#TitleDeeds4Life: In Pursuit of Secure Property Rights in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe new

Erin Baumgartner | Marketing and Communications Intern

In Zimbabwe, 67% of the population lives in rural areas, and 60% of property lacks an official valuation. Important historical context for this dynamic lies with the country’s colonial past, during which time the indigenous populations were confined to “reserved land” and were controlled by traditional leaders. Today there remains a de facto acceptance of many vestiges of this colonial past, including traditional leaders’ continued constitutional authority over communal land. As a result, many low-income individuals face barriers to owning land independently, and the continuous spiraling need for housing has resulted in the formation of many informal inner-city settlements.

The Coalition for Market and Liberal Solutions (COMALISO) is committed to changing the status quo of property rights for inner-city dwellers. Throughout their research, COMALISO has come across countless personal testimonies on property rights in Zimbabwe.

In one account, a single mother living outside of the capital city of Harare expressed feelings of insecurity because a house that she built did not have a title deed, despite her being told it did when the property was allocated to her. In another case, a divorced woman was evicted from her home, after her ex-husband sold the property without her knowledge. In yet another case, a woman was advised by the town council against building structures on her subdivided property, due to the council’s intention of redeveloping the land right beside her property. These stories just scrape the surface of demonstrating the ways that individuals are negatively affected by the lack of property rights in Zimbabwe.

In 2021, COMALISO launched a project called #MyTitleDeed4Life, which aims to impact the people living in inner-city dwellings in a twofold process: first, to assess low-income individuals’ awareness of the benefits of property ownership; and second, to use their research to influence policy and initiate titling processes.

It is important to clarify the landscape of urban geography in Zimbabwe, where COMALISO’s target audience of “inner-city dwellers'' actually refers to two different unique housing dynamics. The first are characteristic of commuter towns and have a unique municipal status that includes having mayors, councilors, and factories. These suburbs are the most direct current-day product of the settlements that were created by colonial governments. Another type of inner-city dwellings that has more recently developed are referred to as squatter camps. Because these settlements exist outside of formal municipal records, they are illegal before the law. Most major cities in Zimbabwe are now surrounded by these types of settlements, with millions of individuals residing in them throughout the country.

Although the #TitleDeeds4Life project originally sought to focus primarily on the informal squatter settlements, COMALISO’s research revealed that the dormitory towns are also significantly in need of the benefits of this project.

“Most problems of ‘property insecurity’ are caused by lack of knowledge or merely ignoring laid-out procedures,” Rejoice Ngwenya, founder and executive director of COMALISO, said.

Ngwenya said COMALISO initially believed the challenges of low-income Zimbabweans gaining title deeds were limited to unsurveyed or undesignated residential areas representative of the squatter settlements, but the group learned that even residents who had purchased property have difficulty accessing formally documented property rights.

“There is an emerging pattern where a sizable chunk of citizens who are either close to or have already completed all terms and conditions demanded by their Agreements of Sale are still struggling to access title deeds,” Ngwenya said.

The most central barrier that is impacting individuals in both squatter settlements and dormitory-style towns is a lack of knowledge and awareness about the complexities of the titling process.

This was discovered through COMALISO’s survey of 1,500 respondents across five different inner-city areas. By evaluating the survey’s insights about the status of property ownership in these communities, COMALISO was able to develop recommendations for its Sustainable Property Ownership Policy Blueprint (SPOPB) report.

Key findings from the survey that were highlighted in the report included that individuals felt a high degree of powerlessness and insecurity related to their homes due to lack of knowledge about how to defend their property rights. Regarding governance, the report revealed a complete lack of established institutional processes related to the titling process and a resulting lack of willingness to share information on property rights with citizens.

COMALISO’s report was mass-distributed virtually in Zimbabwe and discussed in two public forums hosted by the organization. Key stakeholders, including residents’ associations, bank managers, councilors, policymakers, and municipal housing directors, were in attendance. The report was also pitched to the local central government as a credible framework for how titled ownership can enhance inner-city individuals’ ability to look after their properties, promote individual confidence and financial inclusion, and enhance livelihood. COMALISO also framed the titling process as beneficial for the government, as it would increase individuals’ ability to pay annual property taxes or fees, which have up until now been a neglected vital source of state revenue.

As a result of COMALISO’s efforts, this past spring, National President Emmerson Mnangagwa made several policy announcements promising that inner-city dwellers would be issued title deeds. This has set in motion major policy reform. A joint committee has been tasked with initiating a process for recording and mapping the value and ownership of land and developing biometric title deeds that cannot be fraudulently produced.

With the new policies creating an opportunity for Zimbabweans to access title deeds, COMALISO now plans to create and distribute a booklet titled “A Poor Man’s Guide to Title Deeds.” The booklet will be an additional resource to educate individuals from low-income households about the process and importance of accessing title deeds.

Through greater public awareness and the steady trajectory of policy reform, countless individuals will be empowered to defend their property rights by procuring title deeds and thus establish greater individual confidence through economic security.