By Eddie Cross
A number of years ago, I was privileged to attend a conference on micro lending conference held in India. After the conference, I travelled to Delhi with the chairperson of a global agency that was funding 250 000 small business start-ups every year around the World.
In Delhi he took me to a small community on some 2 400 hectares of land in the suburbs. There he told me an amazing story.
Three years before our visit he had been told of this community who were made up of Hindu families displaced from the coast by a cyclone.
They had arrived in the capital with nothing and established themselves as squatters on a piece of land designated as a “green belt” among hundreds of tower flats built in the post-independence era of Soviet-style policies.
Their homes were regularly destroyed by the city council and the residents had complained every year about this unsightly settlement in their midst. To no avail.
He had approached the Delhi City Council on the matter and offered to buy the land and settle these people properly.
The council accepted the proposal and once he had title he then opened an office on the site and held meetings with the community.
They drew up a plan and when this was finalised they had just 50 square metres for each family. These plots were allocated with some sort of title and each family given a loan of US$500.00.
After 23 years of living under plastic and tin with the constant threat of the destruction of their homes, this small community of the poorest of the poor had a small plot of land they could call their own.
I was there just three years after this event.
Every family had built a home on their plots, most were three story, brick under tile structures. I was taken to one such home and on the third floor I found the daughter of the family — now about 18 years old, sitting on her bed.
She told me what it had been like living under plastic and the changes that had resulted to their lives. She was at school and said her ambition was to become a doctor.
Over 95 percent had paid back the loans which the organisation had said was not required and the money had been lent out again to the community.
There were narrow roads, schools and a clinic and the main industry was processing the rubbish from the flats that were all around them.
They had running water and electricity and I assume, some sort of waste management.
It was a revolution and a revelation to me and I will never forget the experience.
Shelter is a human right, everyone agrees, but few see the enormous importance of shelter and its profound economic and political significance.
I think it is a national priority to make it possible for every family, starting out in life, to own a place of their own which they can call home.
The two key words are “home” and “own”.
Twenty years after Independence in Zimbabwe we had a serious housing deficit — 40 percent of the urban population were living as tenants — whole families living in a single room and sharing a bathroom.
Owning houses in the high density suburbs and renting out rooms became a highly lucrative business.
The official backlog of applications for housing stands was the same as the total stock of houses in all urban areas — about 1,2 million units.
The reason was that the housing programmes which had been set up at Independence (which the World Bank had described as world leaders) had run out of steam and were not being continued on the scale needed.
After 2000 suddenly farm land was taken over by politically connected people who realised that easy money could be made by dividing up these farms into plots and selling them to people who wanted to build their own homes.
Government actually encouraged this activity by providing rudimentary town planning and survey services. In one such settlement — the former CSC Ranch outside Masvingo, four “Land Barons” took over the property and had it planned and subdivided and they then sold them to individuals — in the process they made over $50 million and creating 13 000 stands — an urban settlement that was larger than the town itself.
For Zanu PF this strategy had been evolved after the 2005 elections when they had won the Harare South seat by settling 9 000 families on some land along the Hunyani River.
These people — all of whom had paid $1 500 for 200 square metres and were now building on these plots.
All had been required to join the party and when voting they had been told to vote Zanu PF or else.
It was a strategy to deal with the MDC controlled urban areas.
By 2013, it was possible to take many urban seats that had been secure opposition seats in earlier elections using these tactics.
In Harare some 250 properties were taken over and handed to “Land Barons” for settlement on this basis.
It was self-funding, created patronage for leading figures in the party and was effective in dealing with the MDC urban vote.
But the unexpected result was that the housing backlog began to shrink.
We have no idea how many homes have been built since 2000, but it must exceed a million units.
Many are real up market homes worth many hundred thousands of dollars, down to humble shacks.
This boom in housing continues — we use in excess of 3 million tonnes of cement a year and the waiting list for bricks and all other building materials runs to months.
The one thing we have learned, given access to land (on whatever basis) and some financing, Zimbabweans do not build junk. They build real homes.
But these vast areas of housing (Caledonia Farm outside Ruwa has an estimated population of 350 000) do not have a proper infrastructure, roads, water, sanitation, social services.
When we eventually incorporate them into the cities we will have to do surveys to establish what has to be done to turn these into properly planned urban settlements.
But the issue of tenure remains.
Many of these housing areas are on land which the State does not own because they have not paid compensation.
In peri urban areas this is a major problem as the land values run to many times the value of the land as farmland. In the compensation claim for US$9,6 billion submitted to government for farm compensation, these peri urban properties have been excluded because it is impossible to estimate their value.
But apart from this issue, we need to urgently undertake surveys to determine what we have to do to turn these settlements into properly planned urban areas.
Then we need to survey each plot and grant title to the “owners”.
Fortunately, this is not difficult because of the advance in drone technology — much of it military.
Just imagine what it would mean if we gave 1,2 million families title to their properties.
At a conservative value of US$75 000 each, this would create capital of US$90 billion.
Not only would this be an astonishing shot in the arm for us as a country, but image the impact on poverty levels, the ability to borrow, the possibilities of expanding the tax base of the cities and towns.
It would also have an equally dramatic impact on our democracy — a family living in their own home is much more likely to vote in their interests rather than for a political pole cat. Daily News