EDITORIAL COMMENT : Fixing mess in urban councils long overdue

Source: EDITORIAL COMMENT : Fixing mess in urban councils long overdue | Herald (Opinion)

Minister Garwe

The growing meltdown in many urban councils presents particular problems for a large number of Zimbabweans and the Zimbabwean economy, so the central Government, despite some legal difficulties, has to intervene at least as far as emergency work is concerned.

The problems are not just giving rise to discomfort or unpleasant living conditions.

There are growing health risks from failing sewers and sewage treatment plants, the continuing water woes in some areas, and the unrepaired damage to poorly maintained roads that impose huge economic costs in the short term and, considering the far larger sums needed for reconstruction rather than immediate repairs, in the long term.

All this is made a great deal worse in those urban areas badly hit by land barons, supported by and including corrupt councillors and officials if allegations now being made in court are true, where there is unplanned high density housing without sewers, water or roads to start with, and often on wetlands and near streams so houses are flooded in heavy rain.

There are legal difficulties with some intervention. The Urban Councils Act gives a great deal of independence to most urban councils, especially those with municipal or city status, and these days the appointment of a commission is no longer a practical possibility so long as there are some functioning councillors.

Even if there are none, a commissioner is just a short-term appointment, for a maximum of three months, while the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission organises the by-elections.

But this does not mean Government can just sit back. National Housing and Social Amenities Minister Daniel Garwe outlined some of the emergency intervention that is planned.

A national disaster management committee will be dealing with roads, not just the national highways, but also with other urban roads, and an emergency package is being finalised that will bring in the Treasury and private investors to start the major task of rehabilitating the sewer and water systems.

And a lot of people will be cheering when these programmes are rolled out in the near future.

The degree of meltdown does vary. While all need some help, the level and type of support is different. For example, Bulawayo’s main problem is the inherent shortage of raw water, finally being sorted out with the construction of the huge Gwayi-Shangani dam, a major Government capital project that will be commissioned next year.

But few would dispute that the two largest urban authorities in Harare Province, Harare City Council and Chitungwiza Municipality, top the list of dysfunctional councils.

And Harare’s mess does impact on the far better run Ruwa Town Council, bigger than some cities, that appears to be able to get the major private developers to obey planning regulations as they grow the town properly and which has come up with some innovative ideas to support that development with central services.

Meanwhile, council has to list water points on its website since Harare cannot deliver.

Harare is in a serious administrative mess. There is not only a block of councillors, including three ex-mayors, on suspension and in remand on corruption-related charges, but a lot of wards without a councillor in the first place after the internecine warfare in opposition politics.

So far as we can gather there is no formal head of administration, that is no town clerk or acting town clerk in office, and only one substantive department head is actually in office.

The rest are either on remand and so suspended, or are on the run. So Harare is being run by junior staff without much central direction.

Chitungwiza is not much better off and while it has an acting town clerk, she is resented by a majority of councillors after she took decisive action to cancel potentially corrupt land allocations. So there is not a happy unified working atmosphere there.

Part of the problem in urban councils is the contempt shown by the MDC-T and MDC-A towards its urban voters, the bulk of its supporters. The last two mayors of Harare who managed to serve full five-year terms complained bitterly about their party’s nominees in most wards, for the most part people who had no idea of how a city should be run and no useful skills or proper background.

And even when there was a potentially able MDC councillor, they had problems.

At least one councillor who tried to stop development of wetlands and gross breaches of town planning rules in his ward was shut out and overruled by colleagues who preferred, for whatever reasons of their own, to support highly dubious developers.

Voters were also at fault for electing people according to their party affiliation, rather than looking at the actual candidates and what they could do, or what track record they had.

If voters had been willing to set a minimum standard by refusing to support the useless, then presumably all parties, not just one, would  been looking for competent potential councillors.

We gather that most MDC councillors were ultra-loyal low-ranking party supporters nominated by party leaders without any input from other party supporters, or having to face a primary election, as a reward for their loyalty, so they had an income from the attendance allowances the ratepayers are expected to fund.

These allowances were designed to help serious councillors, business owners and professionals, cover at least part of the costs of phone bills and the fuel needed to do their job rather than provide an income.

This explains, perhaps, why rural district councillors tend to be a lot better on average. Most come from the ranks of Zanu PF, which does have a party organisation at the grass roots that can select people of some local substance to represent the voters. And rural voters set standards, and if you do not meet them then come the next primary someone else is chosen.

The smaller rural allowances and longer journeys needed to attend meetings mean those rural allowances might not even cover transport costs, let alone provide a profit to live on.

So rural councillors generally are people who have made a local mark and are now volunteering time and effort to help their neighbours, which is what all councillors are supposed to do in these part-time posts.

Government cannot just let towns and cities rot and decay.

It has shown willingness under the Second Republic to work fully with opposition-led councils, as perhaps the recent events in Victoria Falls city illustrate and with no unfairness shown in the distribution of devolution funds.

But when a council is failing to fulfil its mandate so spectacularly, then central Government has to step in and ensure that minimum services are operational and that town planning laws are obeyed.