Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Cities in Crisis

Residents of the country’s deteriorating urban centres blame government policies for the collapse of municipal services and infrastructure.
By John Gumbo
Once the heart and soul of the region, the Mbare suburb of Harare has gone into tragic decline, reflecting the general deterioration of many of the country’s cities and towns.

In the years between its establishment in the 1890s and Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, the residents of this black township settlement, west of the then capital Salisbury, boasted that it had evolved into the cultural centre of sub-Saharan Africa.

The nationalist movement was born in Mbare, with people like Dr Samuel Parirenyatwa - who together with Joshua Nkomo launched the first black political party - living there in the 1950s.

Mbare used to be called Harare, but after independence the capital’s new black leaders considered the name so important that it replaced Salisbury.

Now Mbare’s most of successful and illustrious sons and daughters of are too high and mighty or ashamed to live there any more, although they cannot resist visiting the suburb over the weekends to drink and throw braaivleis, or barbecues, at the good old places of their youth.

Under the rule of President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU PF party, Mbare is shadow of its former self. Its physical decay is painfully evident to anyone who cares to drive through.

The traffic lights that once regulated crossings are gone. The tar is all but eroded from the roads and pavements. Motorists negotiate their way around potholes filled with raw sewage from numerous burst pipes, while residents on foot skip nimbly from stone to stone to avoid being splashed by the filth.

The stench of urine and human waste wafts through the air and food vendors accost new arrivals with their unhygienic wares. Bus shelters have been totally stripped of any material that can help build a rudimentary shelter in a city of innumerable homeless people.

Mbare's homes - some of them three-storey flats known as matapi - are falling apart. The windowpanes have been broken and the walls have been defaced with mould and graffiti.

Washing facilities in the homes have long ceased to function and water taps are rusting. Mbare last had running water in December 2005. On roadsides and any open spaces near homes, heaps of garbage lie uncollected. Because of Zimbabwe's chronic shortages of foreign exchange, fuel and vehicle spares, refuse trucks have been grounded for months on end.

Cholera has struck for the first time in 26 years of independence. At least 30 people have died since the beginning of the year in Harare's working class suburbs. Three members of one Mbare family have died of cholera and for a while the township market was closed in an attempt to halt the spread of infection.

The Mbare situation mirrors the state of all Zimbabwe's cities and towns, which are slowly collapsing. It is a reflection of the country's

economy, which has been in steep decline for the past nine years, with inflation expected soon to top 1,000 per cent.

In Harare as a whole, virtually nothing functions, from the streetlights to the health delivery system. As the chaos in the cities, caused by central government's interference in municipal government, continues to unfold, the service delivery system gets worse by the day.

With most cities now under the control of the central government the situation is certain to deteriorate further, posing serious health threats to residents.

What worries people is the collapse of the sewage systems. Nelson Chabwinja, a resident in Mbare for the past 16 years, says he fears for his family's life, which he says is constantly at risk because of the burst pipes and sewage. "Many of us live in the high

density areas where raw sewage actually flows right on to your doorstep. I fear for my children's health," he said.

Harare City Council is battling to repair a sewage system that has become severely stretched because of population increases and more recently because of the collapse of maintenance services. The capital’s remaining engineers estimate that pipes are breaking at a rate of more than one hundred a day.

Salisbury/Harare was originally built to house a small population - 50,000 in 1950 and 615,000 at independence in 1980. The system now attempts to support more than three million inhabitants. People have run away from the dire poverty of the rural areas in the hope that the city will improve their lot.

Engineers say Harare's system has not only been severely stretched but is now too old to function efficiently. They say sewage and water pipes, supposed to be replaced every 25 years, have had their life spans pushed to 40 years because Harare City Council is broke - more than one trillion Zimbabwean dollars [10.5 million US dollars] in debt.

Like the whole Zimbabwe economy, Harare has also lost its creditworthiness and foreign bankers are refusing to lend money to the council. The World Bank, the African Development Bank, ADB, the European Union and other international development agencies, which used to help Harare with loans for infrastructure development, have withdrawn their support.

Harare's acting director of technical services, Michael Jaravaza, admitted to the government-owned Herald, Zimbabwe's only daily newspaper, that the city's sewage system, roads and other infrastructure have not been maintained or repaired for more than a decade. He said the city council is eight years behind in capital development and infrastructure maintenance.

Once described as Africa cleanest city, Harare sits on a health time bomb and the government does not seem to have a solution. The crisis has moved from the outer townships to the central business district where burst pipes have also become a common feature. Street and traffic lights in the city centre rarely function.

Faced with multiple crises, President Mugabe's ZANU PF government has moved swiftly to take over the administration of the collapsing cities, accusing their elected councils of failing to deliver. The main targets have been councils run by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC.

In the past three years, the government has fired three elected mayors, accusing them of either corruption or incompetence. Elected MDC Harare executive mayor Elias Mudzuri was hounded out of office, fleeing to America to study at Harvard University,

Mudzuri was replaced by a government-appointed commission, under which the situation has deteriorated further. City officials have been sacked and replaced by others whose only qualifications to run anything are loyalty to the ruling party.

Local Government Minister Ignatius Chombo has also fired the mayors of Chitungwiza and Mutare. The MDC mayor of Bulawayo is under siege from the government. It accuses him of issuing severe food shortages reports concerning the country's second city, which damage Zimbabwe's international reputation.

But residents and their organisations blame the government for the collapse of town and city infrastructures. "It's Chombo and the government who are destroying this city because of their policies," said Norman Kachere who lives in Mbare. "They have politicised the whole council business, but it is we the ratepayers who are suffering."

Mike Davis, chairman of the Combined Harare Residents' Association, CHRA, says government interference is at the core of Harare's crisis. "The problem here is governance. The commission appointed by government does not have the people's mandate. It is government that has destroyed the town by firing mayors," he said.

Davis' organisation has many pending court cases challenging the legality of the state-appointed commission governing Harare. CHRA's persistent calls for government to hold fresh democratic council and mayoral elections have been ignored by Mugabe.

"We have a disaster. Nothing functions here," said Davis. "The road, lights and sewage systems have broken down and the government is responsible.

"This government has always wanted to control the cities [the centres of support for the opposition]. They are failing because not only do they not have the people's mandate, but they also do not have the skilled and trained people to do the job."

John Gumbo is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.

More IWPR's Global Voices

FakeWatch Africa
Website to provide multimedia training and resources for fact-checking and investigations.
FakeWatch Africa
Africa's Fake News Epidemic and Covid-19: What Impact on Democracy?