bank figures show around one-third of Zimbabwe's 16 million people live in urban areas, and that its urban population is growing about 2 per cent annually.

Statistics from the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals database from 2014 show that one in four of the country's urban residents, or about 1.25 million people, live in slums. Experts said that figure is likely higher.

It is women like Ms Zimunya who bear the brunt of the burden as they are forced to fetch water from tainted sources, gather firewood for cooking, and try to dispose of household waste.

And their position is unlikely to improve soon. The government's figures show a housing shortfall of over 1.3 million units, with the capital Harare needing 500,000 homes.

In the decades that former President Robert Mugabe was in power, government spending ballooned - however, more 90 per cent of the budget went on civil servant salaries, which left little for investment needed to boost growth or for social spending.

New President Emmerson Mnangagwa in November laid out a grand vision to revitalise Zimbabwe's ravaged economy and vowed to rule on behalf of all the country's citizens.

Sworn in days after the overthrow of Mr Mugabe, the 75-year-old former security chief promised to guarantee the rights of foreign investors and to re-engage with the West, and said elections would go ahead in 2018 as scheduled.

In a 30-minute speech to tens of thousands of supporters in Harare's national stadium, Mr Mnangagwa extended an olive branch to opponents, apparently aiming to bridge the ethnic and political divides exploited by his predecessor during his 37 years in charge.

"I intend, nay, am required, to serve our country as the president of all citizens, regardless of colour, creed, religion, tribe or political affiliation," he said, in a speech that also hailed the voice of the people as the "voice of god".

Behind the rhetoric, some Zimbabweans wonder whether a man who loyally served Mr Mugabe for decades can bring change to a ruling establishment accused of systematic human rights abuses and disastrous economic policies.


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He made clear that the land reforms that sparked the violent seizure of thousands of white-owned farms from 2000 would not be reversed, but promised that those who lost property would receive compensation.

To some political opponents, the speech was a welcome change from the habitual belligerence of Mr Mugabe and appeared to be drawing on Mr Mnangagwa's knowledge and understanding of China as a model for running an economy.

"His model has been the Chinese," said David Coltart, a former education minister and MP from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

"He will drive to make Zimbabwe a more attractive investment location, and more efficient, but like China will not tolerate dissent. If you 'behave', you will be secure."

When he presented the budget in December, Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa admitted many people had spent years waiting for affordable accommodation, and said the government must prioritise spending on housing.

Mr Chinamasa, who acknowledged housing was "a basic human right", allocated $182 million to support an array of strategies to improve housing.

He said it would work with housing cooperatives, and had developed financing strategies with the Infrastructure Development Bank of Zimbabwe and the Urban Development Corporation to provide low-cost serviced land for development.

Although housing experts welcomed the pledge, they say much more is needed, particularly in addressing accusations of corruption in the housing sector.

A Mutare-based housing expert, David Mutambirwa, says new slum settlements had mushroomed in the city since 2014. He says he fears the new housing facility will benefit only the political elite, not the deserving poor.

"Corruption in land-allocation on both urban and farm allocation continues to benefit the political elite," says Mr Mutambirwa, who is also the director of the Mutare Residents and Ratepayers Association.

Mr Mutambirwa has long lobbied the city to provide cheap and affordable housing, and has worked closely with Mutare's homeless people and the city council's housing department.

"The political elite control everything from land-allocation, business, commerce and policies in the country to the detriment of the poor and marginalised," he tells Reuters.

And, he says, the amount of money allocated for housing is insufficient to address Zimbabwe's huge housing shortfall.

"This clearly shows that there is no political will to address the housing shortage by the government," he says.

Difficult though the situation for slum dwellers is, it was worse in 2005 when, during winter, the government launched Operation Murambatsvina, which meant "Drive out the filth".

It destroyed tens of thousands of illegal homes in urban areas, and left over 700,000 people homeless, according to the United Nations.

The government's actions - which were roundly condemned by rights groups - pushed many people back to rural areas.

But in the intervening years, with little work and few opportunities, people have been returning to the cities. However those like Ms Zimunya and her children who live in Mutare's slums look unlikely to get much help from city hall.

The mayor, Tatenda Nhamarare, says the city is working hard to alleviate its housing problem, including by building roads and sewerage facilities "in high- and low-[density] residential areas" prior to house-building.

"And private land developers are also helping to provide decent accommodation to the people," Mr Nhamarare says.

However he is quick to say the city will not tolerate illegal settlers.

"We cannot do anything for them [illegal settlers] - they must vacate the areas they are occupying."

Associations that represent Mutare residents say many homeless people cannot afford the residential stands on offer.

Human rights lawyer Passmore Nyakureba says that runs contrary to the obligation by local and national government to supply housing to citizens - either by providing housing or by ensuring access to land for development at low cost.

"But, as you know, our government has really done very little in this area as it has alienated its primary obligation through either the commercialisation or politicization of the right to access to both urban and rural land," Mr Nyakureba says.

He says given the government's approach, the only option is to keep urging it to meet its responsibilities to provide land for its citizens.

"On its own this government will not do anything towards fulfilling any of the rights of the people of Zimbabwe unless there is political gain to it."