ON Monday, Harare councillors elected seasoned Glen Norah (Ward 27) councillor Herbert Gomba as the capital city’s mayor. Gomba presides over a crisis-ridden metropolis which is struggling to deliver essential services to its estimated three million residents, including those in satellite towns. The city is also facing many challenges, including failure to collect meaningful revenue and is now owed over US$700 million by ratepayers. Zimbabwe Independent reporter Andrew Kunambura (AK) met Gomba (HG) to discuss his plans for the city. Below are excerpts of the interview:
AK: You have served in the Harare City Council as a councillor since 2008. How does it feel to be its mayor after all those years?
HG: I feel greatly honoured and I also have at the back of my mind the feeling that I do not want to disappoint the people of Harare.
AK: There is a lot of excitement in the high-density areas of the city, where people are saying we finally have a mayor who is one of our own, one who will better understand the issues they are facing and some have even nicknamed you the ghetto mayor. What does that mean to you?
HG: Yes, I am from the high-density areas, which means that I am a common man. But I am expected to work for the entirety of the city. It’s not about where you are from; it’s about your drive to serve. I thank them, however, for their appreciation. Life is dynamic, it is God in the end that gives people statuses and creates opportunities in their lives. So it’s a question of working together for our collective benefit as a city.
AK: Harare has faced many challenges related to service delivery. What strategy do you have as you begin your five-year term?
HG: We just need to come with a transformational strategy as council. We need a plan that mitigates some of the problems which are at various levels. The first which we need to attend to urgently is the road system. Continuous improvements of the water system are also required. We have just come up with a resolution that banned a certain water treatment chemical which caused a greyish colour in our potable water, which was aluminium chloride. We need to make sure that we use chemicals that are in line with the expectations of residents of the city.
AK: Related to that is the issue of revenue which council has struggled for years to collect and is now owed close to a billion dollars by ratepayers. How do you hope to address that?
HG: There is revenue from the traditional sources and there is new revenue that we are expecting from creation of new entities to create wealth. There is no reason why council sewer cannot be turned into organic fertiliser, especially now that we are disposing sewer into water sources. We should be looking at capacities around and be able to generate wealth from those low hanging fruits. We are also looking at waste-to-energy; I have already directed the relevant department to pursue this matter to the fullest end. We are also looking at charging the telecommunications companies on their cables and properties which have been sitting on council properties without paying anything for years. There is good revenue to come from that. They have got to pay.
AK: There is also this controversial issue, whereby council has previously hired debt collectors to recover debts owed by residents. Are we going to see council continuing to use these extrajudicial measures?
HG: Our thrust is to condition the ratepayer so that she or he understands that what is due to council should be paid. We are not here to do anything extraordinary to force people to pay, but we will talk to them starting with the residents’ associations. My role is to interact with big businesses and I will soon have a meeting with some of them to ensure that they pay what is due to council.
AK: Let’s talk about the issue of vendors. There have been several unsuccessful attempts to move them out of the city centre. How are you going to deal with them?
HG: If you remove them violently, they are bound to come back because they have nowhere else to go. As council, we should create space for them, construct proper structures where they would be selling and then talk to them and make sure that the market is there. We will thus have to make those points available to transport operators to transport people to those areas so that the market is there. At the same time, we also call upon the central government to make sure that it deals with the economic problems we are facing. That is the only thing which is driving people to the streets. We are only facing results of an economic implosion. At a time we are trying to sort the city, the economy is going down and people are being thrown out of jobs. The long-term solution is to create an economy that gives people employment. The short term is to create more spaces for them to go and sell there.
AK: Closely linked to that is the issue of rogue commuter omnibuses and pirate taxis commonly known as mushikashikas which are a menace in the city. It’s one aspect crying out for attention and residents would be keen to know what plans you have to address that.
HG: We have a memorandum of understanding with a certain bus company that we are going to engage to ensure that we reintroduce the urban bus system. That is easier because they respect the council by-laws and would use designated pick-up points.
AK: But while you are making those long-term plans, these people are literally wreaking havoc in the city, what short-term measures do you have?
HG: We are going to engage the Zimbabwe Republic Police. We don’t have arresting powers as council. We have where we start and where we end and what the government should be doing is not what we can do. In a small way we are also going to make use of our municipal police to make sure we rein in on them but, surely, all we need to understand is that the central government is reposed with powers to deal with them decisively.
AK: There are also reports of corruption within the council secretariat. What should we expect from council in that respect?
HG: Surely as council, we are not expected to mark our own exams, we are looking at bringing people from outside to analyse our systems. We will hire other people to look at our systems so that they see where we need to close gaps.
AK: And what plans do you have for the failing council businesses?
HG: The previous council dissolved the Harare Sunshine Holdings board. Companies which used to form Harare Sunshine Holdings are now under the direct control of the town clerk and, from my understanding, the town clerk has already started working on how they can be viable. We however intend to create new businesses. I am thinking of creating an organic fertiliser company.
We should be selling our sewer somewhere. I am also looking at the sewer-to-energy company. What we need to do is to put up some frameworks. Council committees are going to be delegated to attend to those frameworks. So far, City Parking is the only company which is viable and growing. The others are dying and we are going to dispose of them.
AK: There are also well-documented fights between the Harare mayor and the minister of local government and, given the outcome of the July 30 election, the minister will come from Zanu PF and we don’t see that turf war stopping anytime soon, judging by recent history. Do you think you are going to handle the issue differently from other mayors who have taken those ministers head-on?
HG: I don’t see any reason why I should fight the minister and I also see no reason why the minister should fight me. What is required is to simply complement each other’s effort. The minister should make it possible for us to work
AK: But that has been the real problem. ministers have shown no willingness to respect the autonomy of council. How will you handle that?
HG: It’s a matter of us reaching out to the minister to say “let’s work together; hopefully”. Whoever the minister shall be, he or she should be able to shake our hands and come on board.
AK: You have chaired the council committee on environment before and one of the most critical issues you faced was refuse collection. Now that you are the mayor, what is your waste management strategy?
HG: This crisis was induced by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. Council organised to buy refuse collection trucks, but the central bank has not released the required foreign currency to enable us to bring the trucks. Right now, 15 of the trucks are stuck in South Africa, as well as three graders and three tipper trucks. Some road construction equipment is also stuck in South Africa.
AK: So all in all, how many trucks do you have?
HG: There will be 30 new trucks if those from South Africa arrive. We already have 45 old ones which are frequently breaking down and are in need of replacement. We need at least 70 trucks functioning fully in order to be able to manage refuse collection in Harare. On top of that, we need to incorporate other areas like Harare South and Caledonia which have not received such a service.
AK: What are you going to do about the issue of land barons?
HG: We are going to engage the communities and educate them against falling victim to these criminals. We also need to engage the police so that the land barons can be arrested. We will also engage political parties to ensure that they discourage their supporters from invading council land. More importantly, we are also approaching the courts so that they will be dealt with in accordance with the law.
AK: There has also been an outcry regarding council sponsoring the Harare City Football Club at the expense of service delivery which saw the former mayor heavily criticising the idea and even stepping down as the club’s chairperson. Are you also going to abandon it?
HG: If you look at some of the mandates of council, they require that we promote social services and that is why we have football stadiums and sports clubs. We need to fulfil our mandate on that front and football is part of the social services we should provide. What needs to be done is to look at the cost, not necessarily to attack it on the basis of it not being a priority area. We can’t do it at the expense of other services. I will ask the responsible committee to look at what has been happening and review the cost so that we don’t prejudice other areas. We will also engage other stakeholders to find out if it’s still necessary to keep the team but, otherwise, the team must look for its own sponsorship to complement what it gets from council.
AK: Lastly, what word do you have for the residents of the city?
HG: Let’s work together. We have been blaming each other unnecessarily; council saying you are not paying, residents saying we are not receiving any services. Residents are the owners of the city so we need to sit down with them and discuss. The moment we start pointing fingers at each other, we miss the point. So we are saying this is a new era, let’s work together and complement our efforts. If I am expected to deliver water as council, we must be able to do that and they must be able to pay.