By Rejoice Ngwenya
On Saturday, 22 April 2023, close to thirty thousand ‘poor’ citizens – mainly Epworth residents and others bussed from Harare’s Urban High-Density Areas (UHD) in Zimbabwe – braved the relentlessly unforgiving scorching autumn sun.
They were keen to hear President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s new message on title deeds. Zimbabwe is in election season; thus, it will be common practice for people to gather in such dusty public spaces listening to both old and new political promises. For the first time in a long time, I had first hand experience of what it is to be an underprivileged citizen on the other side of the presidential podium.
You see, COMALISO has always had a special interest in title deeds for lowincome citizens who reside in what are commonly referred to as ‘informal areas’. Actually, our research in the past two years shows that not less than two million urban citizens in such and other UHD areas live on untiled properties.
It was our think tank that raised the alarm and put this subject on Zimbabwe’s national political agenda. The debate has not only infiltrated Parliament via our Petition, but also political parties like the ruling ZANU.PF and opposition CCC. And so, when I heard that the President would ‘issue title deeds to 350 Epworth residents’, of course as head of think tank, I had an obligation to go and listen how the process would transpire. COMALISO has always insisted that title deeds are not an electoral campaign matter – for good reasons.
Citizens who reside in such places as Epworth, Eastview, Solomio, Hopley, Garikai, Maruva and others in Kuwadzana, Highfields etc., are members of different political parties. Of course, some ‘informal settlements’ could have been a result of ZANU.PF aligned ‘land 2 barons’, but this counts for nothing when a poor citizen has already been allocated a stand and built a house.
So, when a political party says “if you vote for us, we will give you title deeds”, we get concerned because we know the process of titling is highly legalistic and procedural. That is why COMALISO went to Parliament to ‘complain’ about this difficult process that endangers the tenure of millions of citizens. However, there is no part of the Constitution or Electoral Act that prevents politicians from making false promises, other than hate language. Actually, most elections – not just in Zimbabwe but also Africa – revolve around false and unfulfillable promises. Zimbabwe goes a step further – rampant votebuying and bullying.
A few days ago, I heard senior ruling party officials ‘ordering’ traditional to tell their subjects to vote for the ruling party. Some even claim they invite ZEC, the national electoral management body to their rallies for voter registration. It is also on record that government has pampered chiefs with cars, ‘medical aid’ and COVID ‘allowance’.
The fact is that ZEC’s Justice Priscilla Chigumba and her assistant, Rodney Kiwa has no control over what politicians say to their supporters. However, the law is very clear about the illegality of hate language and undue influence by chiefs. Traditional leaders are everyone’s leader and are not supposed to be partisan.
So, ZEC must make it their responsibility to chastises politicians who compel chiefs and headmen to tell citizens who to vote for. On many occasions disgraced chief boss Fortune Charumbira is quoted ‘assuring’ President Mnangagwa that ‘all chiefs support ZANU.PF’ – a blatant lie at that if not abuse of his esteemed office.
The fact that our laws allow both the President and his local government minister to preside over chief installations does not make chiefs ZANU.PF surrogates. This is politics of delusion at the highest level. Title deeds cannot be a matter of political campaign because getting them is a complicated process that comes with compliance to no less than ten laws.
The reason why Epworth, Harare, Norton, Masvingo and Mutare city councils have little appetite for ‘regularizing informal settlements’ is because they would have to bend or break their own planning laws. And this has always been our point at COMALISO. We also made this point to the Office of President and Cabinet, to Parliament and relevant ministries – why are there so many laws that ‘govern’ issuance of title deeds?
True, municipal authorities are merely interpreting the law, yet Epworth has been in existence since the early 1970s and nothing had been done until COMALISO stirred the hornet’s nest. In the past twenty years, Zimbabwe has 3 experienced an exponential growth in informal urban areas, and yet we still argue that title deed laws must not change.
And so, what President Mnangagwa and his officials said yesterday at Epworth was that the government has changed the system of titling for poor people yet title deeds are no longer just a campaign matter. Ironically, most urban and peri-urban centres are opposition strongholds.
Thus, it is opposition CCC who should in fact be spearheading the harmonization of titling laws, not ZANU.PF or COMALISO, for that matter. I have heard some Council officials, urban planners and other professionals say central government must not bend the rules to accommodate informal settlers. I disagree.
The reality on the ground is that millions of citizens have built homes in these ‘informal’ areas. If Harare City Council will never ‘destroy’ Caledonia and Eastview; if Ruwa Town Council will never destroy Solomio – they might as well start ‘regularizing’ them.
I am glad President Mnangagwa mentioned that homes built on infills, wetlands, spaces meant for schools, clinics and roads would never be regularized, thus for my team and I, the ‘politics of title deeds’ becomes good news.
What COMALISO hopes is that the ‘new’ Presidential Title Deeds and Settlement Regularisation Programme ‘system’ articulated at Epworth is replicable everywhere else, because 350 title deeds out of a ‘demand’ of two million is but a drop in the ocean.
Rejoice Ngwenya is a director of COMALISO – a property rights think tank, commenting on his weekly ‘Electoral Watch’, Sunday, 23 April 2023, Ruwa, Zimbabwe