Environment & Urbanization

World leading environmental and urban studies journal

Seeking Urban Transformation: Alternative Urban Futures in Zimbabwe

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Davison Muchadenyika

Weaver Press, Harare



While much of the focus of the last 18 months has been on how health crises – and particularly pandemics – impact on urban areas, the significance of politics should not be forgotten. Muchadenyika draws on diverse sources to unpick the catalysts of urban change in Harare and two adjacent urban centres, Epworth and Chitungwiza. His longstanding engagement with the city, and with a range of individuals and groups who are remaking outcomes on the ground, is evident. 

The post-colonial period saw little urban reform in the city. The government chose to maintain standards with very little (and expensive) low-income high-density housing provision. By the early 2000s, housing needs were acute. Little formal housing was affordable and informal housing options were restricted. Increasing political tensions – related to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) government seeking to respond to declining popularity in urban centres – led to the widespread allocation of peri-urban land to citizens aspiring to home ownership. The introduction to this volume highlights the significance of Zimbabwe’s land reform programme, the popularity of the opposition party – the Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai (MDC) – among urban residents, and finally the increase in citizen organisation (in the form of housing cooperatives) to take advantage of consequential opportunities to access urban land. It is the political moment that has played out over the last 15 or so years that makes Harare and its environs such a fascinating study. 

Following the introduction, Chapter 2 explores a wider literature on both social movements and radical planning to frame the discussion that follows. While the volume focuses on one city, the author rightly argues that his analysis contributes to a long trajectory of learning about citizen action to address housing needs in the absence of state action. Chapter 3 summarises the longstanding restrictions in Harare and more broadly in Zimbabwe that have contributed to such an acute housing crisis. The demand for high standards in housing in terms of plot area, number of rooms and modern services meant that housing was not affordable. Even though there were government reforms to reduce standards and improve access, problems continued. Arguably, the housing crisis peaked with Operation Murambatsvina as the government sought to challenge adverse political affiliations by large-scale evictions from MDC-supporting areas. Housing programmes have been introduced by the government since Zimbabwe gained official independence in 1980, but limited finance and equally limited capability have failed to address need. Serviced plots appear to be a better strategy but this is unattractive to the government. The historical development of Harare, Chitungwiza and Epworth is elaborated in Chapter 4, which brings to life the consequences of this planning and programming context. 

Chapter 5 discusses urban development within the context of urban government reforms introduced by the national government, which undermined local democracy. The impacts of the economic recession and industrial collapse associated with the Mugabe government are discussed in the context of struggling urban livelihoods and declining municipal revenues. One response of local government was to permit the informalisation of land acquisition and housing development that they had resisted for so long. A range of social movements with diverse connections to political elites championed access to housing in Harare through a variety of strategies, and Chapter 6 documents both the types of social movements and what they have been able to achieve. Between 2000 and 2015, over 100,000 housing plots were made available and about half had completed housing at the end of this period. The discussion considers a range of related issues including the gendered significance of housing, and the potential of powerful leaders to abuse social movement processes and secure their self-interest. The City of Harare and national government made multiple responses including evictions, guidance for informal settlement upgrading and efforts to regularise informal construction. Muchadenyika argues that attitudes to “slums” changed during this period with a notable increase in the willingness to address, rather than resist, spatial informality. 

The two following chapters look at two satellite towns to Harare, Chitungwiza and Epworth. The discussion documents the scale of informal settlement there and the processes that enabled households to access land. In Chitungwiza, contestation between the MDC (who controlled the town council) and ZANU PF (who controlled access to land) enabled housing cooperatives to manipulate land-allocation processes, and take on the municipal functions. Close relations between some housing cooperatives and ZANU PF favour the abuse of power. ZANU PF leaders used housing to strengthen clientelist relations and to enrich themselves. The council sought to respond with regularisation where possible and some evictions and demolitions. While national government supported regularisation, in practice the processes were chaotic and led to further contestation between national and city governments. Further problems were the development of sites beyond the boundaries of Chitungwiza but with little collaboration between relevant authorities, and corrupt practices by town officials. 

In Epworth, an unusual context with a longstanding informal settlement was to be found. In this location, large numbers of low-income tenants struggled to address their housing needs. Strong social movements had sought to improve housing options and contest evictions. Here, inter-party contestation from 2008 resulted in both land invasions and the intimidation of local officials (particularly those aligned to the MDC). As elsewhere, speculative land invasions took place by individuals seeking to accumulate assets, and individuals sought the protection of ZANU PF while party officials responded by demanding loyalty in return for access to land. Muchadenyika argues that cooperatives failed to deliver development in Epworth (unlike Harare) because the processes became individualised and the collective nature of the housing movement failed to be realised. In contrast, in Harare, cooperatives had some level of legal status and legal land occupation. But the dominance of informality in Epworth made it difficult to advance substantive progress towards housing. The Zimbabwe Homeless People’s Federation sought to advance in-situ upgrading for 22,000 households and considerable progress was made. However, other social movements sought to capture the local authority and reinvent planning processes to address their own interests. 

Muchadenyika argues that local government capacity to advance equitable and inclusive development is critical to ensuring that the efforts of grassroots organisations are successful. Effective local government is democratic and representative, and able to govern the spaces for which they have responsibility. He shows that the multiple pressures on the status quo in metropolitan Harare from the Zimbabwe Homeless People’s Federation, political parties, the cooperative movement as well as self-interested actions have helped to secure change. The contrasting governance arrangements in the three locations have contributed to alternative outcomes. But alternative outcomes can also be partly explained by variations in the nature of housing movements, and the evident failure of central and local government to provide housing solutions. At the same time, the national government’s political status helped to legitimate insurgency, and enabled housing movements and their members to claim spaces of innovation. Muchadenyika remains positive about the potential of insurgent planning, especially given the evident flexibility of at least some professionals to respond positively to their radical agenda. However, he remains cautious about the transformative potential of urban social movements in the context of powerful and corrupt practices to access and exploit land. 

Book note prepared by Diana  Mitlin

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