Wednesday, September 23, 2020

MP appeals for legal help to get back land earmarked for the poor

With his parliamentary platform having failed to bring help he had hoped for, the Gaborone North MP, Haskins Nkaigwa, is now appealing to lawyers in private practice to help restore land originally earmarked for a large-scale, low-cost housing project to its rightful owners.

“If I had resources, I would take the government to court over this issue but I don’t,” the MP says. “It is clear that there is some chicanery going on and I want to appeal to lawyers who can volunteer their services to help us restore this land to its rightful owners. They can either come to my constituency office or just call it. We need this assistance because, otherwise, land that should have benefitted hundreds of Batswana will forever be lost to an individual ÔÇô a foreigner for that matter.”

The plot in question is in the Marang/Tsholofelo East Ward whose councillor, Meshack Kebeileng, has also taken up the cudgels. Kebeileng says that he grew suspicious about the ownership of the plot when there would be some sudden development on the plot that would then stop abruptly. He alerted Nkaigwa, about such goings-on and the result was a parliamentary question. The councillor says that what he finds most worrisome is that it is extremely difficult for them as councillors to get information about unoccupied plots ÔÇô which are commonly referred to as “open spaces” ÔÇô in their wards.

“Land that is supposedly reserved for public use disappears right in front of our eyes and we are helpless about it. I don’t know who the owners of unoccupied plots in my ward and it is not easy to get such information from the Department of Physical Planning. There is never a satisfactory explanation for why companies get land very easily when there is a long waiting list for residential plots,” he says.

As former Gaborone mayor, Nkaigwa knows the history of the land in question very well. Under a 2002 public-private partnership (PPP), a company called Zimmal Reliance was to build 433 affordable houses on the land ÔÇô whose ownership the government retained – to ease the acute housing accommodation problem that has long bedevilled the capital city. Such development was to happen within two years, failing which the PPP would be scrapped. There is no shortage of shopping malls in Gaborone but the land in question will now be used to build a mall with a petrol filling station.

“What do you say about that because it compromises the initial objective which the government and Zimmal contracted over, whose basis was a PPP to benefit Batswana?” the Gaborone North MP, Haskins Nkaigwa, asked of the Assistant Minister of Land Management, Water and Sanitation Services, Itumeleng Moipisi, in parliament last year. “Now only Zimmal will benefit from the PPP.”

In his entire answer, Moipisi never once disputed Nkaigwa’s assertion about the said commercial development. The latter was actually the subject of a public EIA consultation meeting that took place at the Ledumang kgotla in April last year.

Dissatisfied with response tendered in a previous session of parliament, Nkaigwa was bringing up the issue for the second time. However, his effort was thwarted by the Deputy Speaker, Kagiso Molatlhegi, who kept his eyes not on the prize but on the clock. Nkaigwa and Specially-elected MP, Mephato Reatile, wanted to ask more supplementary questions but Molatlhegi said that he could not allocate any more time to the issue.

All this happened as a perimetre wall fence was being constructed around the vast tract of land in Ledumang which is bordered by Motswedi Junior Secondary School on the northern end and a row of houses on the southern end. Both GCC and Zimmal own neighbouring parcels of land which have been lying fallow for years. Following the EIA meeting at the Ledumang kgotla, Zimmal started building a wall fence around the land. While the issue came up before the Physical Planning Committee of the Gaborone City Council (GCC), which directed that the wall should encompass its own land, the construction went ahead nonetheless. However, this Committee may itself have complicated the issue because it also granted permission for the construction of commercial property that falls outside terms of the PPP. When Sunday Standard visited the site on Friday, the construction of a high perimetre wall fence was almost complete. If nothing else, this shows that Zimmal is unfazed by the protestations of both Nkaigwa and Kebeileng. 

By law and in terms of the 2002 deal, the land should have been returned to the government when Zimmal failed to develop it within two years. This leniency has raised eyebrows and prompted Nkaigwa to ask why the deal was not scrapped when Zimmal could not develop the land within the required time. Moipisi’s response was that Zimmal was not the first applicant to be allowed to hold on to land it hasn’t developed within such time.

While this saga plays itself out, shortage of low-cost housing in Gaborone in particular is getting even more acute. To illustrate the extent of this problem, Nkaigwa says that the last allocation for Self-Help Housing Agency (SHHA) plots in Gaborone was for people who had applied in 1989. Around the time that the PPP deal in question was sealed, a young man in Gaborone West was literally living in a crude tree house made of plastic sheeting during the rainy season because he couldn’t afford decent housing. Some other city residents find themselves at the mercy of predator slum landlords who typically impose unlawful rules that curtail civil liberties: curfews that inhibit freedom of movement and inhibition of freedom of association by disallowing visits even by close family members. These landlords also imperil the welfare of children by banning them from their properties and severely ration tenants’ consumption of electricity and water. In part, the shortage of affordable housing has been exacerbated by unemployment as well as slave wages and wage stagnation.


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