Sunshine City goes dark

Living in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, is getting harder as weary residents battle with frequent power cuts, water shortages and the ever-rising prices of basic goods.

Harare once boasted the nickname “Sunshine City” but in the depths of a Zimbabwean winter, it’s looking less and less that way for all residents, regardless of their income levels.

Last week the state-run power utility, the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (Zesa), announced it is introducing power cuts at peak periods due to increased demand from the cold weather and Zimbabwe’s inability to find additional sources for power imports from outside the country.

Zimbabwe imports 30% of its power, much of it from neighbouring South Africa, but has in the recent past reportedly had problems settling its bills.

Coinciding with the power cuts, Zesa has started broadcasting advertisements every half hour on state radio, proclaiming “Zesa: Power to the people.”

“While we sit in the dark with candles waiting for the power to come back on and women stream out of the bush with firewood on their heads because they can’t afford electricity, the jingles go on and on and on,” says Zimbabwe writer Cathy Buckle in her weekly commentary.

In several suburbs of the capital, streetlamps and house lights flicker off at 6pm at night—to be restored three hours later.

There are also cuts scheduled for three hours in the mornings.

“It’s every night,” moans one elderly resident of the relatively well-heeled Avondale suburb, near Harare’s main hospital.

“It was Thursday, Friday and then again at half-past six on Saturday,” she complains. She adds that she keeps her bath “half full” to be ready for water cuts—usually advertised in the state-run Herald newspaper and on public radio.

In June some suburbs had no water for almost three weeks. The authorities blamed pump failures at the ageing Morton Jaffray water plant, as well as a lack of crucial aluminium sulphate used to treat the water.

A so-called “water demand management system” was brought in.
This meant cutting off supplies to other suburbs for 24-hour periods.

Harare’s opposition-led city council says it does not have the funds to maintain infrastructure. But efforts to hike rates have been blocked by Local Government Minister Ignatius Chombo, who has also dismissed Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) mayor Elias Mudzuri.

A member of President Robert Mugabe’s ruling party, Chombo last month declared previously approved increases “unjustified” and ordered a freeze.

The Harare city council has only held two meetings in the past six months, says Jameson Gadzirai of the Combined Harare Residents’ Association, leaving residents concerned that civic governance is being frustrated by party politics.

“What the residents are feeling now is that council decisions are not being implemented because of a broader agenda being pushed by the [local government] ministry,” Gadzirai says.

There are other concerns. Public hospitals in the city are faring badly. The privately owned Standard reported this month that corpses at Harare’s Central hospital are being rolled down the stairs from wards to the mortuary because there is no money to repair the lifts.

Health delivery has been one of the biggest casualties of Zimbabwe’s four-year old economic downturn. Cases of kwashiorkor—a sometimes fatal illness usually associated with times of war and famine—have resurfaced.

At least 621 were treated last year in the city’s clinics, according to a report by the council’s director of health, Lovemore Mbengeranwa.

Price hikes too are a worry. Although inflation rates have fallen, from more than 600% at the end of last year to just less than 400%, prices of foodstuffs and many basic goods continue to rise.

Faced with an outcry, the country’s energetic Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono last week said that “the thinking that prices ought to come down because inflation is coming down is fallacious”, the state-run Ziana agency reported.

Gono told the conference that prices should still be going up by about 6%. But his figures do not square with prices on shop shelves: bread has more than doubled in two months from about Z$1 200 a loaf to Z$2 900.

Meanwhile fuel queues resurfaced last week. A wearying fact of life for many Zimbabwean drivers over the past three years, the queues seemed to have disappeared after the authorities removed price controls.

State radio said last week’s queues were due to “logistical” problems in fuel distribution.—Sapa-AFP

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