Southern Africa: Zimbabwe's evictions throw spotlight on the right to housing

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
JOHANNESBURG, 26 Jul 2005 (IRIN) - As Zimbabwe faces international rebuke for its controversial campaign to rid urban areas of illegal settlements, housing experts say large-scale forced evictions are on the increase in developing countries.

Despite international laws that explicitly condemn the practice, thousands of poor and vulnerable communities living on the edge under informal tenure arrangements continue to be uprooted.

Forced evictions are often justified by municipal authorities as a necessary measure to make a city more "efficient" - some 700,000 Zimbabweans have been affected by the government's demolition campaign ostensibly to pursue an urban regeneration programme.

Scott Leckie, executive director of the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), an international housing rights NGO, said more often than not the authorities failed to engage with those threatened with eviction.

"The scale of the evictions and process of what is happening in Zimbabwe is a bit of an anomaly. In other similar cases the communities affected did have legal recourse; in Zimbabwe, however, these communities actually have no option, as there is a serious lack of good governance," Leckie told IRIN.

He added that the recent upbraiding of the Zimbabwean government by the UN and international rights groups was a positive step, because "finally the sanctity of the right to adequate housing" was being taken seriously.

Although the events unfolding in Zimbabwe should be "addressed immediately", attention should also be paid to other evictions taking place elsewhere on the continent, Leckie urged.

"One cannot compare what in happening in Zimbabwe to the rest of the continent, but in recent years thousands of people in Nigeria have been removed from their homes; there are currently plans to evict many families in Kenya and Ghana; South Africa is not an exception, even though the country has legislation which clearly prohibits the practice," he noted.

Although South Africa has been hailed for its progressive housing policies, forced removals were a regular occurrence, according to Jean du Plessis, coordinator of the Global Forced Evictions Programme at COHRE.

He acknowledged that accurate numbers were difficult to obtain, but said trends were beginning to emerge from research in urban areas where informal settlers were being evicted for a variety of reasons, including inner-city regeneration projects, alleged criminal activities, health and safety conditions in buildings, and alleged illegal occupation.

"In the process the end begins to justify the means, and the rights of ordinary people are severely compromised," du Plessis commented.

In Johannesburg around 25,000 inner city dwellers will be moved as the government pushes ahead with its inner-city renewal project.

"There has been a lot of buy-in from big business who want to see the project work and therefore it is difficult to raise attention to the effect these eviction are likely to have on those who occupy those spaces," du Plessis explained.

It was disputable that some of the buildings were indeed "unhealthy" and served as bases for criminal activity, but the vast majority of occupants were "simply ordinary poor people trying to earn a living on the streets of Johannesburg".

Both du Plessis and Leckie argued that it was imperative that governments open up avenues for community involvement in the realisation of housing rights. They called for greater consultation between governments and communities over proposed removals and more emphasis on compensating families affected by evictions.


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