Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Harare’s "Wring them Dry and (still) Make Them Pay ” (Wired) Water Privatization Plans


By Takura Zhangazha*

The Harare City Council (HCC) has announced via the media that it is at advanced stages of entering into a deal with an as yet unnamed  South African based company to refurbish the capital city’s water delivery system. The deal is estimated to be at a cost of close to US$3 billion.  HCC officials are on record as referring to the pending transaction (subject to Cabinet approval) as a prime example of public private partnership. 

In the same deal, it has been publicly indicated that residents are expected to have an added benefit of  internet broadband connectivity that the South African company would provide. This is regardless of the fact that we already have three mobile phone companies and multiple internet service providers sharing a stake in the fiber-optic cables that are being dug into the soils of Harare. 

But this somewhat inexplicable benefit in relation to water  is somewhat besides the point until one reconsiders previous announcements by one of the very well paid directors in the HCC that they intend to privatise water service provision in Harare through prepaid water meters.  So it will be a combination of internet/broadband technology linked to ensuring that water is privatized (which is the actual intent of HCC and central government.)

And this is not the first lauded loan/investment deal  around water reticulation that the council has indicated it has entered into.  There is the still unresolved matter  of the Chinese National Machinery and Equipment Import and Export Corporation loan guarantee that was also reported in the media as having been abused. Especially where it came to matters to do with procurement. 

So even if the latest   arrangement with the yet to be publicly named South African Company is at advanced stages of finalisation, the HCC seems to be keen on papering over the cracks of a very murky approach it has taken to public private partnerships. 

This is specifically in relation to the evident lack of context that the HCC is functioning in. It appears as though they are ‘open game’ to almost any proposal from whatever company has come their way. So long the proposal appears to make them appear as though they are ‘rationalising’ (also read as privatizing) local government social service delivery.  

Apparently including another one on public transport which was reported in another newspaper. All of which have come back as either done or almost done deals with the resident and ratepayer not having full cognizance of them. Or how these will literally make access to water the right of only those that can afford it. 

The lack of context is even more evident where and when those at the helm of the HCC are as arrogant as insisting that the extravagant salaries they pay senior employees are not only in order but never explain how they fit in the broader scheme of things.  (All of this while simultaneously sponsoring a Premier Soccer League football team  on the basis of  what former finance committee chairperson has referred to as irrational grounds.)

What therefore obtains at the HCC is an unfortunate if not deliberate intention to sweep scandals under the carpet under the guise of ‘work in progress’.  That the media chose to write stories of unnamed companies investing in the capital city without evident deals of the full import of the same on residents and ratepayers is also most unfortunate. 

For instance, who really carries the burden of the US$300 billion investment cost?  In any event, if it is an investment and not a debt, does the respective and unnamed South African Company start owning the city’s water?  And how many jobs is this project expected to create for Harare or any numbers as to the number if ancillary manufacturing industries to re-emerge?

Furthermore, if there is interaction between central and local government on broader economic policy how does this specific investment deal fit into the still controversial indigenization and economic empowerment policy?

What is probably continuing to obtain, as has been the case in the last decade, is the literal ‘selling’ of the capital city's resources for a song.  Without adequate policy research or democratically arrived at understanding of context.

Such  ‘sales’ of council property have come in the form of either properties in return for liquidity or in terms of outsourcing council mandates with the evident intention of privatizing  basic social services beyond the reach of a majority poor resident or ratepayer. 

In the case of the HCC’s proposal to Cabinet with regard to the unnamed South African company, we are witnessing more of the same. That is, a city council without policy context or even the specific ability to explain its intentions to its primary constituents.  Instead, the whole proposed project, broadband and all, is indicative more of a ‘model privatization’ project intended to establish city oligarchies without either the best public interest nor maximum public accountability.

I refer to it as a ‘model’ because, should cabinet approve this investment/indebtedness deal for Harare, it shall be taken to our remaining major cities and towns.  Almost, like the prepaid water meter, which is already symbolic of the classic  ‘haves and the have nots.’  All over a glass of safe to drink water.

*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity: takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com