EDITORIAL COMMENT : New Lines intervention an urgent necessity

In theory, local government is very simple with the main functions of any local authority to ensure that residents of built-up areas have access to clean water, have their sewage and garbage disposed of safely, that epidemics do not occur and that the roads are at least usable.

A few extra functions ensure that buildings do not fall down, that shops and restaurants do not harm their customers, and that there is some basic town planning done with the consent of residents.

None of this is complicated, which is why 130 years ago Harare City Council started as the Salisbury Sanitary Board to ensure that the residents of the little village set up by the invading British South Africa Company remained healthy, that wells were protected, sewage collected, and horses, cows and carts kept to the basic street grid.

During the later 1890s, the board was upgraded to a municipality under Cape law, giving the  residents, or at least the white adult male residents, the right to choose councillors who would hire the proficient officials who would do the basic work and stop the new cemetery south of the Mukuvisi River from filling up with most of the residents of the little town.

Under municipal law residents of the larger towns had and still have a lot of self-government, with central governments happy to let the mundane, obvious requirements for healthy towns to be run by the people who live in them and who can enforce basic rules for themselves and their neighbours so we can all live together without giving each other deadly diseases.

It is this independence and local autonomy that makes it so difficult for the central Government even now to interfere in Harare City Council.

The temporary provision of appointing a commission when local government is close to breakdown is no longer an option.

A commissioner can only be appointed when almost an entire council has resigned, is under arrest, has dropped dead or is in jail, and even then the commissioner is just to keep things legal while the by-elections of replacements are organised.

But, since central Governments have the ultimate responsibility for at least the safety of all residents of the country, the Government can still step in during a serious emergency that threatens that safety.

The Second Republic has done this twice for Harare, first declaring the road network to be a State of Disaster, and so able to direct Zinara funds and other payments into fixing the roads, and now declaring the health disaster in one of the oldest parts of Mbare a State of Emergency, and directing devolution funds coming from central Government and Parliament to at least rendering the area safe for human habitation.

We agree that the disaster is partly inherited from colonial days, but a lot of other disasters were inherited from those times and have been fixed, or at least made safe.

We are, after all, in the 43rd year of our freedom and every year should be seeing improvements, not continuing and worsening disaster.

To give the colonial settlers their due, even the stupidest and most racist settler, and some were very bad in both respects, recognised that illness and disease could not be contained in the “native locations”.

New Lines of Mbare was, in fact, a totally inadequate, but not totally irrational attempt to move forward from what was then called Old Bricks.  Salisbury City Council tried to stop black workers bringing their families to town, and it was only when the Garfield Todd administration was in power that family housing came to Highfield, separate from what was possibly the most racist council in the colonial era thought was adequate.

The trouble was that New Lines was then just left, by the colonial administration and in recent decades by the MDC and CCC councils.

The councils charge residents of this substandard housing the equivalent of US$100 a month, and give nothing in return, not even maintaining what the colonialists put in place, let alone upgrading it.

With yet another outbreak of cholera now in progress, although the sterling efforts by the Ministry of Health and Child Care, backed by at least the professional core of the city health department, has so far ensured that it has not spun out of control.

But, however good public health officials are, the danger exists and New Lines remains a time bomb.

The condition of the municipal housing in that area would be condemned by the SPCA if it had been set aside for dogs, and yet the city council not only leaves humans in those conditions, but charges them significant sums each month to rot there.

A modest proportion of the rents over the last 20 years, spent on repairs and improvements, would hardly make New Lines a model settlement, but would at least make it safe for humans to live in, and provide the basis for continued upgrades and improvements in future.

There is no way that any landlord, let alone a public landlord, can even try to make a profit from New Lines.

It is a slum that needs to be first rendered safe and then converted over the next few years into at least sheltered housing for some of our poorest people while proper new housing is developed in line with the central Government programmes that have already made so much difference during the life of the Second Republic.

Devolution funds were budgeted and released to provide fund capital development, not running costs.

Almost all rural district councils have been using this extra money wisely, building classroom blocks, new clinics and buying the basic road-making equipment of graders and a lorry to provide the essential services to their residents.

No one knows what Harare City Council spends its funds on, yet as easily the largest local authority it must have one of the largest, if not the largest, slice.

New Lines is just the worst example of failure to provide the most basic infrastructure, yet there is much more.  The amount of water treated each day is half what was treated in the early 1990s, more than half the garbage trucks are not on the road, the sewer system is overloaded and frequently in disrepair.

While the central Government has an effective roads programme, the council should be doing a lot more. The old Salisbury Sanitary Board members would almost certainly be appalled.

We are moving to the stages where the central Government may need to extend the emergency declarations where the health of residents is in so much danger, and then be able to give the necessary orders to council officials, at least those not on suspension or trial for corruption, to start using the money it knows the council has, at least the devolution funds, to start fixing the multiple mess.

A new council in the next elections, at least with councillors who can run a major city, would be another major help.

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