The Interview: ‘Banning housing coops was the right thing to do’

Mr Toriro . . . In my opinion local authorities must continue to observe regulations and enforce the letter and the spirit of the law.

Mr Toriro . . . In my opinion local authorities must continue to observe regulations and enforce the letter and the spirit of the law.

The cycle of houses being built and destroyed by authorities in Harare has been going on in a now depressingly familiar fashion. Accusations fly hither and thither. Money and property are lost, sometimes forever. The morality of the authorities comes under scrutiny. Harare Airport Road demolitions arethe latest – and most probably not the last. But when did the rain begin to beat us, what are the dynamics of property development and what is to be done? Our Political Editor Tichaona Zindoga (TZ) speaks to Zimbabwe Institute of Regional and Urban Planners president Percy Toriro (TZ) on the issue

. . .TZ: The Airport Road saga is part of a disturbing trend we have witnessed in Harare in the past few years. Can you locate for us the genesis of the problem?

PT: I think this can generally be attributed to failure to observe regulations and I think this applies both to the authorities and to the public. When any urban development occurs there are certain site procedures which have to be followed. Sub- division plans have to be done and approved, building plans are done and they are approved, development is inspected and there are roles and responsibilities for all parties.

Local authorities have certain responsibilities set out for them in terms of the Urban Councils Act as well as in terms of the Regional Town and Country Planning Act. And if these are strictly followed and adhered to it doesn’t become necessary to do what is now happening at the airport.

And when it happens I think we also want to honestly say is it a good thing or a bad thing? Certainly, it is a morally bad thing to destroy people’s houses but technically and from a public safety perspective any airport is closely regulated. It actually has a series of zones which determine what type of development can occur in those zones.

It is not done to make things difficult but to protect the public. People should be made aware that should any aviation incident or accident occur there are usually several fatalities and for that reason airport areas have to be very carefully planned.

We have observed as planning professionals a gradual decline in the manner in which authorities exercise their power. As an example it has not always been the case in this country that people have done whatever they wanted to in an urban area and managed to get away with it.

It is also important in explaining this to give a brief historical background that Zimbabwe as a country has always prided itself for strictly observing planning regulations. One example is in 1981, immediately after achieving independence, there was a squatter camp in Chitungwiza, the area where Zengeza 4 North s now situated, which was housing refugees who had been displaced by the war.

But even the new independent Government came in with a policy that they would have to destroy all illegal settlements and come up with planned settlements. Later on in 1982 there was also a farm between Harare and Chitungwiza called Hazel Deep which had also been occupied by squatters and I remember also at that time the President indicating that it is Government policy to remove people from all unplanned settlements into planned settlements.

So consistently this Government, to me, has done the right thing in terms of coming up with properly planned settlements and that is the reason why Zimbabwe in comparison with so many other countries does not have a huge proliferation of settlements which are also known as slums or shanty towns.

If you go to Kenya and go to Kibera, it has become a hopeless place, they cannot manage it anymore despite the fact that the UN Habitat headquarters is in Nairobi, Kenya, they have failed to upgrade that settlement. Several millions have been sunk in there but they have failed to upgrade it.

So the cost of trying to correct a situation is always much higher and we would really want to say that it is a step in the right direction when regulations are strictly followed. Over the years in this country we have observed a laxity in the manner in which regulations are observed. But we also are very clear that the laws have not changed and I am not aware of situations where people have been told to no longer undertake their mandate to manage settlements.

So I think people are duty bound when they are in offices that are supposed to ensure that proper things are done. When this is done it is done in order to ensure public health, in order to ensure public convenience, even equity in the distribution of resources. The moment people take it upon themselves to distribute there is no longer a need.

So, yes, it has happened and we have observed it happen over time but I think it still comes back to the same issue that we have to uphold regulations.

TZ: But one of the nagging questions is that authorities leave these settlements to sprout and then to destroy them when the houses are complete or near completion and the settlement has grown. How would you explain this? Of course, you are not the authorities but how do you relate to such a scenario?

PT: That is obviously wrong because morally it becomes difficult to accept when complete houses are being destroyed because it is now resources being wasted. The correct position is supposed to be as settlements begin and authorities observe that people are doing things illegally, let it be stopped at that very initial stage.

This is a case of the proverbial sleeping on the steering wheel because the moment you allow it to happen and then want to come to it later, in the eyes of the public it begins to be seen as cruel. The correct position is it has to be stopped because it cannot be permitted.

So in my opinion local authorities for whatever reasons must continue to observe regulations and enforce the letter and the spirit of the law. There is a reason why those laws are in place and the moment they don’t do it for whatever reasons, I think it is not right.

TZ: Are Zimbabwean people so ignorant as to build in such undesignated or otherwise irregular places? Where do we place the agency of homeseekers in this mess?

PT: I want to separate the people here: there are two categories of people. There are people who have benefited from these developments, who have been referred to as the land barons. To me those people for as long as they have not done things properly, without proper sanction, are crooks and they should be arrested and pay back whatever they stole from those people.

Then there are the beneficiaries who came in, some of them generally believing that “this is a proper settlement”. Those people must be protected. But protecting them sometimes does not mean leaving them where they are, they may have to be moved. But measures must be taken against the people who benefited from the chaos because I would like to believe that somewhere and somehow there are people who have made money out of this situation.

That must not be allowed. The public must be protected and the police must come in and apply the full wrath of the law on whoever used whatever technicalities to swindle these people of their money because now they have suffered huge losses, they have suffered inconvenience and there is someone who is to blame.

Then there is the third category who are the officials. I think there is a need to go to the bottom of the issue and say what was sanctioned? Who sanctioned it and was it properly done? If not then the law should take its course. There are always measures which can be called upon to ensure that the wrongs of the past are corrected and I think the blame must appropriately be assigned so that corrective measures can be taken.

Because at the end of the day people sympathise with those who have suffered loss. But sometimes we tend to blame the wrong people for the loss. Let the blame be apportioned correctly.

TZ: Somebody was suggesting that a commission of inquiry would be needed to unravel this situation?

PT: I wouldn’t want to define what sort of instrument Government uses to get to the bottom of this, but it is mandatory that this matter be investigated and everything that happened along the way be brought to the fore because occurrences of this nature have become too common and unfortunately losses have been huge from the public.

We need to protect the public and one way of doing it is to investigate this issue, document everything that happened, publish it and ensure that we punish whoever didn’t do things correctly. So certainly I am not going to define what instrument should be used but something must be done. We cannot ignore this because huge losses have been suffered, people have done wrong things and they must take the correct flak for it.

TZ: As we conclude, you are part of the regularisation team at Caledonia. Caledonia, as a metaphor itself, what can be learnt from it on chaos and resolution thereof?

PT: Caledonia was a case of a crisis of governance. For several years certain people were allowed to usurp Government powers and they abused those powers. Government thought they were doing the right thing by allocating cooperatives land so that the public would benefit. Unfortunately, some people took advantage of that situation and they got to benefit at the expense of individuals.

They took people’s money, pocketed it and no development then took place on the ground. I think that tells us that governance of settlements is a very important thing. We should never allow people who are not qualified and have no experience in running these institutions to do so. The people who took charge in Caledonia had no clue what they were doing, they simply took advantage of an opportunity.

In the process many people suffered because although people had contributed for almost 10 years, people are having to start again with contributions as if they are entering into the scheme today. So I think the main lesson is on governance but also authorities should really interrogate who they give power to.

It was wrong in the first place to assume that cooperatives led by people, some of whom didn’t have a clue what they were supposed to do, could then manage urban development issues, issues that people have to study engineering, town planning, surveying and financial management. This was in the hands of very simple people who in their eyes when they saw the contributions of the public couldn’t match it to the obligations.

So it has been a big lesson in that we must properly govern settlements but we must also monitor whatever is happening because for years those people went unmonitored and we can see that the problems in other areas which are yet to be addressed are also of a similar nature. Governance issues were not being done, administrative issues, technical issues were not being properly addressed.

Managing an urban settlement is not an easy task. It requires skills such as planning and engineering, finance and surveying. It is really a combination of skills so allowing any opportunist to think they can wake up tomorrow and find they are managing a settlement is really oversimplifying and we get the results that we got.

TZ: And there has been an announcement that there will be no more housing cooperatives allowed to develop land?

PT: Well, based on what has happened Government had no option. I think they took that decision in the public interest, to protect the public. It is sad though that the few cooperatives that were doing well also then suffered in the process. But the truth is the majority of cooperatives have failed so certainly Government took the right decision.

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