OVER the years, urban councils have been demolishing illegal structures to ensure safety and public health, but some residents never learn.
While those looking at demolished houses are counting losses, others will be busy erecting structures on wetlands, on unserviced lands and without having their building plans approved or the process of their building inspected.
Some will not even check that the land they are building on can ever be legally theirs, or if they have been conned by a land baron.
Some get offer letters from their council, but rush to start building before the area is fully-serviced, earning the unpopular tag “illegal settlers”.
Others buy stands through third parties, who are now known as “land barons” and they start construction without any approved plan or council stage form.
Such illegal or early settlers do not have any defence to offer when councils embark on clean-up operations.
Due diligence is critical whenever one intends to buy a stand. It is important to check on the status of the land in question before paying for the property, and it is important to follow the clear and simple rules of having plans approved and bringing in the inspectors at the three laid down stages so as to get the occupancy certificate.
This is regardless of whether you are building on Government land, council land, co-operative land or private land. And if there is some major problem with the title or prospective title to the land, council officials are almost certain to pick this up when you submit your building plans.
On several occasions we have carried stories of councils that destroy illegal structures with the latest being the case where Chitungwiza Municipality on Friday hired earth-moving equipment to destroy houses that had mushroomed near St Mary’s Police Station.
Checking with the victims, we established that most of them had offer letters from council and had paid varying amounts for purchase of stands and other related fees.
While their offer letters had stand numbers, council argued that they fell in the category of illegal settlers because they did not follow laid down procedure in erecting their structures.
Since they purchased stands from council, they had to wait until the local authority put in the roads, sewers and water pipes.
In that case, their offer letters were issued in 2019 and rushing to settle in less than four months was unreasonable, considering council required time to service the land.
They had to pay dearly for the impatience. While home-seekers take the blame, local authorities should not rush to allocate stands when they do not have the capacity to service the land.
Allocating stands in a forest, taking ages to construct roads and lay out sewer and water lines is also unfair to desperate home-seekers.
Out of greed, financially struggling councils are now surviving on selling stands without any engineering designs for water, roads and sewer.
Such money will be used for workers’ salaries hence there won’t be any budget for servicing of the stands allocated to the people.
Illegal houses are not built in one day. When they illegally built the structures, council officials will be watching without taking action. They let them construct their structures, only to come hard on them without notice.
Council is sleeping on duty. Its officers must be vigilant and ensure no one erects illegal structures in its jurisdiction.
Another group affected by demolitions are members of housing cooperatives who paid substantial amounts of money to corrupt leaders who did not develop the land.
Most housing cooperatives have failed to service stands as agreed and the members also risk losing their structures in ongoing demolitions.
Such settlements are illegal and they cannot be spared demolition.
There are many questions begging for answers for the ordinary member of the cooperative who has been religiously paying towards a dream possession, that is a house in town.
The Commission of Inquiry into the Matter of Sale of State Land in and Around Urban Areas Since 2005, in its report to President Mnangagwa on December 9, 2019, noted that cooperative leaders and developers were selling State land and pocketing the proceeds without developing on-site and off-site infrastructure.
What is scary is that both the Government and members of the cooperatives were prejudiced.
The US$3 billion worth of land that the Commission refers to is only on the Government side in terms of the intrinsic value of the land, which Government are in a position to redress.
There was no valuation of the quantum of or potential prejudice to the ordinary cooperative member who has been paying to the housing cooperative since 2005.
The majority of the land barons are from the housing cooperatives management committees or started as such and later moved away after wealth accumulation.
The other group of illegal settlers comprises of those who corruptly got stands on land reserved for recreational facilities or other community facilities by greedy councillors and council executives.
Such people are holders of genuine offer letters, but they are likely to lose their properties when demolition time comes.
How on earth can one be allocated as stand on a community basketball court? It boggles the mind how one accepts a residential stand in a football ground?
A community basketball court along Trowbridge Road in Mabelreign, Harare, was recently sold, in violation of the urban planning laws, to a home seeker who now seeks a replacement stand after public outcry.
Stand 3629, measuring 2 500 square metres, was allocated to Mr Samuel Dumbu in March this year after he applied for a housing stand. He was startled to get a basketball court instead of an ordinary vacant council stand, and now he and his family are involuntarily hosting their new neighbours who did not stop using the basketball court.
The structure built by Mr Dumbu now faces demolition and it is still unclear if he can be allocated another stand.
Harare City Council has been coming under increasing criticism for converting into residential stands a lot of public land set aside for parks, recreation facilities, public open spaces and the like.
Hats off to the Special Anti-Corruption Unit (SACU) in conjunction with the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (ZACC) and the police for unearthing land scams at local authorities countrywide.
Investigations into the land deals and arrest of the culprits will go a long way in restoring sanity in towns.
Arrests and prosecution of land barons and corrupt council executives and councillors will deter would-be offenders.