(In)formal Harare

Can citizen-led initiatives ease the friction between the informal and formal economies in Zimbabwe’s capital?
by Marco Picardi

Leaving Harare from Look At Your City on Vimeo.

Like clockwork, the smell of toxic fumes fills the atmosphere just before dusk to signal the end of the working day. As Harare’s commuters head home in single-file lines of traffic, the urban poor set about burning refuse on the edges of the city’s roads. Shielded from the stench of sulphur dioxide by car or kombi-minibus windows, workers inch closer to home accepting the poisonous smoking heaps as normal.

Reasons for the burnings are manifold – it could be for waste disposal, to keep warm, for cooking, or to clear agricultural land – but the official solution is one: criminalisation. And yet, in spite of potential penalties, the regularity of smoke-filled commutes home has increased in recent years in symbiosis with Zimbabwe’s on-going economic breakdown. Fines introduced for unsanctioned rubbish discarding, squatting or the cultivation of urban land for agriculture have failed to curb any of these things, and perhaps the black and white approach used to confront this type of behaviour can be perceived as a symptom of the country’s grapple with the emerging urban dynamics resulting from a profound and prolonged economic crisis.

Zimbabwe’s adoption of the American dollar may have momentarily prevented the formal economy from being swallowed whole by the vortex of Zim dollar’s never-ending inflation, but the crisis shows no signs of abating. The stretched out nature of a trajectory described by The Economist as a journey from ‘Breadbasket to basket case’ is the culmination of a series of difficult experiences, starting with the legacy of Rhodesia’s colonial economy, the subsequent 1990s privatisation of public enterprises and their thereafter mismanagement, followed by the aggressive confiscation of white commercial farms, and in recent years a violent polarisation of politics. Today’s continuing high unemployment, and the collapse in the country’s agriculture, has seen many people from rural areas move to capital in search for new a life. But limited opportunities constrict many to establish ad hoc housing detached from the services of the city, and evening fires are the most visible manifestation of the integration of these new neighbourhoods into the city.

As a result the previous disconnection between rich and poor, as envisioned by the city’s historical planning apparatus separating high-density neighbourhoods from the suburbs, is dissolving. The generous spaces between Harare’s suburbs, once a sign of wealthy detachment from the city centre, are slowly becoming hosts to impromptu neighbourhoods of homes fashioned from the surrounding environment. Harare’s richest parts are increasingly confronted with some of the country’s harshest poverty on their doorsteps, as most recently witnessed in the sudden growth of a new community between the affluent jacaranda-lined residential streets of Gun Hill and the city’s well-manicured horse racing track at Borrowdale.

The proliferation of these new informal areas has been explained by one of the country’s top planners as the consequence of government inaction. He argues that authorities are “not taking action against them and, therefore, they are setting wrong precedents, which is not good”, before suggesting that Zimbabwe should “stop ruralising our urban areas and those who cannot afford urban life should consider going back to the rural areas where there is a lit of land for ‘free’”. This type of attitude not only belies the large-scale ‘clean-up’ operation against informal settlements in 2005 that continues to this day, but it reaffirms the difficulty for many traditional planning mechanisms to explain and interact with these urban situations. Some parts of Harare’s urban periphery, such as Dzivarasekwa, have only 3% of houses officially approved. And yet, planners like in many other places around the world have often deliberately described these situations as slums – a pejorative term owing to its origins as a synonym for criminal activity – when their real unifying feature is not crime, but a lack of access.

This lack of access is both evident materially, defined by the paucity of water, sanitation and infrastructure availability, and also in terms of legitimacy, in the sense that these places are outside of the bureaucratic apparatus despite being inside of the city. Hampered access combined with the negative perceptions attached to these communities, makes it difficult to access the services required to improve their situations, but there have been some citizen-led initiatives that could be changing the course of these informal situations’ seemingly inevitable vulnerability.

Women in Dzivarasekwa, for example, successfully lobbied to change their community. With the support of Dialogue on Shelter and Zimbabwe Homeless People’s Federation, they became one of five African projects selected for community-led improvements by a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant. Because this project ensured that community members set their own priorities for planning, housing and sanitation together with support from the City of Harare, three years later it is now the only one of the five initiatives still running, and is in line for an extension. The key for success in Dzivarasekwa has been for residents to set the agenda, and this type of approach elsewhere, such as a citizen-run theatre initiative in the Hopley Farm Settlement, and a citizen-music studio outside of Harare in Makokoba, has been able to showcase the value of these areas to invert otherwise negative perceptions.

As many Zimbabweans found refuge in informal economic activities following the collapse of the formal system in a bid to maintain their livelihoods, a reappraised inclusive approach to informality could be more fruitful for improving city problematics. Informal vending and settlements continue in spite of on-going clampdown attempts. In this context, the need for different methods is clear. With the City of Harare conducting a large-scale land audit to be released later this year, some have hoped that some land can be officially allocated to the urban poor to end their current uncertainty and criminalisation. Otherwise, the smoke-filled commutes home look set to continue for some time yet.

Harare informal settlement

Image: Informal settlement next to Harare’s horse racing track

About the author

Marco Picardi

Marco is an urbanist and communications consultant working at the nexus of international development and cities.


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