Zimbabwe Renewal – Accountable Institutions

This is the last in a series of 7 letters that have dealt with what we need to do to get Zimbabwe back on track with regard to its international relations and internal growth and recovery. In this letter, I want to deal with the need for strong and accountable institutions that will serve the people of Zimbabwe in the broadest sense. Strong in the sense that they can stand on their own feet and defend their areas of interest and concern.

At present our institutions fail on both counts virtually across the board. If we start with our national centers of power, the Executive (the Presidency and Cabinet), the Judiciary and the House of Assembly (Parliament). We have lived in an autocratic State for so long that we do not know what it is to have a leadership that cares and responds to our everyday problems and issues. Our Presidency is simply too strong and in fact suborns all the other institutions in the State.

The “strong man” mentality is a problem in many countries in Africa and in particular in those countries that have a liberation war background. I do not think I would find many in Zimbabwe who would deny that our central problem has always been and currently is, leadership in the form of our President who simply will not let go. Smith was the same and until he was politically neutered in 1976, no progress was possible. We are back in that position today.

This situation filters down to the other institutions of State power – the Judiciary and Parliament. The former, because they are compromised by politically motivated appointments, patronage and corruption, this in turn permeates down through the lower ranks of the judicial system to the Magistrates Courts where it is possible today to bribe both prosecutors and Magistrates to get the decisions you want. Examples of political interference in the judicial system are too numerous to mention here. Many Magistrates and prosecutors are doing their jobs courageously and professionally, but few in Zimbabwe would say today that they would expect impartial justice from our bench at any level.

Parliament has been strengthened by the new Constitution but is now compromised by the overwhelming majority that Zanu has in the Assembly. The recent passing by the House of amendments to the Electoral Bill without any changes despite public hearings and many professional and political objections and suggestions of changes that would improve the draft, is a bleak example of this situation. The Zanu PF benches cheered and stamped their feet as clause after clause was simply rammed through the House by the Minister of Justice. The Minister himself made the shameful statement on the day that “the public did not have the right to change what is proposed by the Executive”. So much for accountability!

When we get below the lofty heights of State power and enter the ranks of the local Authorities that determine our basic qualities of life – water, housing, health, roads and waste management, we find a situation that is infested by the malaise and disease that infects national government. Right now we face the specter of the Harare City Council allowing a developer whose principle shareholder is the Minister of Local Government, the right to build houses and commercial property on critical wetlands. Wetland on which the water sources of the City depend and local flora and fauna flourish. Essentially these are the lungs of a large City and are being vandalized and destroyed in the self interest of a corrupt Minister and no amount of popular protest is making the slightest difference.

This situation stretches to pot holes, water supplies, broken mains and sewers and solid waste management. Faced with the failure of the local authority to deal with these problems or even show sympathy, residents just get on with their lives and order water by tanker, deal with their waste themselves and fix the potholes outside their fence. This is not universal of course, but it is so widespread that there is little faith left in the local authorities that are responsible for these services throughout the country.

Again in Harare we have a situation in Mbare Township where a criminal group supported and protected by the ruling Party is able to extort protection money from the tens of thousands of informal businesses that crowd local markets. This protection racket extends to the taxi and bus operators in the largest transport hub in the City and to huge swathes of municipally owned housing. This system of extortion is used to control local politics and creates a financial burden for the poor in our capital City. Does this reach the headlines in our papers, or become the subject or a heated debate in the Council Chambers? No. If our local authorities were accountable, if our national leadership was accountable, such situations would not continue to exist and our poor and disadvantaged might be able to start lifting themselves out of poverty.

Accountability does not end there – what about all our other institutions – do our hospitals, schools, universities, resident associations and trade Unions behave in a way that shows they are accountable to their communities and members? Are their leadership elected democratically and can be removed if they fail in their duties and responsibilities? The answer is 9 times out of 10, no. I know of Trade Unions who have not seen a change in their leadership for 20 years, whose members are totally fed up with their Unions who no longer represent their interests or concerns.

Private schools have active Boards who listen to their Parents and staff or face the consequences. State controlled and managed institutions seldom have such Parent interests and concerns, in fact school staff resent Parental influence and interference in school affairs to the detriment of the students and educational standards. When last did you hear of a local State medical facility reporting to its clientele or resigning because of a systemic failure in management and control?

Building a democracy does not simply mean we have to fix the electoral system or the political environment at national level; it involves creating accountable institutions at every level of our society. A supermarket or restaurant does not face the same problem – they have to win back their clientele every day, if they don’t, they fail. Not so with our schools, hospitals, clinics, local authorities and State controlled institutions. There, only our ability to penalize and control by democratic means, can we really make sure that our institutions work for us and that they serve our communities and not themselves.

Eddie Cross
21st June 2014