BULAWAYO – Clinging to hope is the only virtue that has kept 300 families living at Reigate Compound going, despite living under distressed conditions ever since Umguza Rural District Council began demolishing their houses in a protracted land wrangle.
The residents have been up in arms with the local authority after it demarcated commercial stands on a site already taken up by housing structures that the families have occupied for decades.
Mid last month, the council finally lived up to its persistent threats after it managed to evict a dozen families from their houses by ripping off the roofs before the intervention of a High Court Judge ordering an immediate halt to the demolitions.
Widespread public outcry and intense lobbying from human rights organisations and the church community has put the council under pressure resulting in staggered execution of the demolition since the beginning of the year.
When the Daily News crew revisited the area yesterday, the compound was almost deserted as most of the residents together with their children were busy working on arable patches just nearby.
Reigate Compound, which is about 8km from the city centre, is adjacent to Woodville Farm where the residents were offered at least 25 hectares by the farm owner several years ago from which they have practised semi-urban agriculture.
Residents who spoke to the Daily News indicated that their lives were dependent on farming as most of them were retired or retrenched by the local authority.
Others still live on the compound waiting for their terminal benefits.
The compound which is made up of 75 housing blocks, single units and a primary school nearby consists of employees, former employees of the council and non-employees.
Gertrude Ndlovu, 64, a mother of four who is staying with four other orphans said she had no power to resist eviction and life was never easy for her as she was unemployed.
“I have been staying here for the past 47 years and if you talk of being evicted it is something I can only leave to God because this is the only place I have known as home,” Ndlovu said.
“Since we do not have a reliable income, we have relied on tilling the arable patches to supplement our food. Even if they threaten us with any form of eviction, that will not stop us from attending to our fields,” she said.
Her husband retired in 2007 after serving 65 years as a council employee but painfully up until now he has not been paid his pension.
This has further compounded Ndlovu’s situation with a big family that she has to cater for.
Ndlovu said with good rains, residents were hopeful that they would reap quite a substantial harvest than the previous year.
“From farming we really get something although it will not last the whole year but it is a reliable source of food that has for years boosted my income. We started planting for this season in October and we are very optimistic that we will be here to harvest,” Eva Mudambi, a 66-year-old widow taking care of five grandchildren, said.
Mudambi’s house was part of the eight destroyed by the council officials before the court intervened.
She later sought asylum in the nearby house that had been spared total demolition but had its door removed.
“I really do not know what to do because I don’t have anywhere to go. I am originally from Plumtree but it has been years since I left and I do not have relatives there,” she said.
Titus Nkasa, 50, who said he was born and bred within the compound vowed not to think about the eviction though he admitted the future was uncertain.
“We understand how serious this issue is and I am told even the way how this whole issue has been publicised as well as the court case has not dampened the council’s enthusiasm to halt the eviction,” Nkasa said.
“But all the same we do not want to think about it because it will distract our focus in life that is why we have ploughed all these hectares amid the threats from the council. As it is, they have cut water supplies from us and we are now used to this inhuman and highest level of ill-treatment.”
Nkasa said working in the fields has given them a sense of hope amidst prospects of a bleak future.
“When I come to the fields I look at my plants I get this feeling that there is life after all. Right now we have kids who were doing primary at this school and we wonder what will happen if we are evicted from this place because we have nowhere to go.”
Nkasa was born, grew up, worked, married and raised a family at Reigate compound.
“What about my children?” Nkasa asked. “I wish the council could just make sense out of it.”
He said what made their stay unsettling was the constant visit of people who have reportedly bought the stands on the site the compound sits.
The Daily News discovered that council had filled up the main toilet used by the community with stones while running water was disconnected, a decision residents said was the worst inhuman treatment they can be subjected to.
Council’s action has left the residents exposed to disease outbreak as they now have to rely on the nearby bush for relieving themselves.
However, while a dark cloud seems to be hovering above the community, residents have all along complained of the somehow inconsiderate stance taken by the council to evict them without giving them alternative accommodation.
To make matters worse, Collin Moyo, the council chief executive officer, has failed to engage the residents to explain his position over the heavily-contested move, serve for the three months’ notice letter that was issued to them on January 17 this year.
The affected residents argue that the council is violating their rights to shelter because they have lived in the compound for close to 30 years paying rentals to the local authority.