Local Government Services Crumble Amid Economic Woes

Residents have rebelled by refusing to pay their bills. But officials say they can’t provide basic utilities until people pay up.

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Local Government Services Crumble Amid Economic Woes

Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe

Madhumbu Utete, a resident of Glen View 3, a suburb southwest of Harare, picks up plastic from a makeshift dump site.

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HARARE, ZIMBABWE — The stench of sewage assaults those who pass through this neighborhood in Glen View 3, a suburb just southwest of Harare, the capital.

For more than two weeks, a burst sewage pipe has gone unattended. Around a sewage tank in front of Leah Chasi’s house, maggots breed in the sludge.

“We are living in distress because of these sewer bursts,” Chasi says. “I have to put sand around the area to cover the sludge and to ensure that it does not flow into my yard.”

Garbage also goes uncollected for months, forcing Chasi and her neighbors to burn trash to clear their yards. Chasi and her community are among the Harare residents who don’t pay their utility bills because they say the local government fails to provide basic services such as water, sewage and garbage collection. But local authorities say they can’t supply these services because residents don’t pay their bills.

The bitter impasse has spotlighted the growing frustration of Harare’s residents as well as the capital government’s increasing dysfunction in the midst of both a yearslong economic crisis and a pandemic.

The problem of service delivery plagues many cities in Zimbabwe, says Percy Toriro, a town planning consultant. “There has been a gradual and sustained service delivery collapse in many urban areas,” he says. “What you see in Harare is reflective of what is in Mutare, Gweru, Gwanda, or Hwange at different scales.”

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Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe

Glen View 3 resident Leah Chasi holds up a bill that shows how much she owes the city for utility services.

A 2020 peer-reviewed research article published by the journal Strategic Review for Southern Africa found: “The failure of service delivery in urban areas in Zimbabwe can be seen from infrequent water provision, burst water and sewer pipes, fecal contamination of major water sources, deterioration in road networks, the non-functioning of traffic lights, non-collection of refuse, uncompleted capital projects…”

As a result, Zimbabweans find themselves more vulnerable to potentially fatal illnesses such as cholera and typhoid.

A 2019 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that Harare’s typhoid outbreaks resulted largely from poor water supply and burst sewer pipes.

Zimbabwe has experienced economic challenges for more than a decade due to political upheaval, and the coronavirus pandemic has further ravaged the country.

Many people earn below the poverty line, according to a national survey by the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee, a group comprised of government officials, nongovernmental organizations, United Nations representatives and others.

The average urban household earned about 15,805 Zimbabwean dollars (ZWL) ($193) a month in December, according to the committee. The International Monetary Fund estimates the economy shrank by 7.4% in 2020.

“There has been a gradual and sustained service delivery collapse in many urban areas."Town planning consultant

Rosemary Mavhura says she hasn’t paid her utility bills for the past year. Before the pandemic, the informal trader earned $30 a week. Now she makes $7 per week.

“My business has been heavily affected, such that the little I get from my hustles, I channel it toward food and I will know that my children are fed for the day,” says the single mother of three. “So to be able to find extra money to pay rates to the city council is impossible.”

Mavhura says she has dug a pit in her backyard, where she puts much of her waste. She puts only plastic and paper in her trash bin.

Chasi, who runs an informal grocery store out of her home, also is in arrears. Her utility bills run to 5,000 ZWL (about $60) a month, but she can afford to pay only 800 ZWL (nearly $10).

Michael Chideme, a spokesman for the Harare City Council, says the failure to pay bills derails service delivery. Together, Harare residents, businesses and government owe close to 5.5 billion ZWL ($65.5 million).

“There is no money to pay salaries, [and] city employees are part of the service delivery budget,” he says. “Once the money is paid, we can use it to repair vehicles, pay employees, buy protective clothing, materials for road repairs and fuel for garbage collection.”

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Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe

Rosemary Mavhura shows a backyard pit she dug to put waste that decomposes.

Zimbabwe’s economic woes have deepened the service delivery crisis. Chideme notes, for example, that Harare bought garbage collection vehicles from local suppliers who then couldn’t deliver because they didn’t have enough foreign currency to import the trucks.

Another problem is that bills can arrive up to three months late, says Reuben Akili, programs manager for Combined Harare Residents Association, a local nongovernmental organization that advocates for residents’ rights.

Chideme says the city did have a backlog of bills — a problem worsened by the pandemic — but the local government now sends out electronic bills and has conquered the backlog.

In the wake of the service-delivery crisis, residents such as Madhumbu Utete fill the void. Utete cleans up the shopping center in Glen View 3 for no pay.

“I try all I can to keep my area clean by sweeping and picking up litter,” he says. “I use my own brooms.”

But he can do only so much. The area just behind the shopping center has mushroomed into a dumping site, brimming with cans, bottles, diapers, plastics, paper, boxes and rotten vegetables.

“People continue to pile up garbage here even when the bin is full, and the local authorities do not come often to empty the bin,” Utete says.

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Toriro, the town planner, suggests that the impasse over services speaks to the breakdown of the social contract between local governments and the people.

“We need a comprehensive local government reform in which councils revisit basic tenets of accountability and service delivery,” he says. “On the other hand, residents must realize the importance of responsibility and their obligations in the equation. Without resources, there will be neither services nor improvement.”

Gamuchirai Masiyiwa is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Harare, Zimbabwe. She is an internationally acclaimed economy and education reporter.

Translation Note

Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.