Identity crisis of the urban planning profession in Zimbabwe: a tragedy of 'politics in planning'

Identity crisis of the urban planning profession in Zimbabwe: a tragedy of 'politics in planning'
Published: 22 April 2018 (341 Views)
Since 1980s urban planning profession has been groping in the dark, still, it could not find light anymore. Planning in the face of political power has become troubling and injurious to the soul of the urban planning profession. The planning profession in Zimbabwe has been and is facing challenges that pose serious questions about its legal roles and functions, challenges that threaten its fundamental nature. A crisis of conscience is haunting professional planners, day and night. Professional planners and the affected public are frustrated by what is called "political meddling". Their inability to achieve meaningful results is attributed to the nature and distribution of political and socioeconomic power.

Who are professional planners anywhere? Who are politicians anywhere? Do these fellows share a common ground of urban planning credentials? There is need for a clear cut distinction between the planners and politicians as well as their roles. Planning wears many hats, they are many labels attached to city planning that reflect the variety of political contexts and key urban issues. As such, they reveal a much more informed and responsible approach to city planning and governance for today and futuresustainable cities and neighborhoods. As Donald Krueckeberg was asked in 1993 why he had chosen to become a planner... "to pursue ‘a humanistic vision' and ‘a worthwhile utopia".  Politics entails achieving and exercising position of governance in an organized control over human community. But in Zimbabwe there is a tragedy of "politicians in planning" rather than "politicians in politics". Instead, planners and politicians should walk in tandem, with the politicians not encroaching into planner's premise to enhance a sustainable future of Zimbabwean cities.

Many a time planners are overwhelmed by the exercise of economic power and politics. They often have little or no influence on the implementation of their plans which then lead those painstaking plans ended up on the shelves or have been used to further political purposes they were never intended to serve. Emphatically, the intense political nature of planning practice in Zimbabwe is very daunting. Planners have since lost their professional responsibility owing to the exercise of political power in the planning process. Given this political climate of planning practice, how then can planners work to proselytize better livable places? A beloved profession is crying foul. Crying indeed!    

The prevailing political system, political environment and political ideology of the government have not been conducive for planning operation. It has effects on the role of the planner, daunting the way in which he can operate, the type of development proposals he can incorporate in his plans and the impact which he is able to have on the course of events.  The planning profession as a result often suffers from unexpected decisions from the political system which just drop out of the blue without consultation of the planner. This scenario led some to say the best way is for planners to join politics and acquire political authority that they need to materialize their plans. But should the planner join politics to gain professional respectability? Certainly, political astuteness by planners is of little help now.    
If one looks at the current realities in Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe which is now an informal city, squalor city, one will be wondering if planning is recognized in this country like any other professions such as Law and Medicine. Planners' role has over the past decades been overshadowed by political interference and their voices have always been muffled under the political garments. As such their voices are nowhere to be heard. The other former student at thhe Department of Rural and Urban Planning at University of Zimbabwe is reportedly to say "unotonyara kutaura kuti Harare is our capital city nekuti Harare yacho hairatidzike kuti i guta guru renyika. Chokwadi Harare yataiziva yakamedzwa yose nepolitics. Regai titi Bulawayo ndoyava capital city yemuZimbabwe at least zvinenge zvirinani hazvizonyanye kunyadzisa seHarare". Now the worst question that any planner would ask is again the first question that needs an answer, after seeing how the planning profession has been suffering in the hands of the politicians. Politicians should thus develop a culture of "politics in politics".

The planning profession is like the forgotten winter blanket. The city is facing the mayhem of informality, sanity misdemeanor, and public transport woes. As such it is quite seemingly as if planners are non-existent in this country. The vision by the Harare City Council of making Harare a world-class city by 2025, seems to be merely a daylight hallucination. The more the Council and politicians are trying to pursue the vision, the worst the situation goes. Contradictory politics are also at play within the City councils, among MDC-T and ZANU-PF officials and councilors. This has been problematic as it engendered conflicting governance policies with speculative political motives void of systems approach. Most of the councilors' service delivery approaches are that of a novice since they have no intellectual and professional grounding in urban planning and governance. But for professional planners that is home.  

Then what do the future holds for our bleeding cities? So it's high time for Zimbabwe to head towards the attainment of the UNDP Sustainable Development Goal number 11 which emphasizes on sustainable cities and communities. Poorly planned cities with the vortex of informalities do not attract investment. The panacea is at least, to learn from our fellow African cities and countries- Kigali Rwanda, our neighbor South Africa, Dar es Salaam, and other developed countries, simply that. Planners in these countries, have their role less undermined by politics. Lessons to learn, Zimbabwe!

Politicians are always behind chaotic spatial developments in our cities. The infamous Operation Murambatsvina crackdown was one of the fatalities of political interference. It lost the spirit and purpose of good planning. Worst still, the so called land barons who are politically affiliated, are stirring chaos within the land market sector by undermining the land tenural laws of Zimbabwe. Politics is behind the construction of buildings in ecologically sensitive wetlands around the country. For instance the Longchen Plaza in Harare. Unsustainable extraction of minerals around the country by the China Mining companies has put our beloved countryside natural environment at stake. Just to pick these few empirical syndromes of politics in planning. Clearly, political pressure is never good anymore when it comes to spatial planning as exhibited by visible dysfunctional development practicalities in Zimbabwean cities. The remedy is to merely let planners do what they do.

The government's political philosophy towards the planning profession had since 1980 neglected the legislative base for planning. There is little appreciation of the planners by the politicians. If one may ask, what legal stance do planners have? The most worrying issue is the lack of explicit legal framework for the operation of spatial planning. Notwithstanding the statutory frameworks for planning such as Urban Councils Act, City council by-laws, Master Plans and the Regional, Town and Country Planning Act, which is the legal centerpiece for town and country planning and development control in Zimbabwe, planning exercise has lost its immunity. Legislation should stop impinging on the planning profession. The legislation should clearly define the role of a planner to ensure that there is no interference. Planners should also be legally mandated to take part in democratic participation in the planning process. The Zimbabwe Institute of Regional and Urban Planners (ZIRUP) as the professional of body representing planning practitioners needs stand up now for the identity of planners.

On seeing the current town planning and development misdemeanors one may be pushed to question, "what role does planning play to the welfare of humanity"? Maybe there is need to shedding more light on the substantial roles of planning. Without planning everything go worst. Good rational planning is attentive to the needs of special problems that may arise in a society. Planners organize acquiescence. They are not authoritative problem solvers, as our fellow brothers stereotypical engineers may be.

The essence of planning lies in the ability to visualize the ideal future of cities, and to work towards its realization. Planners have the mantra "we have seen the future and it is pleasant". Then disaster looms when some unintelligent political players in the city are assuming the personality of a planner whose professionalism they know little about. Political interference in planning has resulted in reversal of post-independence gains in health, education and other social sectors. If this is to continue, the future of the cities in our beloved Zimbabwe shall remain bleak.

The concerted quests of the planning profession for increased efficacy, sanction and financial support from the central government, academic respectability and validation have all been a castle in the air. Schools of planning in Zimbabwe like the Rural and Urban Planning Department, University of Zimbabwe, seems to lose political academic respectability on speculative grounds as compared to Medicine, Law and Engineering. As exhibited by the government of the former president Mugabe, we saw the Tertiary Education Ministry embarking on the STEM program to fund those who were doing sciences up to University. Utter flaw of that is, how can one stematize in ill-clad physical cities with slums mushrooming everywhere? If that was to succeed surely we will be caught in the same tragedy of the cities of Industrialization Age in Europe that were industrializing at expense of environmental sustainability. In principle, planners should always take precedence in any development thrusts and endeavors. That's the secret behind these visionaries. Planning is indeed, the basic pillar of other scientific professions like Medicine because places which are not environmentally benign will pull down all the efforts for public health.

The planning profession is calling for attention. Planners are calling for a mutual alliance to work hand in glove with local and central government for a better future of rural and urban settlements. The socioeconomic development potential of this country is hinged upon the rural and urban planning professionals. There is a dire call for a paradigm shift in the manner in which the planning profession is being handled.

If political meddling in the planning profession continues, it will be tragic for the planning profession and the nation in the public health, the health of the natural environment and the built environment. In this era of new political dispensation planners are eyeing for a new professional planning dispensation which culminates in a sustainable, liveable and properly planned paradise like cities. Aristotle once said "cities must provide happiness and safety to its users". As such there is need for mutual respect for each other's role and integrity to create an enabling space for planners to execute their expertise. Planning needs to start to be taken seriously and appreciated as a profession that holds the future to a sustainable and livable environment on its shoulders.

Let's nurture planning instincts and restore rural and urban planning profession. Let's serve the soul of the planning profession. And the time is now for planners to be rescued from their longtime political handcuffs.

This article was prepared by Kelvin Zhanda, a researcher, writer and an Undergraduate Student in the Department of Rural and Urban Planning at the University of Zimbabwe. The information above was provided in my own capacity and doesn't reflect any political affiliation and ideas of Rural and Urban Department.

- Kelvin Zhanda


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