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Eric Bloch Column

Unfounded rumours of Bulawayo’s death

OVER the last month, seven journalists have telephoned me with a request that I comment on the fact that Bulawayo is dying.

In each instance my initial response was an enquiry as to why the journalist bel

ieves that the City of Kings is nearing its demise. And, in almost every instance, the reply was: “Everyone knows that. After all, look at how many businesses are closing down”. In turn I would comment that “not everyone knows that, for I am certainly unaware of Bulawayo’s ill-health being so great that death is approaching”.

I then add that it must be acknowledged that all is not well in Bulawayo, for the city and the enterprises operating in it are as vulnerable to the impacts of Zimbabwe’s negative economic circumstances as is the capital city, Harare, and all other cities and towns in Zimbabwe. But I proceed to emphasise that the prognostications of doom are devoid of foundation, that the substance of Bulawayo remains intact, and that it and its commerce and industry, and its populace, will recover from those ills that have befallen it.

Most of the journalists receive my comments with some scepticism, for they feel they have no story to write, due to a perception that the only news that sells is bad news.

I have strived to counter the scepticism with a recounting of much of the clear evidence and facts that corroborate that Bulawayo is in a substantially sound state, albeit its people and their businesses are confronted with immense challenges due to the distressed state of Zimbabwe’s economy. I do not minimise those problems, and I identify many of them, for it is counterproductive not to recognise them and not to endeavour to contain the consequences.

But I also identify many of the positives that exist and which will provide the platform for future growth, once the national economic ills are addressed and reversed, and which provide a foundation to diminish the effects of the existing problems pending recovery.

Although I am a very committed Bulawayo resident, I do not allow that to blind me to that which is not well in the city, and I recognise that there is much room for change, but that does not detract me from recogising that which is good.

It was therefore very heartening that the annual review delivered last Friday by the executive mayor of Bualwayo (and almost ignored by the state controlled press) was extraordinary, well-balanced, transparent, concerned at certain issues, but nonetheless positive. At the outset he noted how the prevailing national economic circumstances have repercussed adversely upon the service delivery of the municipal authorities. He focused upon the continuing upward surge of costs as a result of inflation, with recognition that although the annualised rated of inflation has fallen markedly from 622,8% in January to 251,5% in September, nevertheless inflation is still at unsustainably high and crippling levels.

The executive mayor Japhet Ndabeni Ncube noted that it was not possible for revenues to keep pace with the soaring costs and, therefore, the city had, reluctantly but necessarily, to allow a lesser level of service delivery. However, he emphasised that this was not acceptable on a continuing basis, and that every possible effort was being made to restore as much service delivery as possible.

Ncube acknowledged that most departments of the Bulawayo local authority are suffering from having to rely upon greatly aged vehicles and equipment, with maintenance being constrained not only by inadequacy of funds, but also by the pronounced difficulties in accessing required foreign currency. Those departments were also suffering, he said, from the very considerable brain drain which has not only been experienced by the private sector, but also by the public sector.

Of the departments which accorded him particular concern were those responsible for sewerage and refuse removal, water delivery, fire and ambulance services, clinics and schools, amongst others. His concerns are very justified, for the city has always set such high standards of municipal service that any deterioration is worrying. It is no consolation to know that although service delivery has worsened, it is still markedly greater than virtually all other local authorities in the sub-continent in general, and in Zimbabwe in particular.

Although refuse collection is far more infrequent than previously, it is still undertaken sufficiently frequently as to avoid potential threats to health and as to ensure that the city generally continues to have a substantially immaculate appearance.And traffic lights still work, all streets are properly sign-posted, pot-holes in the roads are usually rapidly dealt with, and the city business district streets are cleaned daily.

Bulawayo is renowned for its susceptibility to water shortages, but in the year under review, the inflows into the city’s dams amounted to 27 months of normal consumption. Moreover, in contrast to Harare, any breakdown inwater delivery is an exception and is very rapidly rectified, and the water is properly treated and fit for human consumption.

Despite presently having a relatively plentiful water supply, the executive mayor justifiably bewailed the continuing failure of government to bring the Matabeleland Zambezi Water Project, encompassing the proposed Gwayi-Shangani Dam, into being. The project was hijacked from the city years ago, and there has been no substantive progress other than for repeated promises and press statements (and especially so ahead of each parliamentary and presidential election).

Particularly notable in the executive mayor’s annual review was the pronounced transparency, with no attempt to conceal any of the city’s problems or to attribute blame to others, save only to admit that the core causes of the problems were economic and losses of skills.

But it cannot be denied that many industries in Bulawayo are struggling to survive, although most of them are imbued with a resilience which motivates them to continue with the struggle. A large proportion of those that areembattled are industries whose viability is dependent upon export operations, and those operations have been brought to the point of near collapse by the impacts of inflation upon production and operating costs, without any compensatory move in exchange rates.

Bulawayo has a vast mining, tourism and agricultural hinterland which, once the fortunes of those economic sectors are restored, will draw heavily upon Bulawayo for inputs. It remains a key rail hub and road junction, which makes it well placed for export operations. It has a very considerable industrial infrastructure. It is pivotally located in the Trans-Limpopo Spaticial Development Initiative. And it has an able, competent and motivated local authority. All this augers well for Bulawayo, once the Zimbabwean economic ills are cured (which needs a government which places wellbeing of the populace ahead of politics and self-beneficiation).

So contentions that Bulawayo is dying are nothing but unfounded rumours.

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