Circus in Bulawayo chamber


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The Bulawayo City Council chamber was turned into a circus last week when two councillors refused to leave after being ordered to do so by the executive mayor, Japhet Ndabeni-Ncube, during a heated debate on whether the council should hire lawyers to recover billions it is owed by the government and residents or not.

Alderman Charles Mpofu and Clr Stars Mathe were ordered to leave after persistently interjecting and calling on the mayor to order Clr Phil Lamola to withdraw a statement in which he had said those who were opposed to the hiring of lawyers to recover the debts were cowards (“amagwala”) because they were reneging on their duty to manage the city.

Bulawayo was owed a staggering $572 billion at the end of December. The total income for the same period was only $734 billion.

The mayor said the council was facing serious cash-flow problems because of the mounting arrears. The government owed $186.3 billion while residents had a debt of $385.9 billion.

The two councillors had argued that the council should show some compassion on the residents because the overburdened consumers would be entrapped in debt and could even lose their houses if they were handed over to debt collectors.

Apparently, this was the second attempt by the two to change the council’s thinking because they had lost the battle during a meeting of the Finance and Development Committee on March 14.

The city treasurer Middleton Nyoni had briefed the committee that the council had been able to recover 61 percent of its debt from commercial and industrial debtors when it handed them over to lawyers. The recovery rate had since improved to 69.3 percent.

Because of their success rate, the city treasurer suggested that lawyers should also be asked to recover debt from residents, but added that vulnerable groups that were covered by the council’s safety nets would not be handed over.

Nyoni said this was a contentious issue because it had been brought before council several times before but it had always been referred back for one reason or another while the debt continued to escalate.

Governments departments owed the council $26 billion at the beginning of 2005 while residents had not paid $71.3 billion bringing the total to $97.3 billion.

The committee recommended, with Mathe and Mpofu disagreeing, that the debt collection be extended to domestic consumers except those covered by the council’s safety net. It also recommended that councillors should be furnished with printouts of debts in their wards so that they could persuade residents to pay.

There was also to be wide publicity with deadlines by which people should pay before they were handed over to lawyers.

Mathe and Mpofu continued with their argument during the full council meeting last Wednesday but they seemed to be fighting a lone battle. The other councillors argued that residents must pay to enable the council to continue functioning.

They argued that they could not allow the situation to continue as it was because residents were blaming the council for poor service when they were not paying their bills.

The executive mayor said the council had bent over backwards to accommodate its residents but they were now letting it down. He said residents had, at one time, even been given an incentive to write off 10 percent of the debt if they paid, but this had little success.

Clr Phinias Ndlovu said while he felt there was need to be compassionate with the residents his schedule showed that most of those who owed the council money were not the poor but people who could afford to pay.

But it was Lamola who provoked the two when he said though councillors had been elected by the people, they were elected to manage the city. Those who were not prepared to take the tough decision to recover the debt were cowards. This prompted Mpofu and Mathe to protest to the mayor to ask Lamola to withdraw his statement.

The mayor did not ask Lamola to withdraw and there was chaos. He asked the two to stop interjecting but they would not budge until he ordered them out. Mpofu eventually went out protesting that the mayor wanted to give jobs to his people but Mathe refused to budge. A security officer who was brought in to try to get her out also failed to persuade her to leave.

Mathe is the only woman among the 29 councillors. 

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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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