Zimbabwe: Chaotic urban transition in Africa


With little or no warning, the Government of Zimbabwe in May 2005 embarked on an operation to "clean up" its cities. "Operation Murambatsvina", or Operation Restore Order, started in the capital Harare and rapidly evolved into a nationwide demolition and eviction campaign carried out by the police and army. Popularly known as "Operation Tsunami" because of its speed and ferocity, it resulted in the destruction of homes, business premises and vending sites in several parts of the country.

A July 2005 report by the UN Special Envoy on Human Settlements Issues and Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka (pictured at right), estimates that some 700,000 people in cities across Zimbabwe had lost either their homes or source of livelihood, or both, as a result of the operation, and a further 2.4 million were indirectly affected.

Operation Restore Order took place at a time of persistent budget deficits, triple-digit inflation, critical food and fuel shortages, and chronic foreign currency shortfall. It was implemented in a highly polarized climate, characterized by mistrust, fear and a lack of dialogue between government and local authorities, as well as between the Government and civil society. While the report acknowledges that the social, economic and political circumstances in which the operation took place were specific to Zimbabwe, they nonetheless shared common characteristics with other rapidly urbanizing African cities.

Unlike other parts of the world where urban transition has been linked to industrialization and greater economic opportunities, urbanization in Africa has come at a heavy cost. It has occurred in an environment of consistent economic decline over the past 30 years. Moreover, conflict, drought and rural economic decline have contributed to the rapid rural-to-urban migration of millions of people seeking a chance at a better life. Even in the best of times, local authorities rarely receive a portion of national wealth to deal with rapid population growth and demands for services. In stagnating national economies, city authorities have been left with even fewer resources to address the needs of city residents, a majority of whom end up living in sub-standard housing or slums. According to UN-HABITAT, more than 70 per cent of the urban population in sub-Saharan Africa live in slum-like conditions, with little access to basic services, and in inadequate or overcrowded housing.

The situation worsened in the 1980s when many African countries had to adopt structural adjustment reforms, espoused by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which led to retrenchments and severe cuts in municipal budgets that, in turn, impacted provision of services to the urban population.

Today, only 48 per cent of urban households in sub-Saharan Africa have water connection, but in informal settlements it drops to 19 per cent. And while only 31 per cent of urban households are connected to a sewerage system, just 7 per cent in slums are connected. Only over half of the urban residents have electricity in their homes, compared to just one fifth in slums. Many of sub-Saharan Africa's problems are rooted in the colonial period.

In many British colonies, including Zimbabwe, urban planning typically reserved the city core for whites, while leaving an undeveloped buffer space around the central business district. Towns were often pre-planned and imposed on localities without much attention being given to existing constraints. The indigenous population was either relocated to black townships on the outskirts of the city or to rural "reserves".

Africans moved to towns and cities in large numbers only after attaining independence in the 1960s. However, cities such as Dar es Salaam, which was already a bustling coastal town before the British took over Tanganyika from the Germans after the First World War, was more difficult to segregate and therefore does not have the kind of densely packed pockets of slums as those found in Nairobi. In the case of Zimbabwe, within a decade of independence, its urban population had risen from 23 per cent in the 1980s to 30 per cent by early 1990s. Post-independence governments were caught off-guard and ill-equipped to handle the rapid influx of migrants. This trend was reinforced by a combination of growing, rather than lessening, income disparities, the absence of urbanization policies and economic mismanagement, leading to a crisis of unmet needs.

Zimbabwe achieved independence relatively late, in 1980, amid promises of peace and prosperity. While the Government successfully provided social services, such as education, health care and increased wages for the black majority during the early years of independence, underlying socio-political and economic problems were left unresolved and eventually produced a national crisis. Of these, the land question was the most problematic. While the liberation war was fought over land, historical inequity was embedded in the constitutional settlement agreed upon at independence, which preserved colonial patterns of land ownership. To make matters worse, a failed attempt at structural adjustment in the 1990s led to a massive retrenchment of civil servants, closure of manufacturing industries, inflation and deterioration of basic services. Peasants took matters into their own hands in February 1998 by staging invasion of commercial farms, forcing the Government to initiate a "fast-track land reform programme" in 2000.

It is against this background that Operation Restore Order took place. Ironically, while the Government tried to appease its rural population, it took a rather elitist approach with its urban citizenry by imposing stringent by-laws and standards, which deemed many dwellings in the city "illegal". Zimbabwe's cities, therefore, remained largely immune to the explosive growth of slums and squatter settlements that are characteristic of African cities.

Official statistics compiled by UN-HABITAT show that in 2001 only 3.4 per cent of the urban population in Zimbabwe lived in slums, much lower than that of some industrialized countries that had about 6.2 per cent of their population considered living in slum-like conditions. As the Special Envoy's report states: "The nationalist elite seemed to have perpetuated the colonial mentality of high standards for a few at the expense of the majority. In the end, while the liberation struggle was against the 'white settlers' and the economic and political power they monopolized, the Government was not able to reverse the unequal and exploitative nature of colonial capitalism itself."

The acquisition of peri-urban farms during the 2000 land reform programme provided one of the first opportunities for the urban poor to occupy land in the vicinity of the city, many of which were in the form of "backyard extensions" of legal dwellings, which provided affordable rental housing to the city's poor and were a source of much-needed income for the owners. Most of these extensions have now been demolished, affecting hundreds of thousands of women, men and children who are sinking deeper into poverty and rendered more vulnerable. It is for this reason that the report recommends, among others, that outdated laws be suspended or reviewed, in order to align them to the social, economic and cultural realities facing the majority of the country's population, namely the poor. It also recommends that the international community draw lessons from the Zimbabwe crisis for the entire continent of Africa, namely the need to implement seriously the Habitat Agenda and the Millennium Development Goals.