As dark clouds began to build on the horizon, Tarisai Nyakunu Zimunya, a single mother of three, looked worried. The fragile structure she calls home would struggle to withstand a drizzle, let alone a storm.
Zimunya is one of thousands of people living in expanding illegal settlements in Zimbabwe’s eastern city of Mutare, one of the nation’s largest, with a population of about 187,000, according to a 2012 census.
Like her, many live in squalid conditions.
“With the rainy season coming, it is going to be difficult for me and my family. I cannot afford to pay rent for a better house, so I have no option, but to live [here],” Zimunya said.
The daily quest for clean water and firewood is an unceasing nightmare for the residents of Mutare’s slums.
“We get water from a deep well a few kilometers away,” the 37-year-old said. “The water is not all that clean, but we have no choice.”
And without electricity — and gas stoves unaffordable — the women must head to the nearby mountains to forage for firewood. It adds hours to their working day.
“But the wood is becoming scarce and we are now traveling long distances to get it. It’s not safe, but that is the only way for us to survive,” said Zimunya, who ekes a living by selling vegetables to support her children, who range from three to nine years old.
Zimunya’s story is repeated across Zimbabwe, which remains in the grip of a deep economic crisis. Unemployment is at more than 80 percent; as a result, illegal settlements are growing in every major city, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions said.
However, those settlements lack running water, sewerage, paved roads and electricity. Health experts fear that when the rainy season comes in November, they will become havens for disease.
World Bank figures showed about one-third of Zimbabwe’s 16 million people live in urban areas, and that its urban population is growing about 2 percent annually.
Statistics from the UN’s Millennium Development Goals database from 2014 show that one in four of the country’s urban residents, or about 1.25 million people, live in slums.
Experts said that figure is likely higher.
It is women like Zimunya who bear the brunt of the burden, as they are forced to fetch water from tainted sources, gather firewood for cooking and try to dispose of household waste.
Their position is unlikely to improve soon. Government figures showed a housing shortfall of more than 1.3 million units, with the capital, Harare, needing 500,000 homes.
In the decades that former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe was in power, government spending ballooned. However, more than 90 percent of the budget went to civil servant salaries, which left little for investment needed to boost growth or for social spending.
When he presented the budget in December last year, Zimbabwean Minister of Finance and Economic Planning Patrick Chinamasa said that many people had spent years waiting for affordable accommodation, adding that the government must prioritize spending on housing.
Chinamasa, who acknowledged housing was “a basic human right,” allocated US$182 million to support an array of strategies to improve housing.
He said the government would work with housing cooperatives and had developed financing strategies with the Infrastructure Development Bank of Zimbabwe and Urban Development Corp to provide low-cost serviced land for development.
Although housing experts welcomed the pledge, they said much more was needed, particularly in addressing accusations of corruption in the housing sector.
Mutare-based housing expert David Mutambirwa said new slum settlements had mushroomed in the city since 2014.
Mutambirwa said he feared the new housing facility would benefit only the political elite, not the deserving poor.
“Corruption in land allocation on both urban and farm allocation continues to benefit the political elite,” said Mutambirwa, who is also the director of the Mutare Residents and Ratepayers Association.
Mutambirwa has long lobbied the city to provide cheap and affordable housing, and has worked closely with Mutare’s homeless and the city council’s housing department.
“The political elite control everything from land allocation, business, commerce and policies in the country to the detriment of the poor and marginalized,” he said.
The amount of money allocated for housing was insufficient to address Zimbabwe’s huge housing shortfall, he added.
“This clearly shows that there is no political will to address the housing shortage by the government,” Mutambirwa said.
Difficult though the situation for slum-dwellers is, it was worse in 2005, when, during winter, the government launched Operation Murambatsvina, meaning “Drive out the filth.”
It destroyed tens of thousands of illegal homes in urban areas and left more 700,000 people homeless, the UN said.
The government’s actions — which were roundly condemned by rights groups — pushed many people back to rural areas.
However, in the intervening years, with little work and few opportunities, people have been returning to the cities, but those like Zimunya and her children who live in Mutare’s slums look unlikely to get much help from city hall.
Mutare Mayor Tatenda Nhamarare said the city was working hard to alleviate its housing problem, including by building roads and sewer facilities “in high and low-[density] residential areas” prior to house building.
“And private land developers are also helping to provide decent accommodation to the people,” Nhamarare said.
However, he was quick to say that the city would not tolerate illegal settlers.
“We cannot do anything for them [illegal settlers] — they must vacate the areas they are occupying,” he said.
Associations that represent Mutare residents said many homeless could not afford the residential stands on offer.
Human rights lawyer Passmore Nyakureba said that ran contrary to the obligation by the national and local governments to supply housing to citizens — either by providing housing or by ensuring access to land for development at low cost.
“But, as you know, our government has really done very little in this area, as it has alienated its primary obligation through either the commercialization or politicization of the right to access to both urban and rural land,” Nyakureba said.
Given the government’s approach, the only option was to keep urging it to meet its responsibilities to provide land for its citizens, he said.
“On its own, this government will not do anything towards fulfilling any of the rights of the people of Zimbabwe unless there is political gain to it,” he said.
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