By Cyril Zenda
IN 2006, a rogue City of Harare municipal police officer who had been on French leave on full pay for more than six years decided to stretch his luck further.
Having committed a number of crimes — including attempted murder — with impunity — he decided that time had come for him to upgrade from the lowly regarded high-density suburb of Glen Norah.
After surveying the city, he settled for an open space along Clavering Road in Malbereign.
In broad daylight, he pegged a residential plot for himself and started building his dream house.
As he had correctly predicted, nothing happened to him.
To his delight, he watched gleefully as the hapless city fathers — after a feeble protest — went on to regularise the illegal structure.
Today this former law-breaking municipal policeman is not just the proud owner of a house in the middle density suburb of Malbereign, but also a supposedly honourable lawmaker.
His name is Joseph Chinotimba, the legislator for Buhera South.
Chinotimba’s case is just but a microcosm of the lawlessness that has affected the country’s urban planning efforts since 1980, when the definition of self-rule was stretched to also mean that political decisions took precedence over any professional considerations.
Against sound advice from professionals, since 1980, politicians at various levels have made decisions that have only served to satisfy their short-term interests.
As a result, green zones, open spaces, recreational spaces, wetlands, road and railway servitudes, airport green belts, riverbanks and farmland, among other open spaces, have been converted to residential use, more often with the local authorities being arm-twisted by politicians into regularising structures constructed illegally.
With urban land becoming a hot commodity because of limited supply in the face of high demand in most towns and cities, the temptation for politicians to literally kill two birds with one stone — by ripping off the desperate home seeker, while at the same time endearing themselves to the electorate — becomes too riveting.
The advent of the land reform programme — with its wanton disregard of property rights — came as an icing on the cake for the politicians, but made the life of any town planner a real nightmare.
The floods that affected most poorly planned settlements in the capital got the public to start talking, wondering if Harare still has any town planning professionals, and if so, if these experts can justify the jaw-dropping salaries and mouth-watering perks the municipality is known to give its executives.
President of the Zimbabwe Institute of Regional and Urban Planners (ZIRUP), Percy Toriro, told the Financial Gazette that he was dismayed that most authorities disregard sound advice from professional town planners, only for them to cry “foul!” when disastrous situations like those that have recently visited Harare’s Borrowdale, Mbare, Budiriro and Chitungwiza happen.
“The biggest challenge for urban planning as a profession is that people only see the consequences of not having done it properly long after it is done,” Toriro said.
“At the time that planners will be trying to convince society that this is the decision that is technically sustainable, few will support them because logic can be painful in the short-term. So while I can’t say planners in Harare are still performing their duties or not, I’ve personally travelled the road before and I know that not all planning advice is taken on board. What I encourage them to do is to have their views on sound town planning on record. In future one wants to be able to say ‘I had recommended this, but authorities in their wisdom or lack of it preferred to do it this way’. That way they can maintain their professional integrity.”
He said politicians at both local and national government levels will always want to make populist decisions, but professionals should be able to advise them soundly, even if it has to be done in private, lest they get fired and become irrelevant.
“However, one must be professional enough to walk away from a situation if it becomes impossible to meaningfully discharge one’s role. So it can be a delicate balance,” Toriro said.
In Harare, there are several fully-fledged residential suburbs such as Hopley, Stoneridge, Saturday Retreat, Southlea Park, Caledonia and other settlements that have sprouted up over the years, settlements in which hundreds of thousands of people have built houses on un-serviced land… land without water, sewer connection, roads or any other off-site infrastructure, seedy settlements where the local authority neither collects refuse nor rates because they do not exist in its master plan.
Another urban and town planning expert, Shingai Kawadza, said whenever the interests of politicians and town planners intersect, usually it is the latter that give way, but not without disastrous consequences in the long term.
“Basically, planning has its origins from the urge to look after the public interest, which the politicians also claim to serve, the people, the masses, leading some to conclude that planning is also a political activity informed by technical knowhow,” Kawadza told the Financial Gazette.
He said it is in this common area of public interest where friction between politicians and planning professionals takes place.
“The question is at what point does politics cease to serve the public interest? This is the predicament and dilemma that our society faces at the moment where the relationship between the politician and the public has become skewed and limited to serving a very narrow and partisan public interest,” Kawadza said.
“Our politics has been so narrowed that it is now concentrating on looking after the shallow interests of the very poor members of society who, because of their predicament, have had no choice, but to become the dependent electorate on which our current politics depend on. This has made our politics unaccountable to the general public or the public at large. This is at variance with the ethos of good and sound town planning practice.”
He said by acting against sound advice from experts in pursuit of short-term benefits, government (local and national) was reneging on its responsibility to safeguard public interests.
“What then is the role of the planner and planning in an environment and context where government has reneged on its public interest responsibility? Planning by its nature is responsible for creating environmental laws to guide and safeguard the public interest. What chance does these laws and their enforcement stand where there is no rule of law and the public interest has become very partisan and polarised?”
Kawadza indicated that there was need to revisit the issue of the public interest in Zimbabwe to re-establish how the public can best be served. He said the origins of the planning practice in Zimbabwe has a British and colonial tradition, which has always been perceived as exclusive and punitive to the black majority.
“Now the black majority has further been divided into those for and against the current government, whose interest is planning therefore serving? This requires an honest soul searching discussion to re-establish the public interest and how it can be served in Zimbabwe’s growing urban centres. How can we re-engage and become accountable to each other in the public interest?”
City of Harare spokesman, Michael Chideme, this week came to the defence of council.
He said: “The town planning unit is a division in the department of works. Yes the unit is perfomring its work on daily basis 24/7. We are still on target to achieve the world class status by 2025.”
But at the rate at which the capital hadsdeteriorated, this ideal looks set to be another grave of good intent as the situation on the ground indicates that the city was much closer to this reality at independence in 1980 than it is right now.
Added Toriro: “Harare is facing many challenges, some of which they can resolve, but some of which are beyond their control. A world-class city status implies an expectation from both residents and visitors of a certain level of infrastructure, service delivery and planning standard. To achieve that in the next eight years is, in my opinion, unrealistic. While it is good to aspire to do better, maybe the goal should be aligned to the actions and consideration of the reality on the ground,”
Last year, Toriro grimly warned that with wanton disregard to set down urban planning regulations for political expediency, it might not be long before Zimbabwe has its own version of Kenya’s Kibera, Africa’s seminal slum, that slowly, but surely, developed as a result of bending the rules to suit the short-term needs of politicians.
“Kenya is struggling with Kibera, several millions of dollars have been sunk into upgrading it with limited success. We are fortunate to still have a reasonably better planning situation and we urge all stakeholders to jealously guard our position in the interests of public health, public safety, order, and convenience for all people. We pray planners are supported so that they make life for everyone better. We pray that our situation never deteriorates to the level of Kibera,” Toriro said.