By Takura Zhangazha*
The Harare City Council (HCC) recently issued an odd equivalent of an edict or decree. It announced, rather ominously, and like an arrogant overlord of our urban life, that it is shutting down house water supplies in at least eight residential areas of Harare. The reason it gave for doing so is that there are too many defaulters on paying not just for water but other charges such as refuse collection, sewerage and other amenities.
It turns out that the announcement is intended to have at least two effects. To scare residents/ratepayers at the prospect of having no water at all and therefore scramble to largely pay part of the amounts due. Even if they have queries or issues about the bills they have received. The second effect is to ensure that with the fear of further water supply disconnections, residents of Harare will increasingly opt for the pre-paid water meter option (which is already in pilot phase in some suburbs).
It is an interesting strategy that is being used here. It involves not only convoluted and abstract importation of ‘business models’ as to how to run a city and dismissing democratic values in favour of technocratic ones. The latter also includes statements from incumbent Mayor Manyenyeni that implied that he views elected councillors (who also elected him) as being too ignorant to run a city. How he remains in office after uttering such remarks in the first place remains an oddity. Such views are throwbacks to local councils that were run under the Rhodesian regime that continually refused majority poor residents of the then ‘African’ townships the franchise on the basis of ignorance, downright racism, assumptions of superiority by class and a lack of education.
This is the sort of attitude that informs decisions such as the one announced on water cuts by the HCC. It is an arrogance that wrongly appropriates for itself a specific superiority based not only on irrelevant educational qualifications and the ridiculous assumption that having studied a business degree or worked in some sort of managerial position in a private company is what it takes to run a city.
This strategy also involves the collusion of the HCC with central government and private capital. The local government ministry protects council from further scrutiny and public accountability only if it does its bidding. Especially with regard to the awarding of tenders and adhering to specific directives. Private capital then wades into this undemocratic and opaque relationship by angling for the tenders that it produces. And the big prize for private capital is that of the prepaid water meter supply and distribution tenders. There is also that of the electronic billing system for rates that will be linked not only to mobile banking but also the internet. It would therefore follow that private capital would not want to upset its convenient positioning in the apple-cart.
With all of this in mind, what the HCC, with the permission of central government and excited anticipation of private capital, has ordered is an assault on the right of Harareans to water.
From whichever angle one looks at it, the threat of the denial of access to water in lieu of lack of payments for other amenities is an assault on human dignity and livelihood. The actual act of disconnecting the water is an inhumane act that even if it occurs next door, it would make our own rainmakers weep and worry whether indeed their libations for rain will be heeded.
Someone might ask but what is the solution? It certainly is not denying residents access to water en-masse or even threatening to do so. It lies in discarding elitist notions of what it means to be a resident of any urban settlement, shaking off our colonial hangover understandings of what is best practice of urban local government and integrating a people-centred and democratic approach to policy making and administration of councils. It also means making the HCC abandon its neo-liberal privatisation projects that seek to turn what is public capital into private profit.
To do all of this, residents, either through their associations or other forms of community based organisations (churches included) with a special concern for the livelihood and well-being of not only their children but also their neighbours must question the HCC more than they are currnelty doing. This means having a greter understanding of the city that they want, one that must be inclusive, welfarist, people-centered and democratic without the evoking of notions of a ‘qualified franchise’.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)