Docile media helped Alpha in its scam

A docile media pandering to the "rich" instead of giving "voice to the voiceless" and holding the powerful accountable may have abetted Alpha Construction and its boss Jonathan Gapare to fleece desperate home-seekers in Bulawayo.

Alpha Construction, which was awarded a contract to develop and build more than 500 houses in Cowdray Park nearly eight years ago, is alleged to have defrauded scores of house seekers by asking them to pay for houses that it never built.

In some cases it sold houses to more than one person and demanded additional sums of money from those who had paid off their houses because of escalating construction costs. The company also issued certificates of occupation of its own.

The council has since withdrawn its contract with the company but could face a hefty bill to rectify the mess.

Gapare was touted by the local media as a prominent businessman running a "thriving business empire" that included a construction company, a security company, a bureau de change and shops.

One report even described him as a financial wizard who epitomised the saying that "life begins at 40".

In a profile headlined: Man with a vision, in September 2001, Gapare was quoted as saying: "I have always had a vision to become someone. I am a financial wizard, I know how to make money. I am a risk bearer. It is inborn, it is a talent."

The former bank employee, was touted as a saviour who was going to provide affordable housing to the poor. He was quoted as early as August 1998, as saying he was going to build 532 houses in Cowdray Park at a cost of $46 million in two years. The first batch of 186 houses was going to be ready for occupation in six months.

The unquestioning media, which appeared to be covering the Alpha story from what Gapare said instead of visiting the suburb, reported in August 2001 that the company had finished constructing 550 houses in Cowdray Park. The official handover would be in two weeks.

There was no follow up on the handover. The media instead claimed in August 2003, that Alpha construction had built more than 70 000 houses in towns and cities across the country in the past five years.

It has since emerged that Alpha has up to now not built 180 houses in Cowdray Park , and not just 60 as previously reported.

The councillor for the area Stars Mathe who broke the news to the residents on October 23 said Alpha was allocated 502 stands, and not 532 as the company claimed. It was supposed to complete the project by May 2003.

The claims to the media about Alpha's success smack of a systematic cover up that was aimed at hoodwinking desperate house seekers because the number of contracts the company was allegedly getting and the number of houses it had completed should have raised eyebrows.

"There is no way the company could have built 70 000 houses, even since independence, because this is like building seven huge high-density suburbs, the size of Nkulumane," a senior housing officer with the Bulawayo City Council said. Nkulumane has between 11 000 and 12 000 houses.

"If you look at Mpopoma, it has under 4 000 houses. Magwegwe has between 5 000 and 7 000 houses. In fact, Bulawayo should have been taken as the standard measurement. If Alpha had failed to complete 500 houses in Bulawayo, where had it built the other 69 500?" the officer queried.

The way Gapare manipulated the media showed how cunning he was. While he was being portrayed as a saviour, not only of the poor but also of troubled Zimbabwe Saints, the city's second most famous soccer club, he was taking potential buyers to the cleaners.

What was more disturbing was that he was preying on orphans and widows. Moagi Nare, who is now 14, has no kind words for Gapare. His mother, Nomathemba Nare worked for Gapare at his Gap Trading shop at Entumbane Complex. She bought house number 6642 from Alpha and had the house officially transferred to her.

Mrs Nare fell in early 2001. She received a letter in April stating that she owed Alpha $87 250. Moagi said his mother refused to pay the amount because she had paid off the house. She died on 27 July 2001. Her husband had already died leaving her two children, Moagi and Tapelo, now aged 11, orphans.

Moagi said Gapare attended his mother's funeral and told mourners that she did not owe him anything. The house was hers. But in May 2002, the children who were now being looked after by their aunt, their mother's elder sister, received a letter from Alpha stating that they now owed the company $227 337.50.

Alpha, which had apparently sold their house to a third party, moved them to a smaller house where they stayed for a week before being moved to another house. The children, who still had the title deeds to their mother's house, were now homeless.

They remained homeless for nearly two years until the residents' association, which had been making investigations into the case discovered that the house that the children had been kicked out of, belonged to their home. The residents asked the new occupier to leave the house and sort her problem with Alpha and brought the children back to their house where they are now staying with an older stepbrother.

Christopher Ncube, who was not known to the residents association, said he had been staying with his mother, Mrs Nare, but because he at times worked out of town, he only came to the house in the evenings.

He said he had kept a low profile because he had been severely intimidated by Gapare. "That man threatened us. He told us he was a member of the 'party' and no one, even the police, could do anything to him," Ncube said.

"I knew I stood no ground against him, so I started saving money hoping to buy a new house of our own without any squabbles," he said.

Indeed, Gapare throws around names of top people in the ruling ZANU-PF and even claimed that the late vice-President Joshua Nkomo was his inspiration. At one time he threatened senior Bulawayo City Council officials who were looking into his contract prompting the chamber secretary, Gilbert Dube, to complain about his unbecoming behaviour.

In his letter dated 23 April 2003, referring to a meeting between Alpha Construction and council staff on 17 April, Dube wrote:

"I make reference to the above mentioned matter and in particular your unfortunate behaviour/attitude during the said meeting when you resorted to abusive language which left the entire meeting stunned.

"There is no doubt in my mind that you may have had a grievance but it was unfortunate and uncalled for that you took the opportunity not only to hurl insults but personalise the whole matter.

"This was even more painful when viewed against the background that some of the beneficiaries are convinced that there is an unholy alliance between yourselves and council officials to short change them.

"As the chairman of that meeting, I was left wondering as regards the intentions behind your behaviour which to me appear to border on intimidation. Unfortunately intimidation will not work as council can simply resort to enforcing the provisions of the agreement of sale between yourselves and itself with regard to this project.

"It will be unethical and unfortunate for council to abdicate its responsibility towards provision of quality service to its residents.

"I do not want to believe that you could have been taking advantage of council's willingness to assist and accommodate an enterprising indigenous businessman by your behaviour.

"For your information there are numerous other developers who council deal(s) with and who appreciate council's role in such projects. For council or its officials to single you out for victimisation does not make sense.

"It is my sincere hope that you will not use your position within your company to overrule what your officers and council officials ultimately agreed on as a way forward in overcoming the hitches facing the project.

"Finally, as I write this letter, I understand from the director of engineering services that he is having problems in getting you to cooperate to iron out some of the problems which have been hindering progress. In the interest of everyone concerned, particularly the beneficiaries, I would urge you to be cooperative."

It appears, however, that Alpha was aware of the power of the press and did not want it to know about the mess it had created in Cowdray Park. According to minutes of a meeting between council officials and Alpha representatives on 8 May 2003, where the two parties had been discussing how to solve the problem of encroachments, Alpha requested the council to keep away the problem from the press.

Council officials, however, said they could not guarantee that the information would not leak to the press "as the press had its way of finding news".

The officials asked Alpha to make sure it discussed the problems with residents and beneficiaries so that they would not complain to the press.

It appears that Alpha, which seemed to have a tight grip on the local media, did not bother to discuss with beneficiaries as they finally broke the scam to the press.

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