The death of infrastructure in Zimbabwe

The death of infrastructure in Zimbabwe

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We know from studying Greco-Roman history that civilisations do die, especially if the momentum of human enlightenment is not maintained. Civilisations are also killed by wars, diseases and the abuse of political power.

Actually, the world’s most exciting archeological discoveries in the Middle East, North African and Mediterranean regions are based on civilisations that died.

I am writing this rather cryptic introduction because in Zimbabwe, we are under the rule of a Zanu PF dynasty whose ignorance and arrogance is nurtured by past ‘liberation’ history.

But just like the aqueducts and cobble stone roads of Greco-Roma, Assyrian, Egyptian and Babylonian civilisations, Zimbabwe’s ‘infrastructure achievements’, if not sustained and improved on are bound to be edifices of archeological memory in our lifetime.

The economy is like a living organism that will only grow and flourish under the right conditions. Good and solid infrastructure is one of those conditions which function as an enabler of economic development to enhance the living conditions of citizens. In the Zimbabwean context, we are talking of roads, bridges, tunnels, water supply, sewers, electrical grids, telecommunications, hospitals, schools, and colleges.

In principle, Zimbabweans are now poorer than we were in Rhodesia – though more independent, but not free – partly because of bad national infrastructure. I do not make this comparison lightly but seriously and carefully.

One of the most important functions of a state is to ensure the development and maintenance of a modern, efficient national infrastructural base to meet the country’s needs on transport (roads, railways, airports, border posts, etc) so as to facilitate trade and the movement of persons; energy and power ( power generation plants and transmission networks) ; information technology and communications stations (fixed telephone lines and wireless base stations and fibre optic or other internet communications equipment); lakes and dams together with water treatment plants and delivery piping; hospitals, clinics and other health care institutions; schools, colleges, universities and other educational institutions. All these do not just evidence a civilization but are critically important for the economic and social progress of any nation.

The reason why progressive local economists argue that some countries are more developed than Zimbabwe is not just about those countries’ high quality of democracy, but also their infrastructure. The N1 in South Africa; England’s M1 highway; Egypt’s Suez Canal and Russia’s Gazprom continental gas pipe; not to forget the spaghetti highways of New York and Hong Kong – these are all infrastructural symbols of civilisation.

The Rhodesian political leadership was aware that if Rhodesia had to remain top of the development pile in Africa serious planning and implementation of those plans had to be done in all enabling sectors such as energy, hence Kariba and Hwange Power Stations, transport and hence the comprehensive hard surface and gravel road networks linking major towns and cities, tourist and farming areas as well as the Rhodesia Railways and all its railway infrastructure, which we have barely improved upon.

The improvements we effected like the electrified system between Harare and Gweru have been vandalized, allowed to decay and collapse. The signal system we inherited is for all practical purposes now dead and buried.

President Robert Mugabe inherited some of the best infrastructure in Africa, but because he has spent thirty five years deploying crucial national resources on building, supporting and maintaining the institutions and structures of repression as well as on funding political vengeance, military adventurism, electoral survival, patronage, corruption and merry go round trips around the globe, Zimbabwe’s infrastructure has undergone incremental depreciation of Greco-Roman proportions.

As you read this article, there is most probably no running water in your taps or perhaps, like me in the past six hours, you experienced several power outages. If you caught a bus or drove to work today, you probably encountered hundreds of potholes on the road. Were you of my age, you would be dreaming about the days you used to catch a scheduled, comfortable train ride from Bulawayo to Harare or vice-versa. All that is history.

The beleaguered power utility Zesa announced two weeks ago that water levels at Kariba Dam were low and would reduce electricity generation by over 36 %, from 750MW to 475MW resulting in power cuts of up to 16-hours a day, heaping more pain on Zimbabwe’s already ailing economy.

What this means is that we should brace ourselves for even darker times ahead. While Zimbabweans are not strangers to ‘living in the dark’, having been bogged by one form or another of erratic electricity supply from Zesa since the year 2000, it is mind boggling how the Zanu PF government has failed to make any meaningful inroads into power generation since we attained independence in 1980.

In my view, this latest crisis is a culmination of decades of poor planning, mismanagement and insufficient investment into electricity generation infrastructure by a government which prioritises the self-enrichment of a few individuals to national wellbeing.

The manufacturing sector and SMEs that in this stagnant economy cannot afford generators and contingencies are already feeling the pinch. How then do we expect foreign investors to take us seriously when the country cannot afford to provide reasonably adequate power supply for its own people?

Billions of dollars worth of products and services have been lost since year 2000 because ZESA is failing to supply the necessary two thousand megawatts of electricity needed to run our industries – an industry operating below 30% capacity. Would South Africa be Africa’s top economy if they could not export their goods via the NI to the North?

Would Mozambique be one of the fastest growing African countries had it been that the Cahorra Bassa Hydro-electric plant was switched off every other week for ‘maintenance purposes’? The reason why Russia is critical to Europe’s development is that they have a functional six thousand-kilometre gas pipe that delivers energy to homes in Berlin and Amsterdam. So what has gone wrong with our infrastructure?

Some places today – in Gokwe, Binga, Dande and Nyanga – are still not accessible by car and people have to navigate some very long distances on foot. That is how bad the roads are.During the COPAC constitutional reform exercise, my teams routinely reported they would be late for some meetings because there was no reliable road access to meeting venues.

The dire state of some of our major roads is even more astoundingwhen we consider that ZINARA has been collecting in excess of US$5.5 milion per month in toll fees and around $130 million annually from road access fees, vehicle licensing, transit fees and fuel levy among many other revenue streams since for several years now.

In a normal economy, such staggering amounts of money would have resulted in major road rehabilitation programmes nationwide, but sadly what little progress we have seen under the corrupt Zanu PF government is the barest minimum and at a snail’s pace.

The Masvingo- Beitridge road is practically a death trap and yet millions keep being poured in to ZINARA coffers. Meanwhile the country’s sole rail network NRZ is tethering on the brink of collapse after decades of mismanagement, abuse of funds and corruption. The same goes for Air Zimbabwe.

The fixed line telecommunications sector is none the better. According to a 2014 report on Zimbabwe, Trade Competitiveness by the Poverty Reduction and economic Management Unit Africa Region, lack of competition has hampered growth in the subsector of telecommunications, especially in the fixed line segment due to state monopoly where as a result consumers are penalized with high fees and bad quality services. Our mobile operator rates are among the most expensive in Africa.

It is important to note that the first twenty years of our independence were wasted on Maoist one-party ideology that focuses on power retention rather than democratic participatory power in the service of the people. The budgets failed to make adequate provisions for infrastructure development but concentrated on maintaining expensive buerocracy, reckless expenditure, political patronage and rampant militarisation.

If a country does not save money, there can never be enough for infrastructure. Throughout the years, we have failed to attract international support for expensive infrastructure development because of Zimbabwe’s poor credit rating, high-risk perception and bad image. Quality, participatory, inclusive democracy can solve this problem.

Our highly politicised local government laws and systems focus on centralising power so much that citizens are not adequately engaged in service provision. That is why our city roads, streetlights, water and sewerage are under developed.

Local authorities cannot retain and deploy their own revenue because of gross interference by Zanu PF ministers and governors. The national Constitution instructs the implemention of devolution of power so that provincial and local authorities take charge of the infrastructure development trajectory at the local level.

When Zanu PF conjured its ‘Fast Track Land Reform’, a noble idea to balance just land ownership among citizens was overtaken by political revenge, greed and corruption. Agriculture infrastructure is critical to Zimbabwe’s economic development – thus expropriation, violating private property rights, multiple farm ownership of state land, free inputs, vandalism and lack of agricultural finance have contributed to the decimation of the agri-based infrastructure. Zimbabwe needs to restore respect for private property and sustainable agricultural finance systems.

Yes, we know that former Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor Dr. Gideon Gono did his best to inject money and ‘mechanisation’ into agriculture, but industrial development is not just about having an infrastructure bank, combine harvesters and ox-drawn scotch carts.

We require a vibrant saving culture, intelligent public revenue collection and retention and of course, international finance partnership. President Mugabe spent many years ‘insulting’ international finance institutions and yes, looking East, but to date, we only attract millions instead of billions for development.

The Debswana investment model of Botswana proves that private companies and government can cooperate in joint ventures to improve roads, water delivery and social services. But our problem with the Zanu PF model of public works is corruption. There are many cases of political cronies getting contracts to supply water treatment chemicals, building airports and roads but failing to deliver.

Right now, ZESA’s pre-payment meter tenders and ZINARA’s tollgates are afflicted with corruptive practices so much that vital revenue may never see its way into the development cycle.

Public procurement laws and the Anti Corruption Commission need urgent review so culprits are prosecuted. Hwange Colliery would win international awards on the art of self serving corruption. Witness the ongoing arrests at Mpilo hospital in Bulawayo.

So let me conclude by saying Zimbabwe’s development goal is a victim of inferior infrastructure. An MDC government will prioritise restoring, developing and modernizing the country’s infrastructure base as one of the most urgent tasks of reconstruction.

In each infrastructural sub-sector we will seek to attract investment and also put state resources so as to have a modern infrastructural base, adequately maintained and efficiently run to meet the various needs of the country.

Our ten billion-dollar national debt overhang is an albatross on our country’s development trajectory, because we owe far too much to be able to attract a mere two billion dollars to re-ignite our infrastructure.

Of course, a few millions here and there from the African Development Bank will help, but it is not enough. We import three billion dollars’ worth of consumer goods instead of capital goods to manufacture for export. Therefore, our country needs better infrastructure to support competitive exports, but our investment laws are rotten. It’s politics!

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