It is difficult to understand why Harare’s roads, and for that matter other local authority roads, are generally in such bad condition. When the Harare City Council was responsible for maintenance, upgrading and building of city roads it managed reasonably well, using the vehicle licence fees it collected. This was despite the problem that a significant number of vehicle owners cheated by falsely claiming they kept their vehicles in surrounding rural district councils where fees were lower.
The introduction of the Zimbabwe National Roads Authority, and the standardisation and centralisation of all fee collections, should have improved finances. Cheating would no longer be possible, so more money should have been available for actual work on the roads. The tolls on national highways would replace the Government grants for these roads and licence fees would handle the rest of the road system.
It has not worked out as well as predicted, possibly because too high a percentage of collected fees and tolls have gone on administration rather than road works.
The dramatic increase in the number of vehicles on the roads, which will increase road wear and road damage, should have been automatically balanced by the extra licence fees the owners of these vehicles needed to pay.
There have been problems over how to spend the money, with some reluctant to spend money on wages rather than equipment, after listening to theoretical economists who know little of road maintenance pontificating that only a small fraction of expenditure should be on wages and the bulk going on “services”.
Yet in road maintenance the “services” are very labour intensive. Patching potholes, restoring verges, cutting grass and cleaning drains are the main maintenance services, and these need people using simple and cheap equipment, often just a shovel or a slasher, and very cheap materials. The biggest single cost in “services” is the wage bill.
This seems to have finally been seen by both the city council and Zinara. Both have now agreed to increase the contract workforce on city roads to 1 000 people, up from 450, so that maintenance can be accelerated.
This is long overdue.
Even the short and skimpy rainy season now drifting to an end has seen maintenance falling behind even further and damage on many roads getting worse. A workforce of 1 000 seems none too large to get the easy and essential work done. It costs a lot less to maintain a road properly rather than wait until it is totally broken up and then having to rebuild it.
We think that this new look at maintenance could be adopted in all local authority areas, and could even be tied with drought relief, as was done at times in the past.
Spending money on basic infrastructure, and a respectable road network is about as basic as it gets, pays large dividends and most countries have found that every dollar spent on road repairs and maintenance can be leveraged into several dollars of economic growth: more jobs, lower transport costs and truck owners double the life of suspension components and tyres, and more businesses able to get goods to markets all help the economy.
Zimbabwe has developed a reasonable road network. We now just need to learn how to keep it functioning and prevent large chunks being destroyed or returning to the bush.