Those who don’t like Chombo – an ex-lecturer who got fabulously rich after joining government – say the man is a thief. It’s probably just the envy of those in want.
HARARE has historically prided itself as Africa’s Sunshine City; its then gorgeous First Street Mall often referred to as ‘little London’. With infrastructure and service provision, without compare in the region outside South Africa, Zimbabwe’s capital was a functional and hopeful city; it was peaceful, safe and pretty, especially with its Jacarandas in full purple bloom.
But no longer. The sun yet shines, but likely in anger on an unsightly mess. Thousands of desperate vendors have massed into the city centre, selling all manner of bric-a-brac on high street shop fronts, creating unmitigated chaos. A colleague recently quipped that it’s only a matter of time before grinding mills line up along First Street, adding their grotesque roar to the dissonance of vendors’ megaphones touting underwear and all sorts.
Roads in the poorer suburbs are nearly impassable and residents in parts of the city endure months without treated water supplies. Refuse goes uncollected, resulting in outbreaks of diseases such as typhoid and cholera which some countries now only read about in history books.
Town planning and housing development have regressed to medieval methods whereby politically connected rogues suddenly pronounce themselves high-born toffs and declare lordships over vast tracts of land which they subdivide un-serviced and sell off as housing stands to desperate home-seekers.
But there is a mayor amid the mess. NewZimbabwe.com recently caught up with MDC-T’s Cllr Bernard Manyenyeni on his private visit to the United Kingdom. He is refreshingly frank, and perhaps perilously so for his political prospects. Not that he is overly bothered; he is not an handiendi (cling-on) sort of politician.
He has been described as elitist. But that’s unfair; he is just posh - and its neither affected, nor criminal. You get a sense of the reluctant politician about him; a man bemused to resignation by the pettiness and absurdity of Zimbabwean politics.
For instance, Manyenyeni remarks with incredulity how, after attending State pageantries - as he should as Harare mayor - he returns to a suspicious Harvest House (the MDC-T’s national headquarters) with activists staring daggers at him and wanting to know why he was smiling when talking to Zanu PF ministers.
He laments how his cabinet at Town House is woefully lacking in professional expertise. Some of the councillors are unschooled and have never had a job all their life. He does not understand how such individuals are expected to handle an annual budget of more than $400m. But he is realistic too, and understands the difficulty political parties face when selecting candidates for elections. These barely literate activists have been in the wars for their political parties for years, and feel entitled to the spoils.
But how to fix the country’s broken capital then? “Harare needs a dictator,” Manyenyeni said, straight faced.
He does not mean the sort of dictator some reckon disastrously presides over matters at a higher level of the State. This latter bit is the writer’s mischief; the clarification necessary lest the mayor gets a hazardous visit from chaps in dark glasses and cheap suits creased by repeated hand-washing.
What the mayor had in mind was a benevolent dictator; a caring tyrant, if the concept is possible. Such a despot, he added, would be able to browbeat Harare to order within six months.
Manyenyeni spent close to three decades as a senior executive in the private sector, before being deployed by his MDC-T party to lead the capital as mayor in 2013. He soon discovered that it was an “impossible job”, largely because of a political culture that loves to war with reason.
First, and in an unashamed election gimmick which President Robert Mugabe’s administration did not fund, then local government minister Ignatius Chombo ordered cancellation of debts owed to local authorities by residents.
Those who don’t like Chombo – an ex-lecturer who got fabulously rich after joining government – say the man is a thief. It’s probably just the envy of those in want. But it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the minister effectively stole hundreds of millions of dollars from local authorities to buy votes for his Zanu PF party.
And just before the debt amnesty, the minister had awarded Harare council workers a salary hike. Effectively then, Chombo imposed a pay hike and then denied council the means to pay the new wages by making sure the local authority could not collect the $300m it was owed by residents. The result? Several months of salary arrears. Genius!
“We had over $300m of receivables written off in a political move which has been widely condemned. It (debt amnesty) denied the city over two years’ worth of revenue and that is enough to cripple any institution.
“These two decisions have been very harmful to the operations of council.”
But obviation of any prospect of collecting even half the $300m was only part of Manyenyeni’s headache. Chombo, a former University of Zimbabwe lecturer, has a PhD in adult education. His debt amnesty schooled and incentivised Hararians against paying for council services. Why should they bother when the compassionate Zanu PF could always come up with another debt relief at the next election?
Lamented Manyenyeni; “We are now sitting on a situation where residents expect a repeat (of the debt relief) in 2018. Luckily, the current minister (Saviour Kasukuwere) has said it’s not going to happen.”
The interventionist Kasukuwere has also regularly complicated the administrative havoc at Town House. “He (the minister) might want the best for Harare but as Zanu PF’s national commissar, he cannot allow that to happen under an opposition mayor,” said Manyenyeni.
Back to council finances, Harare collects some $12 million in monthly revenues but its wage bill stands at $10 million, leaving precious little to finance the provision of services.
“Basically, we are in the business of paying salaries. We don’t have money for service delivery. So, the performance cannot come when there is no money,” said Manyenyeni, admitting that the situation means council pays refuse collectors who collect no garbage because there is no money for operations after dealing with the wage bill.
But the problem is not insoluble; it’s just that fixing it is politically inexpedient. The mayor said he proposed retrenching all the workers under the three months Constitutional Court ruling and re-hiring those willing to return on half their current wages which would still be above the national average.
Curiously, opposition to the proposal did not come from the obstructive Zanu PF minister; it came from Harvest House, the headquarters of the ‘party of excellence’. The worry among Manyenyeni’s political principals was that if council halved the wages of, say 3,000 workers and each had five adult dependents, the MDC-T was likely risking the wrath of 15,000 disaffected voters come election time.
Ok; but fixing council’s finances in order to improve service delivery could, in the long run, win the party the hearts of many among Harare’s million-plus residents. Right? Yes, the mayor concedes, but Zimbabwe’s politicians are apparently incapable of seeing beyond today.
Again, many among his cabinet colleagues at Town House were also opposed to the scheme. Why? Well, they have massed relatives onto the council staff establishment and these would be affected by the proposed retrenchment, Manyenyeni explained.
But if the council’s financial situation is that desperate, why is the local authority funding a soccer team in a city with four other top-flight football clubs? “I have been talking about the soccer team for more than 30 months but no one is listening. The average soccer team spends $250,000 but we are blowing $2m on Harare City Football Club,” he explains, adding “No one is listening; we are very conflicted.
“The people who should help with oversight are also in collusion. The soccer team attracts the patronage of councillors; it attracts the patronage of senior management officials and that’s a combination which denies us the space to cut our soccer budget.”
And the vending chaos? “I happen to be mayor of Harare at a time where certain circumstances are imposed upon us. We are in a failed country, a failed economy where companies are not operating and there are no jobs,” said Manyenyeni.
“People are vending for a living. So, from an ethical and moral perspective, we have an obligation to deal with them as humanely as possible. Where possible, we have tried to relocate them in order to decongest the city. We have not been able to remove them from the city centre; they will come back, they are looking for a living. The vending problem is a symptom of the country’s problems; we need to fix the bigger picture.”
But why are the so-called land barons allowed to roam free? Is that out of humanitarian consideration too? “The political hand is very much in play,” Manyenyeni reveals. “Almost every land baron has a political link, some political patronage and that makes development control very difficult.
“We have a situation where somebody becomes a planning authority, takes a piece of land and parcels it out with no infrastructure, no authority. We then find ourselves in a situation where our involvement requires that, as much as possible, let’s regularise the stain. Where we can, we formalise what’s legal.”
Can Harare ever regain its Sunshine City status? It can, the mayor says. “Harare can be fixed in six months.” But he has failed to do it in four years? “If we have a convergence of power and will, Harare can be fixed in six months. Half of our problems are man-made. The people who caused the problems have the power to fix them.”
Government must also revert to the system of executive mayors. “The city needs someone who has the authority to execute; someone who carries the residents’ wishes and expectations without the delays and bureaucracy associated with a non-executive mayor. We need a benevolent dictator; someone who will come and carry out the residents’ wishes without apology,” said Manyenyeni, whose position is ceremonial.
He insisted that he would not, however, be the caring tyrant Harare needs. Manyenyeni’s five-year term ends in 2018 and he will not be seeking to extend his stay at Town House.
“I have had my stint, I’m not seeking an elected position in 2018. This is a matter that I made known to my political masters when I came into office in 2013 and as late as last year and this year.
“I will be a free man to explore a return to the corporate world, or I could be assigned something by the party; but I’m not seeking an elected office.”