By Mary Jane Ncube, Farai Shone Mutondoro and Manase Chiweshe
In Zimbabwe land is power. And when this power is abused to score political points or amass wealth illegally, the most vulnerable citizens are the hardest hit. In the traditionally patriarchal communities of Zimbabwe, these citizens are most often women.
The country’s economic crisis – fuelled by recurrent drought and a controversial land reform programme – has led to rapid urbanisation, pushing up demand for housing and prices. Politicians parcel out land at a fraction of its real cost to those pledging support for certain parties while responsible urban planning has given way to opportunism. This has led to the rise of infamous ‘’land barons’’ – politically connected and corrupt individuals who defy the law and exploit citizens’ desperation for housing for personal gain.
In many of Zimbabwe’s rural areas land is controlled by patriarchal lineages: women can access it only through men and are not entitled to inherit it. This makes urban land more appealing because, in principle, women can secure a title deed and inheritance is legally protected.
But to get a home loan or mortgage, one needs to own collateral and have a well-paid job. With so many Zimbabwean women being caretakers at home or informally employed, accessing finance through banks is impossible. This situation has led to the rise of housing cooperatives, which although highly risky and mostly corrupt, they can offer women an affordable route to owning urban property.
“As people continue to struggle to find housing in urban centres, corruption will deepen. The impact will be on ordinary Zimbabweans.” – Farai Mutondoro, Transparency International Zimbabwe Senior Researcher and Regional Coordinator
What is a housing cooperative?
Legal cooperatives are government-registered entities that enable a private individual or group to acquire land through the local municipal councils, develop it and then allocate houses to members of the cooperative who buy into the scheme. But signing up to one can cost as much as US$5,000.
Illegal and unregistered cooperatives are seemingly more affordable but are run by land barons in cahoots with municipal officials. These syndicates occupy land they have no legal right to, but still develop it and allocate properties to unsuspecting members, often asking for a hefty bribe in the process. In certain areas, illegal cooperatives have even sold residential stands in protected wetlands, with devastating effects on the environment. Citizens who buy into such illegal schemes run the risk of their house being demolished during government clampdowns on illegally occupied land.
What we’re doing about it
Millions of dollars have been extorted from ordinary Zimbabweans through illicit land deals in recent years. While various anti-corruption commissions have been set up to deal with these cases, they cannot be effective when political will is lacking.
Through mobile anti-corruption legal advice centres (ALACs), which travel the country to gather citizens’ reports of land-related corruption, Transparency International Zimbabwe is building up a database of evidence which it plans to present to decision-makers and demand changes in policy and laws so that even the most marginalised and vulnerable in society can exercise their right to land.
By encouraging citizens to continue speaking out about land corruption, it also hopes to build strong communities of activists who will know their rights and be able hold local land authorities to account.