Editorial Comment: Inquiry into Harare best chance to fix up mess President Mnangagwa swears in Retired High Court Judge, Justice Maphios Cheda (right) as the chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry into the affairs of the City of Harare while VP Mohadi (left)looks on at State House in Harare.

Harare City Council has been in a mess for some years, with service delivery getting worse each year.

Theories abound over what causes the mess and the near crisis, from a council that, for several elections in a row, appears to be largely made up of opposition party nominees with zero ability. 

Even the odd councillor who is vaguely competent has been removed in the internecine opposition politics.

Then there have been cases of corruption, or attempts at what looks like corruption. And finally we have an administration that is of variable quality, some good people who seem to have almost given up as they battle to hold the line, some who are basically useless and some who appear to be looking out for themselves and let the residents go hang.

President Mnangagwa now wants a detailed investigation of the city council and its administration and financial practices, so that at least everyone who lives in the city, and the council and its administration as well, knows what the actual problems are, quantified and in detail. 

From that factual basis it should be possible to work out a set of solutions that will work, rather than tagging together bits of crisis management.

The President invoked his powers under the Commission of Inquiry Act, a law that does mean a President can find out in factual detail just what is happening in any area he considers to be of public benefit to get a detailed report. The five commissioners for Harare are four local government experts, people who know what a local authority should be doing and how it should be run, chaired by a retired senior judge with a great deal of experience of dispassionately sifting evidence and coming to conclusions. 

The experts mean that nothing can be hidden, and bluffing and lame excuses cannot work. The judge in the chair means that everything will be kept on track.

This is a technocratic commission of inquiry, not a political one, and that is important. The President is not trying to score political points, but wants to find the detailed facts that can be used as the baseline to rebuild the city administration and finances.

He gave some specific directives, mainly concerning the financial administration that all evidence so far suggests is the core of the decline. Even mayors and councillors complain that money is the problem, although how they raise the income and spend the money is equally important and will be investigated. 

The reports of the Auditor-General make it clear that financial administration is weak, and that allows bad decisions and potential corruption, so that emphasis is justified.

But the President was not limiting the work of the commission. It can go down any path in the city administration that seems justified as it delves into the darkness. 

Harare City Council does not meet basic transparency standards, let alone efficiency benchmarks.

Taking just a couple of examples. For some years the city administration has been using a financial system designed for modest businesses, entities with perhaps a couple of hundred employees at most and a limited range of functions. 

It is not suitable, let alone ideal, for a very large and complex business, let alone the second largest entity in Zimbabwe after the central Government itself. The grossly overpriced costs of suggested replacements make no sense.

Then we have those special purpose vehicles, with City Parking being the most obvious. Yes, the private company set up by the council has reformed parking, fixed up the parkades and, with its very high charges, must be making a profit. But as a private company, although owned by the council, it is does not have to present its accounts to the public. No one really knows how it is run, how it is staffed, how all those US$1 an hour fees are spent, how large are the profits. 

After being sworn in, chairman Justice Maphios Cheda was very careful not to prejudge anything in his initial comments. And he made it very clear that the commission was there to find out the facts and what is going on, and has been going on since 2017, rather than trying to run the city. 

He wants to have that dispassionate factual detail laid out on the table for all to see.

Residents all know things are not right, with water in short supply, garbage intermittently collected, public transport unregulated, despite optimistic statements from council, recreation facilities in gross disrepair, continuous encroachment into wetlands and open space, and swathes of bad planning. 

But what we do not know are the precise facts and the reasons. Guesses, even informed ones, are simply not good enough.

We assume that after digging into the darkness and uncovering the true position, the commission will make some recommendations for further action. Some of what will be found will simply be serious inefficiency and very bad decisions. 

Some may be criminal, but a judge can distinguish between bad mistakes and a crime. Follow-up action will differ in the two cases.

We hope the council and the city administration at all levels will co-operate fully with the commission, not just in the letter of the law but in a desire to know themselves just what the position is, and will be open to the inquiry so that everything comes out. 

This is their best chance of doing the follow up to get things fixed properly so they can do their jobs and run a decent and very large capital city the way they know it should be run. 

But the fixing of the mess is the follow up. The main task now is to find the facts and detail the position.

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