It’s a tale of two cities. Not Charles Dickens’, but Bulawayo and Harare. They are so alike, yet they are so different. They are both under Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) councils, yet Harare’s elected mayor was booted out while Bulawayo’s hangs on.
Service delivery is deteriorating in both cities, but Harare is worse. Local Government Minister Ignatius Chombo meddles in their affairs more than he does in other local authorities, yet he appears to be harsher on Harare, where he has sacked at least 19 councillors, and the remainder are reported to be threatening to quit.
Harare, whose supply dams are full, is under water rationing yet Bulawayo, which has a decades-long water problem, does not have any.
Harare residents are threatening to stop paying their electricity bills and money they owe the council for rates and services because of poor service delivery while Bulawayo residents are being encouraged to pay up.
Harare residents blame Chombo for the deteriorating service delivery while Bulawayo residents blame the council.
Despite these differences, the two principal local authorities are in a quandary. Their service delivery is deteriorating rapidly.
Refuse collection is haphazard. The few tarred roads are full of potholes. There is no street lighting. Sewerage treatment works are collapsing. As a result, the councils are polluting rivers or streams, some of which feed into dams that supply the cities with drinking water.
Even the Zimbabwe National Water Authority, which polices the country’s rivers and dams, is at its wits’ end. It has red-carded the municipalities on so many occasions that continuing to fine them now looks like extortion because it knows their problem and the fact that they do not have a solution to the problem.
The recent government freeze on rate increases could worsen the problems as the cash-strapped local authorities will be hard-pressed to stretch their grossly inadequate budgets.
Combined Harare Residents Association chairman Mike Davies said services by the Harare City Council were facing imminent collapse.
“People in urban areas need clean, potable water. This is the cornerstone of any urban area because unlike people in rural areas who have access to uncontaminated water sources, those in urban areas do not,” he said.
“Health services are collapsing and they are now overloaded because of inadequate funding as well as an influx of internally displaced people either fleeing from violence and intimidation in rural areas or simply coming to the capital to seek survival.
“Schools are deteriorating because the government dumped them on local authorities without providing adequate support. Roads and street lights are declining.”
Davies said services were deteriorating not just because of the general economic climate but also because people were resorting more and more to council services because they were cheaper than those provided by the private sector.
He stressed that another major cause of the decline in services was the interference by the Ministry of Local Government in the affairs of the councils.
“The whole system of representation has broken down. Central government has destroyed the system of council representation. People can no longer go to their councillors and demand service because their elected representatives have been fired by the government,” Davies said.
“Nineteen out of 45 councillors have been fired. The other four have either defected to ZANU PF or are now independent. But though they have forfeited the mandate to represent the people, they are being kept in council. Even acting mayor Sekesai Makwavarara has been rejected by the people of Mabvuku.”
Davies said the situation was pathetic because political squabbles had cost Harare free water pumping equipment and refuse removal trucks that had been promised by its twin city, Munich of Germany.
Asked whether residents were not exacerbating the situation by not paying their rates and for services, Davies said this was a “chicken and egg situation”. He said that while it was true that the council could not deliver services if people did not pay, residents could not pay for services that they were not getting.
“We support the right of residents to withdraw their financial support if they are not getting services,” he said.
It is not clear how much Harare residents owe the city council.
On whether the freeze on rate increases imposed by Chombo would not worsen the situation, Davies said his association did not support the freeze, not because it felt the rate increases were justified, but because the freeze was political.
“He (Chombo) does not have the interests of the people of Harare at heart,” Davies said.
He said the only way forward was to resolve the national economic crisis.
“The difficulties people are now facing at local government level are a reflection of difficulties at national level,” he said. “So you have to resolve the national crisis first before tackling problems at the local level. These are problems of governance.”
Bulawayo United Residents Association (BURA) chairman Winos Dube was less confrontational. But he said service delivery in the country’s second largest city, once reputed to be the best in the country, was deteriorating.
“Certainly we cannot compare our situation with that in Harare but the Bulawayo of today and the Bulawayo we used to know are different,” he said.
“Refuse is not being collected on time. Just take a ride to Vundu Hostels in Makokoba and you will see heaps and heaps of rubbish that has not been collected. Roads are full of potholes. There is no street lighting, and therefore no security at night.”
Dube said every time the association appealed to the council to improve its services, it was told the municipality had no money.
“We are therefore appealing to residents to pay up. We want to see what will happen when the residents have paid up because once they have paid up, we expect the council to give us the best service available.”
Residents owed the council $18.6 billion up to the end of May.
Dube said his association had also approached the governor and resident Minister of Bulawayo, Cain Mathema, to help. Government departments owed the council a further $5.6 billion up to the end of May.
Dube dismissed allegations that BURA was giving the council a hard time because it was pro-ZANU PF.
“We are a pressure group. Calling us ZANU PF is malicious. We are the mouthpiece of the residents of Bulawayo.
“BURA has been in existence since 1964 and has been fighting ever since to ensure that ratepayers get the best service for their money. Even the previous ZANU PF council disliked us,” he said.
Dube said BURA was above party politics and would not be silenced by the accusations.
“We are the main stakeholders in governing this city, so we want council to be accountable to the residents. For example, we hear that Ingwebu Breweries (the council’s now privatised brewery) has made super profits. We want to know where these profits are being ploughed because in the past profits from beer were used for most of the major improvements in the city.
“We cannot be against the council because we want the best service from the same council. And we avoid confrontational approaches. We want dialogue,” Dube said.
While the debate rages on, services will continue to decline. Perhaps the only person who will be happy is central bank governor Gideon Gono because the freeze on increases in rates and service charges helps curb inflation, which he has declared the country’s enemy number one.
Rents and rates are weighted at 15.8 percent of the consumer price index, used to calculate inflation, making them the single largest determinant of inflation.
Though food is weighted at 33.6 percent, it comprises nine items. Bread and cereals contribute the highest figure of 12 percent, followed by meat at 6.6 percent, and fruits and vegetables at six percent.