“It was the only home we ever knew.”
“There are no roots to go back to.”
“We did not know it was a crime.”
Theresa Takafuma/Courage Dutiro
For a few days, Netsai Muremo lingers around her five-bedroomed house in Mushandike Resettlement Area Village 15, hoping that by some stroke of miracle, she may be told she does not have to demolish her home; it was just a terrible dream.
The events of the past few weeks have left her shaken to the core, and this time there is no comfort in numbers because her neighbours are suffering the same fate as they are at an advanced stage of demolishing their own houses, the only place they have called home for nearly 22 years.
“On the night of January 18, together with tens of fellow villagers, we all slept in police cells after being arrested in numbers for a crime we did not even know we were committing for over two decades, and had to pay US$10 each bail to be released,” Muremo says.
Sadly, ignorance of a law is not an excuse, nor can it be used in defence, so she and approximately 13 000 other people across Masvingo Province have to pay the hefty price of not knowing the Zimbabwe Land Commission Act (Chapter 20:29) and the Gazetted Lands (Consequential Provisions) Act (Chapter 20:28) which prohibits occupation of state land without lawful authority in the form of a permit, an offer letter or a lease.
“We were summoned by the usual village bell, and as we have always done, we quickly responded, not knowing that we were handing ourselves to a dark, unforgettable period of our lives.
“We got to the meeting point only to be met by armed police who later bundled us in their big truck, telling us that we had been arrested for being illegal settlers. There was no negotiation,” Muremo’s neighbour Respina Matiti chips in.
Matiti claims that since 2002 when they were allocated the land to build on by their village head, they had been paying all the required rates, including taxes to council every month without fail, in the process receiving food aid and presidential inputs just like any other villager in the area.
Little did they know that they had been committing a crime for over two decades and it was time for reckoning; they had to face the full wrath of the law.
Over the years, they put their sweat, blood and tears into developing these homes that never were, breeding livestock, drilling boreholes, erecting water tanks and security fences around those homes but now nothing is left to show for it except rubble.
Just like any other farming season, this was no different as they had planted crops hoping to harvest in due time, even to sell some of the produce to the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) as they have always done over the years—all those unripe crops have now become feed for livestock belonging to those who will remain in the area.
The majority of them however are at their wits’ end as to what they will do with their own livestock, with the only viable option being selling it at paltry prices for them to raise a few dollars to sustain themselves until they find other means of survival.
Cattle, goats, chicken and other livestock are being sold for almost half their normal prices due to the desperation of wanting to raise rentals for back rooms at Bhuka Shopping Centre and surrounding areas, with the rentals almost doubled since the beginning of the operation as owners try to cash in from the dire situation.
Chipo Kufakowenyu’s situation, though equally heart-breaking, is different as she and her husband had to abandon a piggery project they had invested in for a few years after they were allocated land by Village Head Konde five years ago.
“We had to leave everything, including a litter of piglets we were hoping were going to change our fortunes. My school-going child now has to commute every day from Masvingo town to Mushandike to attend classes, which I am not sure I will be able to sustain for a long time,” Kufakowenyu said.
Her child is not the only one whose schooling has been affected by the operation; there are tens of others in the area who are no longer going to school for fear of coming back home to find their parents already gone without a trace.
“Our children are traumatized. They do not even understand what is happening and they are asking where exactly we are supposed to go because they were born and raised here. It is the only home they know.
“All we ask for is enough time to pack our belongings without the fear of these ultimatums because in seven days, what would I have done in terms of relocation?” Matiti queries.
Reverend Albert Toperesu of the adjacent Village 21 in the same area seems to agree that it is invaluable to give these people time to properly pack their belongings, adding that government should consider giving them alternative accommodation until they find their footing, failure to which may cause further harm in the community.
“We cannot solve disorder by causing another disorder because these people who have been displaced will linger around, even committing other crimes and exacerbating social ills including prostitution and rape. I suggest that since they had been settling illegally, government should now properly resettle them to arrest this mayhem.
“There are also those whose parents settled here in the late 1980s whose children have now grown. I think government should be lenient with them and properly allocate land specifically for them because they have been caught in the crossfire of village heads’ greed of selling and illegally parcelling out land,” Toperesu said.
The question they keep asking however is why they were allowed to build for over 20 years without any consequences until now, and why the local authority was accepting their rates if they were committing a crime.
That question remains unanswered, while one thing is apparent; they have to leave and they have to leave now without compensation, regardless of some of them not being honest enough to mention that the village heads sold them the land.
On social media, chat groups had become awash with bogus real estate salespeople advertising these ‘sabhuku deals’ where pieces of land were being sold for relatively little amounts, which had become a menace as some settled in catchment areas, wetlands and grazing land.
Masvingo police have confirmed that to date, 1898 arrests have been made in the province, while 199 convictions have been made in court, numbers which keep growing by the day.
Permanent Secretary for Masvingo Provincial Affairs and Devolution Dr Addmore Pazvakavambwa said those who felt were wrongfully arrested were being given room to explain their circumstances in court.
“If there are people who were wrongfully arrested, (like those who claim to have been given land by their parents in resettlements) they have the room to explain that in court, which will then decide their fate.
“They may approach their respective local authorities as well as the Ministry of Lands to acquire proper documentation and to clarify their circumstances,” Dr Pazvakavambwa said.
There are also those across the province, especially in Gutu district who are saying that the land they are being evicted from is their ancestral land, and they have nowhere else to go.
In a statement released on February 10, 2024 human rights organisation ZimRights condemned the evictions, arguing that they are arbitrary as there has been no proper prior consultation with the affected, hence detrimental to them.
“ZimRights is outraged at these developments that are causing a wholesale violation of human rights in the pretext of implementing the law. ZimRights calls on the Government of Zimbabwe to immediately halt these evictions. The law must protect not destroy livelihoods.
“Section 28 of the Constitution obliges the state to ensure that everyone has access to adequate shelter. Section 74 further provides protection against arbitrary eviction of people from their homes. An eviction is arbitrary where there is no proper consultation of the affected people, where there is no free consent, where there is no alternative land for them to settle on, there has been no impact assessment and no plan or resources for compensation of the affected people,” reads part of the statement.
Property worth thousands, if not millions of dollars has already been lost, and no matter what happens now, the loss is almost irreparable—the biggest losers in the whole trajectory being those who were oblivious of the fact that the law will always prevail regardless of how long it will take.
In almost similar style, in 2005, over 700 000 people were displaced from their homes in a government operation dubbed Operation Murambatsvina, and there will likely be victims of both operations at the end of the current one.