Light at the end of the tunnel for Harare?

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THERE is a palpable sense of expectation in Harare following the conclusion of funding deals between the Harare City Council and various strategic partners for the refurbishment of the city’s roads, water facilities and other major infrastructure that is in various stages of decay.

Herbert Moyo

In one of the deals concluded last month, the local authority received US$75 million from India, half of which comes as a loan and the other half as a grant to replace water mains and minimise leaks which reportedly account for the loss of 60% of the city’s treated water.

When Peterkins Banda, who has lived in Harare’s dilapidated Mbare suburb for the past 60 years, was told about the impending infrastructural facelift the city would receive as a result of the funding deals, he could not hide his joy — his face became alive with excitement, his gums bared in a toothless grin.

It is the news of the city council’s US$400 million deal with a South African company NEO Capital for the rehabilitation of roads that lit up 77-year-old Banda’s face.

Banda is a Malawian immigrant who came to Zimbabwe in 1954 as a young boy in the company of his parents, who were seeking employment in the heart of the newly established Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

“In those days, Salisbury (colonial name for Harare) was still Salisbury,” Banda says. “The city was clean and the wide tarred roads were lined with purple, blossoming jacaranda trees. It was a magnificent spectacle which we took pride in even though we could only work but not live in the affluent suburbs due to the segregationist laws and low incomes.”

Indeed, Harare at one stage was the sunshine city as it had profited the most from infrastructural developments of the federal era which lasted 10 years from 1953 to 1963 to the extent that Malawians and Zambians labelled the city Bambazonke in protest at the grab-all attitude which deprived their own cities of similar developments.

But now Harare is in a sorry state; burst pipes allow water and effluent to flow freely on the streets. The roads have also become death-traps due to the gigantic potholes which were christened “King Solomon’s Mines” in the mid-1990s after the late Solomon Tawengwa, then Harare mayor.

Harare town clerk Tendai Mahachi has acknowledged the gravity of the water problems telling a council meeting that the city faced “challenges of frequent pump breakdowns and was incurring water losses of about 60%” attributable to the aged distribution network which at over 50 years old, is a throwback to the era of the federation.

But as reported by a public media daily, better days may be in the offing as the broader infrastructure development plans include the construction of mass light rail, bus and taxi transport systems, among other things.

However the developments, some with a big caveat as no concrete timelines have been given for the completion of the projects and in some cases negotiations are still underway for funds to kick-start them.

Work has already started to upgrade Harare’s water system which is being financed through a US$144 million China Import and Export Bank loan with Mahachi indicating that the designs for the project are complete and construction of a warehouse to store equipment is in progress.

“Engineers from council and China have already completed designs not only for Morton Jaffray, but also for Warren Control and Firle Sewer Works,” said Mahachi.

Worryingly though, he did not give a timeframe for the completion of the project.

Council spokesperson Leslie Gwindi alluded to the absence of a concrete timeline for the completion of the projects on Tuesday when he told the Zimbabwe Independent that “all of these developments will take time and negotiations are still in progress for some of them with potential sponsors”. He then asked for questions to be e-mailed to him.

Harare Residents Trust director Precious Shumba welcomed the news of the developments, but was quick to criticise the “opaque manner” in which council conducts its affairs including the negotiation of financing deals.

“There is lack of transparency in the contracting of foreigners, with particular focus on infrastructure loans secured to upgrade the water infrastructure and development,” Shumba said. “Residents are unaware of loan repayment conditions and the city management is reluctant to disclose these deals because they are the ones benefitting from them while very little actually goes into the project.”

Shumba added that in the end the loans are obtained at a high cost which will prejudice the residents who are the ratepayers.

Apart from financing concerns, the failure by council to patch potholes despite receiving a pothole patching machine from the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure Development is also casting doubts about its capacity and willingness to timeously complete projects.

Mahachi said roads are in dire need of attention, but due to the incessant rains, they can only patch potholes temporarily as the permanent work can only be done during the dry season, begging the question why work did not commence during the dry season.

The projects are being undertaken at a time when council workers are disgruntled about the local authority’s failure to pay their salaries and this could affect performance in implementing the projects.

The week began with refuse collection truck drivers and other supporting staff members briefly downing tools and threatening a full-blown strike if they are not paid their outstanding December salaries and annual bonuses.

Mahachi acknowledged, in a television interview, that “refuse drivers came in with their vehicles, hooted and indicated by sending a message to the powers that they need their salaries, but they have since gone back to work”. He did not say if the workers’ grievances had been addressed.

While new Harare mayor Bernard Manyenyeni can be commended for his visit to churches and other gathering points around Harare to interact with ordinary residents and exchange views on matters bedevilling the city, this charm offensive will not suffice without concrete action.

Harare residents are demanding an improvement in service delivery; they want running taps and not resort to unprotected wells that have mushroomed around the city; street lighting is virtually non-existent, and motorists have to drive in a zig zag manner to avoid expanding potholes.

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