Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Tuesday March 27, 2007 [02:00]
The government’s decision to demolish illegal structures and also to chase away street vendors has raised a lot of emotions, especially among the affected individuals.
This is understandable because some of these displaced people don’t seem to have immediate solutions to their accommodation problems or indeed the problems forcing them to engage in street vending. And naturally, when such a clean-up exercise is conducted by our local authorities or indeed the government, the people who lose their property or investment in such operations attract sympathy from a large part of society.
There is also some political sympathy expressed or offered by some politicians for the simple reason of gaining the victims’ support and thereby increasing their popularity in the eyes of the public as they will be said to be men and women who are sensitive to the plight of the poor.
But this issue of demolishing illegal structures and getting rid of vendors from our streets needs to be looked at objectively, with level-headedness. Like we have said before, this is not a new problem. It is a problem that has been present in all the successive governments. And the solutions have not been found or if they are there, then their implementation has been a total failure because this issue has been politicised.
The law that President Levy Mwanawasa is today trying to implement regarding this issue has always been there. We remember in the early 1990s when Patriotic Front president Michael Sata served as local government and housing minister that he attempted to demolish illegal structures in Lusaka’s Misisi and Kanyama compounds but he failed because of some political intervention from higher authorities.
Thus, these illegal structures were allowed to continue spreading unhindered and almost all the main roads in Lusaka city centre were taken over by the street vendors who even erected ugly structures to the extent of completely blocking some roads. This is how this organised chaos has spread its tentacles over the years. Now Lusaka city centre is so saturated with illegal vendors that the government has no option but to implement the law, a thing that they had shied away from before the situation got out of hand.
This is the crux of the matter because in our view, the problem was ignored when it was in its infancy. It was not nipped in the bud. Now that the problem has blossomed and flourished, the authorities want to disturb that by implementing or enforcing the law. Obviously, these local authorities will meet strong resistance as has been the case in the past few days.
In saying this, however, we are not in any way trying to endorse anarchy and chaos as a way of doing things. We are trying to identify the root cause of this problem and explore the possibilities of finding a lasting solution because we cannot, as a country, continue to conduct our affairs in the manner we are doing at the moment.
The city centre is a complete eyesore. People are trading in anything and anywhere at any time. It is no longer possible for motorists to find parking space in town because most of our roads have been ‘privatised’ by vendors. Even when one manages to find that parking space, security is not guaranteed because this disorder has also contributed to the increase in crime.
The situation is not the same at Manda Hill and Arcades shopping complexes, where there is order and, as a result, security. And this comes at no cost at all both to the motorist and pedestrian shoppers. This is the same order and sanity that our people want even in the city centre because it is not everyone who can afford to buy from Manda Hill and Arcades.
But with the current levels of lawlessness, this will remain a pipedream if our government does not put its foot down and implement that which is good for the majority of our people. There is no need to appease wrongdoers with cheap political decisions which only serve the selfish interests of those politicians. If the law that provides for city and country planning is bad, the starting point is to change that bad law, otherwise the law has to be enforced.
Our people are building houses anywhere, anyhow and at any time. Whatever problems there are in accessing land in planned settlements, this is not an excuse for our people to engage in the kind of activities that have become commonplace as far as developing unplanned settlements is concerned.
Most of the buildings are substandard and therefore pose a great danger to their occupants. And because these settlements are unplanned, certain facilities like water and sewerage are not there. Most of our people in these areas have resorted to soak-aways whose long-term effects might be very harmful to human life.
This is a recipe for disaster and whatever the consequences, corrective action has to be taken. And this is where we think a lot of level-headedness is required. Our people should generally see and appreciate the need to maintain law and order in our city and country planning. They should say no to the kind of confusion that is reigning supreme in the manner that our people have gone about promoting illegalities. There will be no need for anyone to politicise a non-political issue.
Like we stated earlier, no progress has been recorded in this area because it is always politicised. Whenever our local authorities have tried to move in and implement the law, politicians have intervened, claiming that they would lose political support if most of the voters in these unplanned settlements were displaced.
So the politicians are the main culprits in this problem because they dictate the pace at which our local authorities move in implementing such sensitive and yet inevitable decisions like evicting squatters and getting rid of vendors from the streets. However, this is not to completely absolve our local authorities from sharing in the blame. In some cases, our councils have gone to sleep, thereby allowing our people to do as they please. For example in Lusaka, how could the council allow the vendors to completely take away some of the roads on which they erected makeshift stalls?
Today, our council is behaving as though they have just noticed this problem when it is almost becoming a normal way of conducting business. It is time our local authorities became pro-active in maintaining law and order.
They should move themselves in supervising activities in their jurisdictions to stop such anarchy from taking place. Our people are desperate for land and trading areas and if left unchecked, they will do everything within their means to take illegal possession of such land and trading areas especially when they know that there is no one watching.
Of course these problems cannot be discussed in isolation of the current poverty situation in the country, which is driving our people into these illegal activities. But again, two wrongs do not make a right. Even in poverty, we can endeavour to live like human beings; not animals. This is within our control.
And in case our local authorities misdirect themselves in the implementation of this clean-up exercise, let us deal with that misdirection instead of demonising the whole process of getting rid of the vendors from the streets, and the squatters from those unplanned settlements. Sometimes we must learn to make hard decisions. What is illegal is illegal. There should be no alternative to illegality.