Over the past two months, nations of the world have been shaken to the core by the COVID-19 pandemic, commonly referred to as the coronavirus, which started in China in 2019, and has spread across the planet claiming at least 35 000 lives in Italy, Spain and here in Zimbabwe. So severe has been the epidemic that on 11th March, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared it a global pandemic.
In order to bolster the protection and safety of humankind, governments across the globe have been instituting robust measures such as restriction of movement, mandatory testing as well as treating those affected under isolation.
Zimbabwe has been no exception as the government has imposed a 21-day total lockdown starting this Monday 30th March. This followed another measure, in the form of Statutory Instrument 77 of 2020, which was gazetted by the Ministry of Health and Child Care on Monday 23rd March. Statutory Instrument 77, also cited as the Public Health (COVID-19 Prevention, Containment and Treatment) Regulations 2020 seeks to aid the prevention, containment and treatment of coronavirus by giving government broad powers to ban gatherings, undertake compulsory testing, quarantine individuals who would have tested positive and to arrest anyone who breaches these measures.
Suffice to note that if implemented to the book, SI 77 will have substantial negative ramifications on the socio-economic wellbeing of the vast majority of the same citizens it seeks to protect, particularly the already impoverished populations living in urban and peri-urban formal and informal settlements within and around cities such as Harare.
Section 8 (1) (l) of SI 77 empowers government, through the Minister of Health to “authorise in any local authority the evacuation, closing, alteration or, if deemed necessary, the demolition or destruction of any premises the occupation or use of which is considered likely to favour the spread or render more difficult the eradication of such disease (Covid-19), and to define the circumstances under which compensation may be paid in respect of any premises so demolished or destroyed and the manner of fixing such compensation”.
Thus in terms of this provision, any building, including houses, can be demolished by the state if the Minister of Health deems it to be impeding efforts to curb the coronavirus. This section is a stark reminder to Operation Restore Order/Murambatsvina of 2005, which was meant, “to restore sanity in the Housing Sector” but ended up condemning at least 570 000 people to homelessness, loss of livelihoods and several other severe vulnerabilities which most have not recovered from fifteen down the line to date.
Most of these people currently live in informal urban and peri-urban settlements within and around Harare such as Epworth, Hopely as well as Bellapasie, Rest and Retreat Farms. These settlements are overpopulated and do not have refuse collection, water and sewer reticulation facilities. Residents rely on shallow wells and pit latrine toilets, most of which are within five-metre proximities. Now, these are the conditions that aided the spread of the cholera pandemic that killed thousands of people in 2008 and 2018. They are equally conducive for the spread of the current coronavirus epidemic. This thus renders these settlements liable for demolition under Section 8 (1) (l) of SI 77.
Government is fully aware of the potential of these conditions to spread communicable diseases, such as cholera and coronavirus. This is outlined in the reports of The Commission of Inquiry into the Matter of Sale of State Land In and Around Urban Areas Since 2005 which was handed over to President Emmerson Mnangagwa by Justice Tendai Uchena at State House on 9th December last year. That is most probably why government deliberately included Section 8 (1) (l) in SI 77 of 2020, providing for demolition of any premises (including houses) the occupation or use of which may favour the spread of the coronavirus or make difficult its eradication.
Suffice to mention that these settlements did not mushroom, grow and exist for such a long time until now without the knowledge and sometimes authorisation of the responsible authorities. Government at both central level, constituted by the ruling ZANU PF party since independence in 1980 and at local level dominated by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) since 2000 (in the case of Harare) have been aware and allowed these conditions to flourish. This makes both political parties culpable of commission, omission and collusion in the emergence and existence of these same settlements they may now collude to demolish using Section 8 (1) (l) of SI 77 of 2020.
These conditions are a creation of the greedy, corrupt, and inept conduct of land barons and administrators with powerful political connections and positions who enriched themselves while endangering the lives of the poor. Demolishing these houses when the culprits have not be held accountable would be a severe travesty of justice. It would also be a negation of the commitments made by both ZANU PF and the MDC Alliance in their 2018 election manifestos- to provide safe and secure housing for millions of Zimbabweans before the next election in 2023.
Suffice to note that one need to critically analyse Section 8 (1) (l) of SI 77 of 2020 in order to understand the potential dangers it poses. Firstly, its authorisation of demolition of houses that the executive would have deemed to aid the spread of the epidemic will be a violation of Section 74 of the Zimbabwean constitution which stipulates that “no person may be evicted from their home, or have their home demolished, without an order of court made after considering all the relevant circumstances.”
Secondly and more frightening is the provision that authorises the Minister of Health to “define the circumstances under which compensation may be paid in respect of any premises so demolished or destroyed and the manner of fixing such compensation”.
Assuming that demolition of any premise is undertaken, the fair thing would be to have pre-established guidelines or formulae for compensation, including timeframes within which the compensation has to be paid. This would be the fair and logical course of action given the economic volatility and hyperinflationary environment currently obtaining in Zimbabwe. A matter as critical as compensation should not be left to the discretion of the same Minister who would have authorised the demolition in the first place. This would be akin to government designating itself as the judge, jury and executioner with no accountability, which is an anathema to a constitutional democracy that Zimbabwe ought to be.
Inasmuch as containing the coronavirus should be the topmost priority, in the quest to contain the epidemic, policymakers should also be wary of creating even bigger challenges as this would amount to the proverbial folly of kupisa imba nekuda kuuraya makonzo anetsa (burning the hut to kill troublesome rats). What use then would SI 77 be if it ends up causing house demolitions and violation of sacrosanct rights to shelter, social welfare and freedom from arbitrary evictions as ring-fenced by Sections 28, 30 and 74 of the constitution respectively.
Even though it is probable that government does not intent to demolish houses, the mere existence of this provision means it can be enforced anytime leaving several thousand citizens displaced and without shelter and access to social protection as was the case with Operation Murambatsvina. Suffice to note that the City of Harare is currently embroiled in several bitter wrangles with “illegal settlers” whose houses they have been trying to demolish only to be restrained by court interdictions. Equally, central government, through the Ministry of Lands, has been intent on demolishing houses of “illegal farm occupiers” as evidenced by issuance of seven-day eviction notices to some beneficiaries of the land reform program last year. We fear that Section 8 (1) (l) of SI 77 can be capitalised upon to implement house demolition agendas that existed long before the coronavirus epidemic.
We have seen this happening across the world, with governments capitalising on pandemics to implement policies to achieve pre-existing agendas. In their dialogue on United States policy in the Middle East, in a book entitled Perilous Power, renowned scholars Noam Chomsky and Gilbert Archcar argued that even though 9/11 attacks had no connection whatsoever with Iraq, the attacks gave the U.S under Bush Jr “a perfect opportunity and the ideological cover to invade Iraq in 2003,” something that the U.S had wanted to do from as long back as 1991.
Last week, Newsday Columnist Paida Mzulu also argued that the coronavirus outbreak in southern Africa had given the government of South Africa the perfect excuse it needed to deal with undocumented immigrants from Zimbabwe by erecting a border fence along the Limpopo River. And in Zimbabwe, many have argued that the coronavirus gave government an opportunity to reintroduce the U.S dollar, something they had been intending to do for some time. These scenarios give credence to fears that SI 77 can be used to undertake house demolitions.
In any case, without intentions to demolish buildings, why would a financially struggling government go to pains to volunteer compensation for demolition of structures? Even if the initial intention may be to demolish premises other than houses, what guarantee is there that the open cheque that Section 8 (1) (l) of SI 77 is will not be used to include demolition of houses. Not so long ago, we witnessed the Zuva judgement capitalized upon with devastating consequences. We should not take chances with SI 77.
The best way to pre-empt this from happening is for government to adopt a pro-poor, human rights-based approach that places marginalised citizens at the centre of coronavirus policy formulation processes.
Last week, an Indian doctor, Peter Dreier, in a message largely circulated on social media, pointed out that most of the ways being prescribed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, such as social distancing, handwashing and use of hand sanitisers are privileges of the rich. This view was also echoed in neighbouring South Africa, where Abahlali baseMjondolo, a civil society movement fighting for housing rights for shack dwellers pointed out that poor people had neither participated ”in decision-making nor “been taken into consideration” by the South African government’s strategies and measures to prevent the coronavirus. Both views are hugely applicable here in Zimbabwe where current measures do not take into consideration the plight of the majority of Zimbabweans, especially those who live in overly populated informal settlements without access to water and sanitation facilities essential for hygiene practices to combat the coronavirus.
Instead of contemplating demolition of houses, the government should opt for alternative measures that are more humane. I prescribe four such measures that government, at both central and local government levels, can easily implement with the resources they already have.
Firstly, as I have already posited earlier, government should adopt a pro-poor approach in the formulation of policies and strategies to contain the coronavirus. This should start by amending or even removing Section 8 (1) (l) from SI77 of 2020, in order to eliminate the option of demolition of premises such as houses which may be deemed to be spreading the coronavirus or inhibiting efforts to stop it.
Secondly, government should facilitate uninterrupted access to clean portable water to all urbanites, especially in high-density suburbs and informal settlements to enable undertaking of hygienic practises such as handwashing. This measure should include suspending water cuts and rationing, and investing more in water treatment chemicals and bowsers for water delivery to those communities without piped facilities.
Thirdly, government should increase frequency and reach of refuse collection services to cover even the informal settlements that currently rely on illegal dumpsites within their communities. This should also include disinfecting the cleared illegal dumpsites in order to exterminate the germs that may spread the coronavirus.
Last, but not least, awareness raising on the coronavirus should be intensified through timely and consistent dissemination of accurate, truthful and scientific information pertaining to the toll of the pandemic, and how to combat it. Such information should be disseminated in all 16 official languages of Zimbabwe, and should reach all corners of the country. This is because an informed citizenry is better equipped to protect itself and to assist government efforts to curb the epidemic.
Even though these services are already within the mandate of government to provide with or without the corona epidemic, our clarion call on government is premised in the belief that there are better alternatives to combat the spread of the coronavirus than the house demolitions being prescribed under Section 8 (1) (l) from SI77 of 2020.
Source: Francis Mukora*
*Francis Mukora is a certified public policy analyst, journalist, human rights campaigner and social justice activist. He currently works as the Research and Advocacy Coordinator for Community Alliance for Human Settlements in Zimbabwe (CAHSZ) an organisation advocating for safe and secure access to land, housing and socio-economic rights for internally displaced communities around Zimbabweans.