Big Saturday Read: Urban Councils - A Case of Responsibility Without Power
Alex T. Magaisa
The way it used to be
Long term residents of Zimbabwe’s cities and towns who have experienced more glorious days lament the urban decline they have witnessed in more recent decades. There was indeed a time when things worked. Back then people took regular water supply for granted. Refuse collection on scheduled days of the week was the norm. It was so regular that they seemed natural, like it would never end.
There were regular public buses, which ran on a timetable. Passengers waited for buses at well-maintained bus shelters. Streets were well-lit at night and the roads were smooth and well-maintained. The capital, Harare earned the name Sunshine City, partly on account of its cleanliness. Bulawayo may have been number two by size, but for years, it enjoyed a reputation as probably the best run city in the country. Sadly, these two giants and other cities and towns have seen better days.
Most residents in urban areas are exasperated by the terrible decline in infrastructure and the provision of services. Some have not received municipal water supplies in their areas for more than a decade. For others, it comes once in a blue moon. For those who get supplies from time to time, it is usually dirty and unusable. Likewise, street corners are filled with rubbish because waste disposal services are intermittent. When it rains, roads turn into streams, because stormwater drains are clogged with waste. At night, darkness engulfs the cities because there is no street lighting.
In short, poor service delivery has become a chronic problem in Zimbabwe’s cities and towns. Major cities like Harare and Bulawayo have long struggled to meet the increasing demands of their ever-growing populations. Although Zimbabwe is still predominantly rural, the urban population has been growing far beyond the carrying capacity of most cities and towns which were designed for smaller numbers during the colonial period. Harare, the capital city, had 616,000 residents in 1980. In 2020, the population is estimated at 1,5 million, an increase of more than 100 percent since independence. Bulawayo had 386,000 residents and now, it has risen to 638,000 people.
These significant changes in numbers are not matched by the development of infrastructure and services in the cities. Instead, what was serving one person at independence must now cater for more than two., which is unsustainable.
However, it would be too simplistic to attribute the chronic challenges merely to a rise in population and the resulting pressure on existing infrastructure and services. These challenges reflect a severe failure of urban governance. While the populations have grown, urban areas have also become political battlegrounds between the major political parties since 2000. This manifests not only in the electoral contests between the major political parties but also in the contestations over the use of administrative powers between the central government and local authorities. This attrition has resulted in dysfunctionality in most urban areas.
But what are the drivers of this dysfunctionality? Why are urban councils so dysfunctional? This article examines the enablers of dysfunctionality in urban councils. The principal argument is that there is a significant imbalance of power between the central government and local authorities, which leads to a situation in which local authorities have responsibility without power, while the central government has power without responsibility.
This translates directly to the relationship between the major political parties, where the MDC Alliance which has electoral power in most of the urban areas lacks administrative power. Therefore, it carries the burden of political responsibility, but it has no power. On the other hand, while ZANU PF lacks electoral power in urban areas, it has significant administrative power through the central government. This means it has the advantage of enormous power but it does not bear the burden of political responsibility. This mismatch of power and responsibility between the parties has resulted in gridlock which is failing residents. The article will offer a view of what needs to be done to find a way out of this gridlock. The reforms required are both in the legal and non-legal spheres and also both in the formal and informal zones.
Source of Imbalance
The source of this imbalance of power and responsibility is in the law, namely the Urban Councils Act. This should not be the case, especially as it is 7 years since the Constitution was adopted in 2013. This Constitution introduced some important devolution mechanisms which, if implemented in both letter and spirit, would reduce the power imbalance between the central government and local authorities. However, the ruling party, ZANU PF, has demonstrated no appetite to reform the relevant legislation because it is a long-standing beneficiary of this imbalance of power and responsibility.
Zimbabwe has 92 local authorities of which 32 are urban and 60 are rural. This article focuses on urban local authorities. At the last election, 28 of the 32 urban local authorities were won by the MDC Alliance. This makes ZANU PF a predominantly rural party and while it commands an electoral majority, it is condemned to governing without the control of the capital city where the seat of government is located. Therefore, it has had to claw back some power in urban areas and this is achieved through the administrative control of urban areas which is exercised via central government.
The locus of administrative power in the governance of local authorities is the Ministry of Local Government and Public Works. It is through this portfolio that the central government exercises significant control of local authorities, although the ruling party would have lost the electoral contests to the opposition. The significant powers of the Minister of Local Government are conferred by statute, principally, the Urban Councils Act. These powers make the Minister an authoritarian overlord in relation to local authorities. This is why any efforts towards curing dysfunctionality in the governance of local authorities must begin with the dilution of powers given to the Minister of Local Government.
Ministerial Policy Directives
In terms of section 313 of the Urban Councils Act, the Minister has the power to give policy directions to a council if he or she believes that it is “in the national interest”. The only requirement is that the Minister must put the policy direction in writing. The council will have a chance to comment on the proposal and its implications, but otherwise, it has a mandatory duty to expeditiously comply with it. The implications of this ministerial power over councils are profound. Since policymaking is a key function of any governing authority, it means local authorities’ policy-making power is subordinated to the central government’s power through the Minister. In effect, although the MDC Alliance won 28 out of the 32 urban councils, it has no independent authority to make policies for those areas. ZANU PF, through Minister July Moyo has the final word and therefore ultimate control.
This is why in 2013, just before the Harmonised Elections, the then Minister of Local Government, Ignatius Chombo, was able to issue a policy directive writing off debts owed by residents to the council. It was a populist political directive designed to yield political dividends for ZANU PF in the elections but it was profoundly unsound as it deprived urban councils of assets from its books. The residents may have rejoiced at the debt relief, but it left the city in a poorer state. However, the fact is that the Minister had used powers that he had under the law. Even if the opposition or the local authority thought it was irrational use of power, no one was prepared to challenge the Minister because it would have been political suicide to fight the populist move.
Minister’s Power to Reverse Council Resolutions
In addition, section 314 of the Urban Councils Act gives power to the Minister to reverse, suspend or set aside any resolution, decision or action of a council if he or she believes it not in the interests of residents or the national interest. The council has a mandatory duty to comply with the Minister’s directive. This is a significant power, which essentially subjects all council decisions to the whims of the Minister. Therefore, to use a basic example, if a council decides to rename streets, and passes a resolution to that effect, the Minister can simply reverse or set aside the decision.
There is virtually nothing that the council can do without the Minister’s consent and authority. If the Minister does not like a council resolution, he has all the powers to reverse it. The net effect is that while citizens go to the polls to elect councillors to represent them, real power lies in the Minister, over whom residents have no control. In the current power matrix, the MDC Alliance has electoral authority over 28 urban councils, but ZANU PF, through the Minister, has administrative authority over those councils.
On one occasion, an urban council passed a resolution to use the services of debt collectors to pursue debts owed by residents. After all, for a council to fulfil its mandate it must collect rates from residents in terms of the law. In 2013, the Minister stopped the council from using debt collectors on the grounds that it was inhumane to do so. In two other cases, when MDC-run councils in Kwekwe and Chitungwiza resolved to fire some councillors because of corruption, the Minister stood in the way. The MDC complained that the Minister was protecting corrupt councillors. In short, the councils cannot do anything that the Minister does not like. If he does not like it, he has the legal powers to change or stop it.
Power to appoint senior management
The governance of local authorities can be divided between the elected and the unelected. The elected comprise the mayor and councillors while the unelected are the senior management and staff of the council. The unelected are appointed and have a contractual relationship with the council, often outlasting the councillors who are elected for a five year term. Therefore, while councillors come and go, staff of the council have continuity. The unelected have permanent wages and benefits which outshine the remuneration and allowances that councillors get. This already gives senior council staff economic leverage over councillors, which can be used to capture them especially if they are of impecunious circumstances.
However, the most important point of imbalance regarding senior management of council is that the power to hire and fire them is effectively held by the Minister, acting through the Local Government Board. Senior management include the Town Clerk, who is the chief executive officer of a council and directors of services and operations. In terms of section 123(1)(e), these senior staff are appointed or discharged with the approval of the Local Government Board. Under Part IX, council must recommend suitable candidates to the Local Government Board, which then makes the approval. Under section 116(2), all members of the Local Government Board are appointed by the Minister. If the Local Government Board refuses to approve the appointment, the council must submit a new recommendation. If council fails to do that, the Local Government Board will refer the matter to the Minister who, according to section 135(4), has the final decision. The net effect is that the appointment of senior management is in the hands of the Minister, not the council.
Perhaps the most high profile example of this imbalance of power between the Minister and the council is the saga over the attempt by Harare City Council to appoint James Mushore to the senior role of Town Clerk during the 2013-18 term. The appointment was effectively blocked by the Local Government Board and the Minister. ZANU PF simply did not want Mushore to take over the running of the city although the MDC-led council believed he was the best candidate. There is no gainsaying the fact that a council that cannot even appoint senior staff is weak and ineffective. How can local authorities be expected to be effective when they do not have the power to appoint the senior management which runs the city on a day to day basis?
The fact that these senior staff are appointed above the authority of the council also means they owe their allegiance to the Minister and the Local Government Board. They have little regard for the council and the councillors, which only increases the imbalance of power between the elected and the unelected. It is a subversion of the democratic process, that the people who are elected by the residents do not even have the power to appoint or fire the senior executives who manage the daily operations of the council.
Minister’s Power to Appoint Special Interests Councillors
Another example of a power that has historically been abused by the Minister to the detriment of the elected council was introduced in 2008 a few months before the harmonised elections. The Minister was given power to appoint “special interests councillors” who would serve at his or her pleasure. They were the Minister’s people in council. The special interests councillors would have all the powers and benefits of elected councillors except the right to vote.
The purported justification of these special interests councilors was that they would bring skills that were lacking in council or represent interest groups that were otherwise unrepresented in council. A critical examination however demonstrates that the intention was to give ZANU PF power to appoint its members to councils where it was under-represented because it would have lost in elections. After 2000, when the MDC arrived on the scene, ZANU PF began to lose to the opposition in urban areas. The special interests councillors appointed by a ZANU PF Minister was an attempt to regain lost ground and to dilute the opposition’s dominance in councils. But it was eminently undemocratic because it gave one person disproportinate power to affect the composition of council .
There was a lot of controversy over the appointment of these special interests councillors around the country because they were typically ZANU PF activists. In Bulawayo, the Minister tried to appoint Fidelis Fengu, ostensibly to represent the interests of people living with disabilities in January 2013. He was a ZANU PF activist. The Minister also appointed Siphiwe Ncube and Gatsha Mazithulela as special interests councillors to the same council. Notably, Mazithulela is now the Deputy Director-General of the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO). Another reason why these appointments were odd was that they were made just a few months before the 2013 elections were due to be held. They did not make administrative sense.
Minister’s Power over councils' financial affairs
The Minister also interferes with the financial affairs of local authorities. For example, the Minister has the ultimate say on the council budget. He can even stop and reverse the budget process, directing local authorities to toe the central government’s line. Last year, while touring a Zibagwe Rural District Council, which had already prepared its budget, the Minister criticised it and others for straying. “The problem we have now is that of town clerks and CEOs who want to experiment and think too much. You end up doing the wrong thing, simply follow laid down procedures of doing things and you won’t go wrong.” According to the Minister, the “thinking” is done at the central government level and local authorities have no business investing in that cerebral exercise. It shows a condescending attitude by the Minister towards local authorities and a view that directions must come from the centre.
The Minister can delay the approval process derailing the council operations. Last year, the President of the Urban Councils Association of Zimbabwe lamented the problems caused by delays in the budget approval process. “Most urban local authorities submitted their budgets last year and they are still to be approved. The budgets are now useless and even if we submit supplementary budgets they will also be eroded even before their approval,” explained Charles Chikozho, who is also the Mayor of Gweru.
In addition, according to section 290, local authorities cannot even borrow money for their projects without first applying to and getting approval from the Minister. If they want to invest any extra money in shares on the stock market, in bonds, debentures or other financial instruments, they must seek the Minister’s consent. If a local authority wants to appoint or fire auditors, it must seek approval from the Minister. In terms of section 304, the Minister has broad powers to demand reports, records of any proceedings, statistics, and any documents that he desires from the council. All this points to a Minister who has significant control and interference in the running of councils. The MDC Alliance might have electoral power in urban councils, but financial and administrative power is in the hands of ZANU PF, through the Minister of Local Government and Public Works and he makes use of this power to constantly remind councillors where power lies.
Regarding water, all the Constitution places a duty on the government to ensure citizens have clean water, the government habitually shifts the blame to the council for failing to provide this service. The Permanent Secretary for Information and Publicity, Nick Mangwana blatantly lied when he claimed Harare City Council owned lakes that supply water to the city. Mangwana does not know the laws relating to water, because the body that has rights over those water bodies is the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA). Mangwana also claimed that Harare City Council owed debts to Chemplex Corporation, which supplies chemicals for cleaning water. He omitted the fact that government departments and parastatals are some of the largest debtors owing the council unpaid bills. He did not include the fact that Chemplex is owned by the government and the Minister of Local Government is the one who directs councils to buy from Chemplex, even if there are cheaper alternatives.
City councils have to rely on a limited supply of forex, which is still largely controlled by the government. Over the years, councils had to join the queue of those seeking forex. If the central government wanted councils to look bad, especially towards elections, it simply starved them of the much-needed forex to buy the necessary chemicals. As it is, cities are so poor that they must rely on donations of de-commissioned Fire Service vehicles and equipment from other countries. Harare is struggling to bring 4 Fire Service vehicles from the United Kingdom. However, when the government wants new vehicles for Ministers and senior public officers, or when the local authorities want new vehicles for their senior management, the funds are readily available. It is because of tragic lack of leadership that Zimbabwe’s political elites all have fleets of imported high-cost vehicles, but the capital city has dysfunctional fire and ambulance services.
Like the central government, local authorities are weighed down by large and unsustainable wage bills. Harare City Council hit the headlines 5 years ago when it emerged that members of its senior management were earning astronomical wages in tens of thousands of dollars each month. This was part of a wider scandal of excessive wages across state-owned entities during the transition from the time when the Zimbabwe dollar became defunct to the era when the US dollar was adopted. Similar scandals were reported at PSMAS, the public sector health insurance scheme.
However, the wage bill has continued to be high in most cities. NewsHawks reports that in Bulawayo, council has spent 58% of total expenditure on wages from January to July 2020. Harare, the capital city has a similar problem. In all cases, the high wage bill stands in contrast to the poor service delivery in urban areas. Services such as the provision of clean water, waste disposal, and sanitation are in disarray. In the circumstances, it is impossible to justify the wage bill. It means the bulk of the revenue goes to pay wages instead of focusing on service delivery. Yet council’s ability to rationalise its labour force, including making decisions to retrench workers, is constrained by the Minister’s power to reverse its resolutions.
The abolition of the post of executive mayor in 2008 was another political strategy designed to dilute the authority of urban local authorities. Executive mayors had been introduced in 1995, at a time when ZANU PF had almost total control of local authorities. It was therefore comfortable to confer executive powers to mayors, who were ZANU PF members. However, the turn of the millennium brought winds of change in the form of the MDC which swept most seats in urban areas. This dominance was also reflected in local authorities.
With MDC Executive Mayors controlling local authorities, the game had changed and ZANU PF had a competing centre of power. Unwilling to work with the MDC local authorities, the ZANU PF government sought to control or annihilate them. Therefore, Harare City Council was suspended and its place a Commission was appointed to run the affairs of the city. By doing that, ZANU PF had effectively subverted the will of the people. This was reflected in other urban local authorities across the country. The legislative changes in 2008 killed off the executive mayor post, returning to the ceremonial mayors of the past.
Now, ceremonial mayors are scarecrows, metaphorically speaking. When a farmer places a scarecrow in his field, his purpose is to give an impression to birds and other intruders that they are being watched. The scarecrow stands there day and night, unmoving except to obey the direction of the wind, giving the impression that it is watching over and protecting the field. It is possible some predators might keep away on account of the presence of the scarecrow. But if daring predators test it, they will find that the scarecrow can neither punch nor shout at them. This may sound harsh, and it probably is, but the truth is that ceremonial mayors have no power.
The tragedy is that they wear large robs and gold-plated chains, partake in traditions and rituals, and carry titles, all of which suggest an appearance of power and authority when they have none. These rituals of power confer political responsibility which weighs heavily upon their shoulders, and yet their shoulders are not sufficiently equipped by the law to carry the weight. ZANU PF changed the law and abolished the executive mayor post and replaced it with the ceremonial mayor because it knew the latter would be harmless. But it would be enough to make people believe the opposition was in charge because it has a mayor when as we have observed here, it has no control. In many ways, the so-called opposition-run councils are supposed to be assets, but the reality is that in the current governance structure, they are probably a political liability.
Capture and Corruption
The vast power in the hands of the Minister, which includes the power to set up a tribunal to investigate the removal of a mayor or councillor, creates opportunities for the capture of councillors by the Minister. This is not helped by the fact that for a significant number of councillors, the role is a job, not merely a service to the city or town in which they live. Some may never have held a job all their lives while others may have no prospect of employment outside council. Without a single asset to their name, and the privileges that come with councillorship, such as access to urban land, the possibility of losing a seat becomes a dire circumstance to be avoided. Therefore, a councillor in that position is easy prey for a calculating Minister. Even senior management in councils can also use their vantage position to treat councillors who enter Town House as men and women of parlous circumstances. They are easy candidates for corruption. It is hardly surprising that corruption has plagued local authorities in recent decades and for that reason, political control of councils has been a liability for the MDC. Few can forget the antics of Sekesai Makwavarara, who turned rogue and became a nightmare for the MDC at Harare City Council in the early 2000s.
Victims of Political Contestation
In view of this examination, one inescapable conclusion is that urban local authorities are victims of political contestation between the two major political parties in the country. They are caught up in a war of attrition between ZANU PF, which controls central government and the MDC Alliance, which has political authority over local government. The electoral system produces two types of majorities, which confer power on two rivals: ZANU PF has parliamentary majority, while the MDC has a local authority majority in urban areas.
Of the two, ZANU PF has the advantage because it controls the fate of the governing legislation. It has the power to change the local government legislation or keep it in its current state. It has no incentive to make changes. The MDC Alliance does not have this power because it lacks a parliamentary majority. A good example of the use of this power is when ZANU PF abolished the post of Executive Mayor in 2008, just a couple of months before the general elections. The demise of the Executive Mayors was because that post no longer suited ZANU PF’s interests since the MDC was winning local authority elections.
A Systemic Issue
It is also important to note that the problem discussed in this article is systemic, which means focusing on personalities would not provide a solution. Therefore, it is not necessarily that Dr Chombo was a bad person that the Ministry of Local Government interfered so incessantly in the affairs of urban local authorities. After Chombo came Saviour Kasukuwere and after him, came July Moyo. Did anything change because there was a new Minister onboard? The answer is that there was no significant change. If anything, there were continuities characterised by chronic interference from the central government. The reason for the interference is because the law permits it and they have occupied a position designed to serve ZANU PF’s interests. The law gives too much power to the Minister. Therefore, you might appoint an angel to that post, and it might end up behaving like Chombo, Kasukuwere, and Moyo because the system allows such behaviour. The point is, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution.
Systemic reforms and Bi-partisanship
One way to significantly change the fortunes of urban local authorities is to have extensive reforms to the current architecture of local governance and, transforming the “centre-local” relationship. There must be a transfer of power from the central government to urban local authorities. There must also be a significant reduction of the draconian powers given to the Minister.
However, to change this requires something that is woefully lacking in Zimbabwe’s political environment. It is called bi-partisanship. Bi-partisanship may be defined as a norm or political tradition whereby political parties that are otherwise diametrically opposed are nevertheless able to find common ground on certain issues. This is particularly important in countries that effectively have a two-party political system in that two parties dominate the political space. If they don’t find common ground, there will be a grid-lock resulting in dysfunctionality.
The problem is that there is excessive polarisation in Zimbabwean politics. Politics is based on a zero-sum game where the winner takes all and the loser remains within nothing. There is no middle ground and such a situation reduces opportunities for cooperation and consensus. The result is that as the controlling authority of central government, ZANU PF is always working to usurp power from the MDC Alliance dominated urban local authorities and the MDC Alliance is always in defiant mode.
If ZANU PF is not usurping power, it is undermining the local authorities to discredit the MDC Alliance in the eyes of the electorate. For its part, the MDC refuses to recognise ZANU PF as the legitimate holder of power at central government. Caught between the two giants, it is the residents that pay the price as service delivery suffers. Unsurprisingly, Zimbabwe’s urban areas are slowly turning into large versions of rural service centres.
The blame game between ZANU PF and the MDC Alliance when it comes to local authorities does not help citizens. This article has highlighted the systemic nature of the problems that are slowing down development and service delivery in local authorities. Prospects of progress will remain slim if the parties engage in zero-sum game politics. There is a need for bi-partisanship as a starting point in transforming the governing structure in urban areas. Only this will help to change the governance of local authorities, ensuring the implementation of the true spirit of devolution as provided for in the national constitution.
Take water for example. The constitutional responsibility to harness and provide clean potable water lies with the central government. But councils have the duty to provide the services from the source to homes and industries. It, therefore, requires the combined efforts of several stakeholders to ultimately provide clean drinking water to residents. It’s not about competition between central and local government. We have normalised boreholes in urban areas and those who are supposed to provide water to the public are the ones who rely on private supplies. It's just like relying on a person who uses foreign hospitals to oversee a public healthcare system that he does not use. He simply lacks the incentives to develop and defend the public healthcare system. Likewise, unless those who oversee water supplies and other social goods use them, instead of relying on private sources, they will continue to dilly-dally instead of solving the chronic challenges that residents face on a daily basis. The residents will be best served by developing a new spirit of bi-partisanship in our politics.