Smelly Dube, a businesswoman from Midlands province who was once close to former president Robert Mugabe’s family, has been throwing a stink over a controversial housing project that is now giving the central government and the Gweru municipality a headache.
News in depth BY BRENNA MATENDERE
Built in the south-western part of urban Gweru, Woodlands Park — the project in question — is home to at least 15 000 residents, most of whom are low-income earners who include government employees.
Dube owns Mahlaba Housing Programme, trading as River Valley Properties, which is the private land developer responsible for the establishment of Woodlands Park at Lot 1 of 5A of West Gwelo Block.
The naked eye would not distinguish the settlement from the many high-density suburbs across the country.
It is a squashed and mixed bag of shabby matchbox units and beautiful homes.
The roads are dusty and become impassable during the rainy season. Refuse collectors are rare and so is potable water and electricity.
A nearby dumping site that was established well before the construction of the suburb generates a perennial cloud of smoke that literally chokes the residents and passers-by alike.
The story about Dube “bribing” the ex-president with a $100 000 presidential mansion that was turned into a “heritage site” but is now largely neglected after Mugabe’s ouster through a military coup late last year is all too familiar among the residents of Gweru and beyond.
But an investigation by The Standard, working in collaboration with Information for Development Trust, a non-profit media advocacy outfit, has unearthed intricacies that have remained untold since the commencement of the housing project in 2010.
Technically, the residents of Woodlands Park are‘marooned’ owing to the confusion around the administrative authority they should belong to.
The land on which the houses are built still belongs to Vungu Rural District Council RDC), but Gweru City Council (GCC) is providing services to the residents.
Most of the new homeowners are urbanites who moved from adjacent suburbs like Mkoba, Mambo and Ascot, but were forced to vote for councillors who they hardly knew from rural Chiwundura in the July 31 elections,
Generally, the opposition is popular in urban areas while the ruling Zanu PF is dominant in rural areas as shown by past election results.
Dube’s company did not seek clearance from Vungu RDC before the construction of the suburb, according to rural district council authorities.
One of them, Wellington Ngulube, who was the Vungu chief executive officer at the commencement of the project, told The Standard that he lost his job when he complained over the anomaly.
“The settlement (Woodlands Park) was established by a private property developer without following the proper procedure of acquiring land for a residential area,” he said.
“Vungu Rural District Council owned the piece of land, but it was never consulted.
“When I raised this issue, the former Provincial Affairs minister (Jason Machaya) responded viciously. I was subsequently suspended and up to now I am jobless.
“Up to now, Woodlands has ‘stateless’ residents and environmental refugees.”
Ngulube added: “As it stands, the suburb has no councillor sitting in the Gweru urban council yet it is the one, which is providing services like water and sewerage. Who helps them when they face problems?”
He called for an independent commission of inquiry to address the issue.
GCC was supposed to apply for a certificate of incorporation to the Local Government ministry so as to develop the area, but that was never done.
Gweru Residents’ Forum director Charles Mazorodze told The Standard that River Valley went ahead with the project without first putting in place adequate basic civil works that included the installation of water and trunk sewer systems.
“There was no sound investment in the provision of the required service delivery infrastructure,” he said, adding that the suburb faced a serious health hazard since it is sited adjacent to a sprawling trash dumping zone, which generates clouds of toxic smoke, while hazardous chemicals seep into the ground and, in turn, into water wells.
The Gweru municipality, already struggling to provide adequate services to other suburbs, did not get any money from the private developer and had to draw funds from its lean budget to set up civil works, according to Mazorodze.
Livingstone Chimina, the Member of Parliament for Chiundura constituency under which Woodands Park falls, has approached Local Government minister July Moyo over the “statelessness” of the residents, but is disappointed that no action has been taken.
“The minister just promised that the issue would be resolved during delimitation. Whatever happened, I don’t know. But I just want the situation to be regularised,” he said.
Dube claimed that a memorandum of understanding (MoU) involving her company and the two local authorities was signed to enable the construction of the suburb.
In a 10-minute phone interview characterised by hesitation and mumbling, the River Valley Properties proprietor kept insisting that the deal was above board since it was blessed by former Home Affairs minister Ignatius Chombo.
Chombo was sacked and arrested for alleged corruption when Mugabe, to whom he was close, was toppled in November 2017.
But Ngulube dismissed Dube’s claim that there was an MoU to set up the project.
“I didn’t see such an MoU, so I didn’t sign anything,” he said.
River Valley Properties never bothered to do an environmental impact assessment (EIA) as required by the law.
An EIA is mandatory for housing development initiatives under the First Schedule of the Environment Management Act, Chapter 20:27, in addition to other major projects like roads, airports, mines, man-made lakes and dams.
The Environmental Management Agency (EMA) officer for Gweru district, Timothy Nyoka, confirmed that Woodlands was not only built on a wetland against the law, but also omitted doing an EIA.
“Woodlands was built in violation of the Environmental Management Act as the developer refused to carry out an EIA,” said Nyoka.
River Valley was issued with a $5 000 fine ticket on July 22, 2015 and ordered to stop developing Woodlands.
The developer paid the fine five days later against ticket number EP1412 that was issued and delivered by EMA’s Oliver Kanengoni.
“The developer told us that they were building a house for the then President Robert Mugabe in that area, so we ended up realising that there was politics involved and we backed off,” he said.
Nyoka also pointed out that the consequences of the illegal construction of the suburb were now being felt by residents in the area as the suburb was developed just across the city’s sole dump site.
Taurai Demo, the former Gweru municipality deputy mayor who was in office at the height of development of the area, also confirmed that procedures were flouted.
“We questioned why GCC was being forced to offer service delivery to an area that it did not own, but that did not work,” he said.
“During our tenure we tried hard to expose that illegality, but we did not succeed.”
Charles Chikozho, an ex-mayor, said Owen Ncube, the then Provincial Affairs minister who was recently promoted to the State Security portfolio by President Emerson Mnangagwa, even summoned him to his office to explain the anomalies relating to the Woodlands housing scheme, but admitted that “I didn’t get a satisfactory answer from my own research”.
Curiously, the former mayor also owns a house in Woodlands, but he claimed most of the residents were not aware of the irregularities attendant to the project.
Chikozho, though, said it would not be prudent to get rid of the housing project and suggested that it must, instead, be regularised.
Gweru Urban MP and human rights lawyer Brian Dube said while it was legal to reverse development of the suburb, residents’ right to shelter should be considered, and blamed the government for watching as the project progressed.
“At law, it is permissible to reverse the project, but you consider the balance of convenience. If the balance of convenience favours reversal, you do so. If it favours proceeding, you proceed. You consider the level of developments as well,” he said.
The current Provincial Affairs minister for Midlands, Larry Mavhima, also insisted that Woodlands was built illegally and indicated that central government was working on a seizure order that would “soon” stop further development and take away the developer’s rights to continue working on the project.
“The developer (Dube) did not comply and proper procedures were not followed in the construction of the suburb.
“As the new dispensation, we do not allow such imprudence and unprofessionalism,” said Mavhima, who also warned home-seekers against being ripped off by developers.
A fuming Dube instead accused Mavhima and Ncube of seeking to undermine her, alleging that she once clashed with the latter over a mining project in Midlands province.
Dube hurried to Mavhima’s office immediately after the interview with The Standard, but the minister refused to meet her and her co-director, Richard Chiwara, a pastor.
“I am my own man and am not working under Minister Ncube’s influence. The developer is guilty. If they (Dube and Chiwara) have nothing to hide, why are they behaving like that?” said Mavhima.
This paper failed to fix an interview with Ncube, however, because his phone was constantly unreachable.
Manford Gambiza, the GCC spokesperson, told The Standard that the local authority was never consulted or involved in the setting-up of Woodlands Park.
GCC, he added, did not get a single cent from the developer for the connection of sewer and water systems even though the land developer collected hundreds of thousands of dollars from home-seekers.
The urban council found itself in a quandary, but decided to help connect water and sewer systems so as to avert disease outbreaks.
“That (provision of water and sewer systems) was done to avert a health disaster,” said Gambiza.
Machaya, who was alleged to have facilitated Dube’s unprocedural acquisition of land and the illegal development of the Woodlands project, refused to comment.
“I have similar allegations against me that are under the courts of law so it will be in breach of the sub judice rule to comment on the issue of Woodlands,” he said.
However, the court case he was referring to did not cover Woodlands, but other pieces of land that River Valley Properties acquired elsewhere in the province.
But Dube still insisted the Woodlands project was above board and accused The Standard reporter of having been roped in by unspecified individuals to destroy her business.
“Watumwa here kuzondipedza? (Have you been sent to finish me off?) Don’t allow people to use you as a journalist. The suburb was built legally. That is why it was commissioned by Chombo,” she said.
“How can you say there are no papers for that when sewer pipes were connected and there is running water from council? Do you think Gweru City Council, which is approving plans for houses in Woodlands, can do so when the suburb is illegal?”
She demanded to know the EMA officer who had confirmed that project was implemented without an EIA and threatened to set the police on him.
Immediately after the interview with her, this reporter received numerous threatening phone calls from different people, one of who claimed he was a police detail investigating alleged verbal abuse of Dube.
When Dube hung up the phone, Chiwara, her business associate, called and “advised” The Standard to be cautious with the story.
“You see, you need me and I need you. Is it not that you and me stay in Gweru? I am not saying do not write that story, but am just urging you to be careful,” he said.