By Takura Zhangazha*
The Harare City Council (HCC) has recently decided to embark on a a 'name and shame' advertorial campaign of its debtors in the local press. This is an additional course of action to the already deployed and very unpopular private debt collectors called 'Wellcash Debt Collectors' (ironies never cease). In its rabid pursuit of those that owe it rates, HCC has chosen not to hide its new 'business oriented'/profit approach to local government. Never mind the fact that it is an elected council and yet not one of the Councillors can remotely claim to be be high up in any objective opinion poll, either at ward, district or city level.
But all of this did not begin with the current administration of the city (I will come back it later). It was in the topsy-turvy days of the mid 2000s when central government appointed commissions to run the city. And when all political parties displayed their great disdain and belittling of local government and those that would run for local level office.
This was after the first executive Mayor of Harare, Solomon Tawengwa (1996-1998) was kicked out because of allegations of corruption. The next elected executive mayor, in between a commission of inquiry and a hotly disputed 2002 local government and presidential election, was to be Elias Mudzuri, the opposition’s first for the capital city. Amid direct political interference from central government (as directed by then Local government minister Chombo) and divisions within the opposition council, he too was to be fired. Oddly enough he was replaced by his deputy Sekesai Makwavarara. She was to go further and survive the disbandment of the entire council and serve as chair of a central government appointed commission.
The harmonised election (again controversial) of 2008 ushered in a non-executive mayor in the form of respected businessman Muchadeyi Masunda. He surprisingly lasted his entire tenure and as generally expected steered the HCC to a more businesslike approach to its affairs. Though this did not dent the culture of corruption (controversial land deals, high salaries). And he didn’t help matters by calling his fellow councilors ignorant and uneducated.
After the 2013 harmonised elections the MDC-T gave the city Ben Manyenyeni as Harare’s new ceremonial mayor until present day. Taking a cue from his predecessor’s elitist and business like style, he too was quick to call councilors uneducated and pursue an elitist ‘entrepreneurial’ approach to city affairs. All under the aegis of a still ever interfering central government this time as orchestrated by now Local Government minister, Savious Kasukuwere.
I have specifically mentioned these mayors, a commissioner and local government ministers to indicate one specific thing about the state of affairs at HCC. This being that over the last 17 years the blame for the dysfunctional council which is falling more and more into the hands of what we now refer to as land barons is the direct result of a regrettable complicity between the ruling party (central government) and the mainstream opposition MDC-T (local government).
On its own this is a controversial point. But it is clear that despite the ups and downs of previous years concerning the nature of the relationship between central government and its local version, there has been a default/unwritten convergence around ‘milking’ the HCC’s public capital and wealth by converting it to private use.
And coincidentally it began with the HCC’s vainglorious and in part pretensive pursuit of public private partnerships while at the same time deliberately dis-investing in specific social services such as education, health and public transport.
In the process the city and its public property became open sesame for wannabe businesspeople connected to largely the ruling party and an influential few to the opposition to claim quid pro quo's. Th most infamous of these was to be Phillip Chiyangwa who reportedly in return for ‘helping council to pay salaries in mid 2000s got vast tracks of council land for personal ownership/use. Not to be outdone were a number of opposition MDC-T Councillors who also took council/public property and converted it to their own private use.
Since then HCC property has almost been for sale to the highest bidder or the most cunning gof councilors. Land and other council properties are perpetually under the gaze of ‘entrepreneurs’ or the World Bank exhausted/exhausting neo-liberal language of PPPs which only serves to be taken advantage of by greedy central and local government politicians. That is why against better judgement the HCC is still keen on privatising water.
And it is this haphazard background that informs the current leadership of the HCC, inclusive of its town clerk (s) and support staff, who according to media reports are very well remunerated.
Because it is failing to be more democratic, conscientious and transparent in its leadership approach the HCC would be hard pressed to be re-elected as is. Let alone happily welcomed in many of the ghettos it is targeting with its default austerity measures.
A development which may be attributed to its seeking vainglorious approval by ether central government or political party and private sector leaders. Hence sometimes the HCC has completely out of context calls for investments in ‘golf estates’.
Or when the HCC decides that it must pay debt collectors to pursue hard pressed residents in the poorest neighbourhoods of the city for council rates bills. A practice that makes it a city that lacks democratic legitimacy and chooses instead to act like a private company.
And this is the point that must be driven home to those that would seek to be the next city councilors for not only Harare but any other elective local government authority. City, town or rural district councils are not to be run like private corporations. They are public bodies tasked with democratically delivering social services to the people of Zimbabwe. The may borrow ideas from the corporate world but these they cannot turn into the reason for their own existence.
Nor must they function solely for monetary profit because the measure of their worth is never in how much money they squeeze out of hard pressed residents (who by the by have always been willing but in recent years unable to continually pay). Instead it is to serve the public interest as true examples of the meaning of democracy in the everyday lives of ordinary Zimbabweans. We must therefore work to prevent Harare becoming a city of oligarchs, land barons and pre-paid politicians.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)