You can’t develop on Stone Age infrastructure

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Candid Comment Brezh Malaba

FOR a first-time visitor, one of the easiest ways of figuring out the true character of the city or country you are venturing into is to listen attentively to the advice dispensed by locals the moment you arrive.

As soon as you touch down in Johannesburg, you are told — quite bluntly — that violent death is always a heartbeat away. In the perilous cities of Latin America, you are warned to keep away from the well-known hotspots for drug traffickers and organised criminals who shoot people for fun. In Nigeria, you are told to be vigilant when you arrive at the
immigration desk where officers are in the habit of demanding bribes.

In Zimbabwe’s case, first-time visitors are advised to avoid drinking Harare’s notoriously toxic tap water and to look out for treacherous potholes on the country’s dilapidated
road network.

The decay of Zimbabwe’s infrastructure is the stuff of legend. Roads have become death traps, the railway network is obsolete, water pipes are old and rotten, electricity
generation is outdated, public buildings are falling apart, factories are relying on 1950s machinery, hospitals and schools are in a state of disrepair, dam walls and bridges are
disintegrating. Taxpayers’ money is lost to corruption while most public infrastructure is crumbling.

Last week, I watched a video clip showing appalling segments of the Beitbridge-Harare highway full of craters — you cannot describe them as potholes — which is yet another
reminder that this country now lags behind its regional peers when it comes to infrastructure development. How on earth has the government allowed a major international highway
to deteriorate to that dangerous extent?

Nobody should be surprised that our neighbours are now using their imagination to sidestep the mess we created. One solution devised by countries in the neighbourhood is the new
Kazungula Bridge. The US$260 million bridge will enable north-bound and south-bound traffic in southern and Central Africa to avoid Zimbabwe’s bad roads — quite literally — even
though the new route is markedly longer.

You do not have to be Einstein to realise that this could spell doom for Beitbridge, currently the busiest border post in the entire region. The town is generating millions of
dollars for the fiscus, but the money is not being ploughed back. It is an indictment on Zimbabwe’s incompetent leaders that Beitbridge, a vital cog in the economic machine, is
nothing more than a glorified rural outpost, almost four decades after Independence.

This week, the authorities added insult to injury by unilaterally decreeing that the fuel sold in Beitbridge and Victoria Falls is now the most expensive in Zimbabwe.

Victoria Falls itself has come to symbolise the breath-taking incompetence, mismanagement and tragic leadership of Zimbabwe’s ruling elite. The government siphons the tourist
dollars but makes no significant effort to re-invest in public infrastructure. In the forgotten townships of Victoria Falls, people are living in untold squalor and the leaders
will not talk about the ugly underbelly of a world-famous tourist resort.

Infrastructure development must be taken seriously.

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