by Innocent Batsani Ncube
Parliament building in Harare, Zimbabwe seen from Nelson Mandela Avenue
One of the most enduring legends in Zimbabwean politics is the historical ownership of its current Parliament building.
There are three narratives in this regard. The first, is that the building is owned by the Anglican Church, and leased to the government of Zimbabwe. The second, the building was once a private hotel and expropriated by government after the owners went bankrupt.
The third, the building was constructed by, and has always been owned by the government.
During my fieldwork in Zimbabwe (January to February 2020) I unravelled the myth.
To understand the story, one has to start from the founding of the colony. The pioneer column wrongly established Fort Salisbury (present day City of Harare).
As per the site plans developed by Frederick Selous for the British South Africa Company (BSAC), the Fort was supposed to be sited at Mount Hampden about 20 kilometres north of Harare, where the new parliament building project is taking place.
However, the weather conditions at the time they arrived (heavy fog) and proximity to a water source (the Mukuvisi river) the Union Jack was mounted at the Kopje and its surroundings became the site for Salisbury.
When the land in ‘virgin’ Salisbury was then surveyed, the area east of Kopje was earmarked as the business district and two Scottish entrepreneurs bought the stand in which Parliament is sitting.
They built a hotel and named it the Cecil Hotel. The name was inspired by the square to the left of the building which was titled the Cecil Square (present day Africa Unity Square).
Part of the original structure still stands, for example, the current National Assembly chamber was the dining room and the offices facing Nelson Mandela Avenue on the first floor, were the bedrooms.
However, they didn’t operate the hotel for long. There are two explanations for this. Either they were encouraged by the BSAC to sell or they coveted the stand across Cecil Square - the site of present day Meikles Hotel. They sold their hotel to the BSAC, bought the new stand and they named their new hotel the New Cecil Hotel.
The BSAC converted the building into an administrative centre and governed the colony from there. By the time the BSAC started using the hotel as a government office, the Anglican church had been allocated the stand adjacent to the building. This has echoes of British style organisation of State architecture: the Palace of Westminster sits next to Westminster Abbey.
During the First World War, the building’s basement below the dining Hall (now the debate chamber) was turned into an armoury.
There is a replica in a glass case of one of the weapons dug up long after the war on display on the corridor of the first floor as you approach the Hansard section.
At the end of company rule in 1923, the building was transferred to the responsible government by the BSAC and has been owned by successive governments since then.
What then gives rise to these different narratives if the accurate account seems this straight forward?
Three reasons. First, the proximity of the building and the St Marys Anglican Church. This is exacerbated by the fact that Parliament leases office space in the adjacent Pax House which is owned by the Anglican Church.
Second, the building is not a purpose built parliament and it gives rise to different interpretations about what it used to be in the past.
Third, it is a legitimate expectation by citizens that a parliament building should be constructed and owned by the government.