For many residents of Epworth, a sprawling settlement on the outskirts of Harare, owning a house has been a dream come true. But until recently, they did not have the legal documents to prove it.
Epworth is home to more than 200,000 people, most of whom live in informal shacks and poorly built houses on land that was once a farm.
The settlement was established in the 1980s by a religious sect that allocated plots to its followers without proper planning or registration.
Since then, Epworth has grown rapidly as more people moved in from rural areas or other parts of Harare in search of affordable housing and livelihoods.
But without title deeds, the residents faced insecurity of tenure and vulnerability to land barons who sold them land without any documentation.
Title deeds are legal documents that demonstrate ownership or title to a particular piece of property. They are important for establishing a clear title to the property and can be used as evidence in disputes over ownership or boundaries.
They also enable owners to access credit, insurance and other services using their property as collateral.
In April 2023, President Emmerson Mnangagwa launched the Presidential Title Deeds and Settlement Regularization Programme at Epworth High School and handed over more than 265 title deeds to property owners in Epworth.
He said the programme was one of the interventions by his government to improve the quality of life and livelihoods of citizens.
“The title deeds being issued today are an important empowerment tool and a legal document that gives beneficiaries several rights, which include ownership and security of tenure, and disposal and transfer of ownership from one person to another,” Mnangagwa said at the time.
He said the programme was going to be rolled out in all the country’s 10 provinces and that no one and no place or suburb or township would be left behind. He said more than 11,000 title deeds had already been processed for Epworth residents.
The process of producing title deeds involves various ministries, agencies and departments working together under the Whole-of-Government approach. It also involves mapping out the land boundaries using satellite imagery and other technologies.
The beneficiaries of the programme expressed gratitude and joy at receiving their title deeds. They said they felt more secure and confident about their future.
“I am very happy to have this document. It means I am now the legal owner of this house and no one can take it away from me,” said Tendai Moyo, a 45-year-old mother of four who has lived in Epworth for 15 years.
She said she bought her plot from a land baron who charged her $500 but did not give her any papers. She said she had been living in fear of eviction or demolition by the authorities.
“Now I can sleep peacefully at night knowing that this is my home. I can also use this title deed to get a loan from the bank if I want to improve my house or start a business,” she said.
Land shortage and challenges
While the title deeds programme has brought relief and hopes to many Epworth residents, it has also highlighted some of the challenges and constraints that they face in terms of land use and management.
Epworth is one of the most densely populated areas in Zimbabwe, with an average of 25 people per hectare. The settlement covers an area of about 8,000 hectares, but only about 2,000 hectares are suitable for residential development3. The rest is either rocky, steep or wetland.
This means that there is not enough land to accommodate the growing population and their needs for social services, infrastructure, recreation and industries. Most of the land is used for residential purposes, leaving little space for other activities.
According to a 2019 report by UN-Habitat, Epworth has only one high school, two clinics, one police station and one library for its entire population3. It also lacks adequate water supply, sanitation, electricity, roads and drainage systems. The report said Epworth was facing “a humanitarian crisis” that required urgent intervention.
The report recommended that Epworth should be declared a special planning area and that a comprehensive development plan
Some residents have also expressed concern about the impact of title deeds on their land rights and obligations. They fear that they may lose their land if they fail to pay rates and taxes or if they default on their loans.
“We are happy to have title deeds, but we are also worried about the costs and risks involved,” said Tafadzwa Chikwanda, a 32-year-old carpenter who lives in Overspill, one of the oldest sections of Epworth.
He said he inherited his plot from his father who was a member of the religious sect that founded Epworth. He said he did not know how much he would have to pay for rates and taxes or how he would afford them.
“We are used to living here without paying anything. We don’t have formal jobs or regular income. We survive by doing odd jobs and selling things. How will we cope with these new expenses?” he said.
He also said he was worried about the possibility of losing his land if he borrowed money using his title deed as collateral and failed to repay.
“I have heard stories of people who lost their houses because they borrowed money and could not pay back. I don’t want that to happen to me. This is my home and my inheritance. I don’t want to lose it,” he said.
He said he hoped the government would provide some support and guidance to the residents on how to manage their land and finances.
“We need some education and awareness on how to use our title deeds wisely and responsibly. We also need some assistance and subsidies to help us pay for the services and infrastructure that we need,” he said.
Urban Planning experts believe that having too much land allocated for residential use can also impact sustainable development goals.
“For instance, it can make it difficult for the city to attract industries, as there may be limited land available for industrial development. This can negatively affect the city’s economy and result in a lack of employment opportunities for residents,” said Engineer Nyasha Chikoto.
Moreover, Chikoto added, it can be challenging to provide essential services such as water, sanitation, and electricity to areas that have been haphazardly developed without proper planning.
“This can lead to the development of slums, which can further exacerbate social and environmental problems,” he noted.
Another town planner, Nyaradzo Gamanya noted that the misuse of land for residential purposes in Harare is therefore a threat to sustainable development, which requires a balance between social, economic and environmental goals.
“To address this challenge, there is a need for proper land use planning that integrates the issue of wetland ecosystems and other natural resources into urban development strategies.
“There is also a need for participatory and inclusive approaches that involve all stakeholders in decision-making and conflict resolution processes,” Gamanya said.
Furthermore, there is a need for effective enforcement of laws and regulations that protect wetlands and other land uses from illegal and unsustainable activities.
By adopting these measures, she added, “Harare can become a more livable, productive and resilient city that benefits all its inhabitants.”
Epworth is a microcosm of the challenges and opportunities that Zimbabwe faces in its quest to provide decent housing and land rights for its urban population.
The title deeds programme is a step in the right direction, but it needs to be complemented by other interventions that address the social, economic and environmental aspects of urban development.