BSR: Conversation with former Harare Mayor, Ben Manyenyeni


This week, we had a conversation with the former Mayor of Harare, Ben Manyenyeni. He took up office in 2013 and stepped down 2018. There has been a lot of questions and debates over the operations of local authorities urban, particularly concerning poor service delivery, corruption and general inefficiency.

Urban councils are also a zone of intense political contestation, with the majority being in the hands of MDC, which is the opposition party at national level where ZANU PF controls the parent ministry responsible for local government. As a result, there have been accusations and counter-accusations between the parties.

We thought it would be great to go to a primary source and hear from someone who has experienced life in the hot seat as mayor of the country’s capital city.

BSR: Thank you for agreeing to talk to us at the Big Saturday Read. The issues we want to discuss are fundamental to our understanding of how local authorities function and their relationship with central government. There have been many views, as you know, regarding the performance of local authorities. I appreciate that you may not speak for all local authorities but having been the mayor of the country’s capital for 5 years, you are one of the people who are best placed to give our readers an important perspective into these matters. Please feel comfortable and be as frank as possible.

Firstly, if you can put it in a nutshell, how would you describe your experience as Mayor of Harare?

Manyenyeni: This was something I would never have planned for myself. I will always be humbled by the honour and duty that was placed upon me.

Being Mayor of the capital city in a normal country with normal relations is one of the best stations of service a citizen could ever get: what an unmerited honour and privilege.

The job should have a fine mix of politics, corporate business leadership and community service in equilibrium.

At least that is how it should be. The reality was rather different. I have described Town House as “Trauma Centre” a number of times because in my time it was an impossible mission.

I was dodging bullets daily and I could not even drink tea in my office for much of my term. I am so happy that I completed my term – very much against the odds.

BSR: Our readers will be interested to know how you became mayor of the capital and why you did only one term. Was that always the plan and what was the reasoning?

Manyenyeni: As I shared on Facebook some 5 years ago, the assignment was not mine professionally, personally and politically – there were dozens of better people for each of those specs: I just happened to be a product of spiritual directives.

I walked into Town House on the back of nearly a dozen unrelated and unsolicited divine instructions to be Mayor of Harare.

All I did was to obey the command from God to serve.

I knew I was the mayor of Harare specifically, even by title, on New Year’s Day January 2013, elections were end of July and I was elected Mayor in September. I had divine renewals of the message until it happened.

The decision to serve a single term only was made and communicated to my political masters back in January 2013 before I even won the party primary elections to run for Ward Councillor in Mount Pleasant.

Even if that position had neither been made nor communicated it is the same decision I was still going to make and I have no regrets.

BSR: You have often alluded to your role as having been “ceremonial”. Please elaborate what you mean by being a ceremonial mayor. How does it differ from an executive mayor? Would things have been better if you had been an executive mayor?

Manyenyeni: The executive mayor combines the roles of Chairman of the Board and Group CEO of the city He combines the power and the willpower into the leadership of council in the search for service and its delivery.

Yet the ceremonial mayor is the type that does not have the legal, political, effective authority to command the operations of the entity. The mayors in our jurisdiction cannot, and should not, be compared to other mayors in the region or in the world. Those mayors have executive powers which our mayors lack.

In our situation, the mayor is the face of the municipality but certainly not the authority in council. A city in a mess like Harare and indeed Zimbabwe – even more, needs something like a “benevolent dictator” in the nicest sense possible, a sincere and trusted strongman who is unstoppable in his quest to clean up for the public good.

Officially, my duty was to chair one full council meeting a month and to sign resolutions coming out of the meeting.

Practically, a proper (read “executive”) mayor of Harare, doing his full job, as expected, both council and civic, is one of the 5 busiest elected public offices in the country.

BSR: It’s important for our readers to know that Harare did have an executive mayor once but the laws were changed. There is a view that ZANU PF changed the rules after realising it was losing key urban councils to the MDC and this presented unwelcome competition. But weren’t there concerns as well in the MDC that executive mayors of these big cities were becoming too powerful?

Manyenyeni: That is very true. It is possible that to some political actors, city mayors can represent rival ambitions and threats because it is a high-profile role.

BSR: Do you think the party should fight harder to reinstate the role of executive mayor?

Manyenyeni: Yes, the party should make that an important part of reforms. Power and willpower must converge and tied in to the previous question it could be an excellent avenue to manage succession to groom as it can be used to groom future ministers and even presidents.

BSR: Residents have been critical of the City of Harare’s failure to deliver basic services such as clean water, decent and safe roads, refuse collection, among others. This is a sore spot for many people. In your experience, what accounts for such a poor performance by the country’s capital?

Manyenyeni: It is very simple, find the ingredients of a successful city and you have your answer.

You need an enabling government, stable politics, fitting legislation, a functioning economy, trans-generational infrastructure, adequate resources from State and from compliant ratepayers, responsible residents, competent and responsible leadership – both elected and executive.

Now without exception, all of these desirables were in deficit – sometimes to embarrassing degrees. Therein lies your answer!.

The council does not operate in a vacuum. It follows the fortunes of the national economy and national politics.

Comparisons with outside Zimbabwe and even other local authorities can be so misplaced as to be irrelevant especially in key issues like institutional stability or even quality of water.

I coined the term “Service Deceivery”- specifically to highlight the folly of promising, or expecting, service delivery when the key factors at play clearly point otherwise!

BSR: In most cities that work well, residents pay their local taxes. This is regarded as a civic duty. What is the situation in Harare? By your estimation, what proportion of residents do you think pays local taxes? Do you not think those who have not received water for the past 10 years are justified to withhold their taxes?

Manyenyeni: At just over 50% collection our ratepayers are insincere in expecting the service levels comparable to cities with compliant ratepayers. The argument that there is no service delivery anyway is not good enough because the revenue has to be there first in order to facilitate service delivery. Residents who pay their dues have every right to challenge the councils, but the same cannot be said of those who do not pay their taxes. It would be great if a substantial number met their dues. That would help greatly.

BSR: It has often been said that local authorities are constrained by central government, which makes it hard for them to perform independently. What is your view on this and is it  a fair reflection of the relationship in what ways are local authorities constrained? Please give examples of situations in which you found yourself or the council constrained.

Manyenyeni: The key aspects of running council like manpower and resources are under the direct and indirect influence of central government, leaving local government subordinated and weak.

Starting your term of office minus over two years’ worth of your revenues written off by central government was a fatal start. As you recall, the then Minister of Local Government, Ignatius Chombo wrote off debts which residents owed to the council just before the 2013 elections. This election gimmick was a recipe for disaster. It was a populist move that was profoundly unwise.

Starting your 5-year term a few months after the minister had granted your entire workforce salary levels which gobbled over 80% of council’s collections every month could not be a blessing.

Therefore, you had a situation in which the Minister had shut the revenue tap by writing off debts owed to the council but at the same time opened the floodgates of spending by granting unsustainable wage increases. How do you raise wages when you are depleting the revenue sources? These were political decisions that defied economic sense.

Spending over 4 years of your 5-year term struggling to hire the Town Clerk who, as the CEO of the city, runs council operations daily was frustrating. So we had a situation where we had a mayor who was not a CEO and who could not hire a Town Clerk who is supposed to be the CEO. This was frustrated by the central government.

Furthermore, we could not retire the serving Town Clerk that easily because of his political influence. Again central government stood in the way.

The long process of getting a replacement had to be done THREE times as each effort was met with political interference from central government.

I was actually suspended from office twice and spent nights in police cells following my council’s decision to hire a professional Town Clerk whom the ruling party in government did not like. There were all sorts of spurious allegations which went nowhere.

So you had the mayor of the country’s capital being locked up for daring to lead the council to appoint a professional and competent person to run the affairs of the city. As a result my CV was tarnished.

In the end, the person we had chosen, James Mushore, an impressive candidate, was never approved by central government. But we were vindicated because I understand he won his case in the courts of law. He should have been Town Clerk but for the interference of the ZANU PF government.

Things could have turned out differently for our capital had we been allowed freedom to appoint people whom we believed were competent. Central government was more interested in the political correctness of candidates rather than their competence.

In short, every avenue we tried to use, we found there was a roadblock mounted by central government. The hand of central government, through the local government minister is ever-present and not in a good way.

BSR: Some critics decry the quality of councillors in local authorities, who are the elected members of council. You have also raised this concern in the past. In what ways did you find quality or the lack of it to be an issue and why?

Manyenyeni: There is a job to be done by councillors which is to deliver a liveable city, through leading and supervising an executive team of engineers, doctors, accountants, lawyers and other professionals.

The body of the elected must demonstrate that ability – long before being elected. It is the job that determines who must do the job not the rewards of those who have never done anything professional  in life and are unlikely to supervise high level executives. The “stone-throwers” are essential for inclusivity but not functionality.

I triggered a vote of no-confidence against me by fellow councillors for making a call that at least one-third of councillors must have some specific credentials to be eligible to take office. I said one-third which turned out to be one-third too many. They wanted me out for raising this issue.

BSR: I think it is important to be inclusive and to get people’s consent but it is also important to ensure there is sound government. Hence, competence matters, both in central and local government. It’s interesting to see that your fellow councillors wanted to remove you for suggesting the need for solid credentials among them. They obviously felt threatened. What would regard as minimum qualifications?

Manyenyeni: There should be a minimum qualification equivalent to the level of a standard professional in government, for example a school-teacher. A basic level of competence is important.

BSR: There have been concerns over the excesses in the unelected layer of local authorities. These are the public officers who run the executive offices of the councils. A few years ago there was a huge scandal involving fat-cat wages and benefits these senior executives were earning. What is your view on this issue? What is the balance of power between the elected and the unelected in local authorities? Is the council not in charge of these officers? How do they end up committing these excesses?

Manyenyeni: As hinted earlier the executives take advantage of the skewed political space to play off one force against the other. Which is why my call for right-sizing the employment costs drew a blank. It almost had one casualty, in myself, when my own party wanted to recall me over my calls for salary cost alignments.

When councillors’ family members and powerful party cadres get on council’s payroll with the collusion of senior managers the power shift in HR matters is most evident.

A council cleaner, municipal guard or parking attendant (or through their spouses) can be politically powerful enough to get the mayor fired. This is exactly what happened in my sunset months with the failed efforts to have me resign or face removal.

BSR: A key criticism of councils is the alleged prevalence of corruption. Some councillors have been fired or suspended, others prosecuted for corruption, especially over the allocation of urban stands. We saw recently a Town Clerk of a local authority allegedly selling land to himself in a manner deemed to be corrupt. How does this happen? What was your experience regarding corrupt tendencies at the City of Harare?

Manyenyeni: Perhaps with some regret this is one area of council I spoke too little about in my tour of duty. This was partly because there was hope that internally we had enough checks and balances but more importantly because action is evidence driven.

Corruption is discreet and without facts I was in no position to energise corrective measures or to even name. There were many visible signs of upward lifestyle changes and certainly many rags-to-riches anecdotes among councillors in particular.

Corruption remains a notable matter of collective concern and responsibility.

One area of corruption risk which legally, and luckily, the elected Councillors do not participate in is procurement because the elected do not participate in procurement for Council.

The highest corruption exposure for councillors seems to stem from worker recruitment, land sales and land leases.

BSR: Critics of the MDC say it has shown that it cannot govern by its failure to run urban local authorities which it has controlled since 2000. Defenders of the MDC argue that it has political responsibility but it doesn’t have the power. Having occupied a key role in a local authority what is your view regarding this charge and the defence?

In summary the 3 terms “MDC-held”, “MDC-led” and “MDC-controlled” in terms of urban councils mean different things to different people. It needs unpacking.

It may be best for me to say that the “MDC party must LEAD councils-HELD so that it CONTROLS” them.

BSR: So the impression that the MDC controls urban councils which is given by the majority numbers in councils is, at the very least, misleading? Would it be right to describe the MDC as being “in power but without power”?

Manyenyeni: That is certainly correct.

BSR: Some residents did not think it was a good idea for Harare City Council to sponsor a football team at a time when it was failing to deliver basic services. Do you understand their concern?

Manyenyeni: I spent four years fighting the inappropriate allocation of scarce resources; millions going to a group of 30 young men every year in a city of struggling millions. On that I think it was really a collective liability. An executive mayor would not have tolerated such a situation. He would have used his or her powers to re-allocate resources more efficiently. The Mayor of Johannesburg Herman Mashaba fired two chairmen. That would not happen with our ceremonial mayors. They just do not have the power to do what they think is right. An article which appeared in Newsday titled “You’re offside, City told” gives an indication of my reservations over-spending at the football club. It did not make sense.

BSR: Some critics say the MDC has never had and does not have a clear strategy to run local authorities probably because it prioritises the holy grail of central government and neglects the potential in local authorities. What is your view on this? When you took office was there a strategic direction from the party which gave you guidance? Do you believe the party have you and the council the support you needed?

Manyenyeni: As I have just said “the MDC party must LEAD Councils-HELD so that it CONTROLS them”.

The moral support was there especially in heightened political contestations.

But the effective guidance was nowhere near enough, especially in areas of public and stakeholder concerns, salaries, misaligned cost outlays, governance etc etc

BSR: Do you still have a role in matters to do with local government? What has been the fate of other retired councillors? Do you have a collective from which the party draws wisdom and guidance on local government affairs given your collective experience? Would that be a good idea?

Manyenyeni: I am one of three ex-mayors invited to support the Local Government Secretary in the party – I am not sure how effectively it will reverse the “in power without power” narrative and more importantly whether it will participate in LEADING. There is very little space for other retired councillors due to politics and also broad capacity issues. But across parties we still have a quiet cohort of ex-mayors from 2013 crop sharing notes almost daily. The departure from civic role to activism in local government has destroyed the prospects of having a bankable reservoir and continuity. Some ex-mayors and their predecessors hardly even talk even from the same party

BSR: In what way do you think the party could use its space in local authorities more effectively?

Manyenyeni: The MDC party at present is only earning the negative dividends to deployment. The party is almost apologetic in getting involved with local authority issues. Being the party’s current stronghold in terms of visible mandates the party must be very visible and clearly and directly  identifiable with the work of the deployed. Harare on its own is a mini-government by size – to that, add another 27 councils held. The MDC Local Government Portfolio should evidently and visibly be by far the busiest portfolio especially in-between general elections.

BSR: I would like to return to one of the issues you raised early in this conversation. You are a man of faith and your revelation has prompted me to inquire more swiftly that I had planned into an issue that is important in our political environment: the relationship between religion and politics. My question is in two parts. The first is a general question and the second is more specific to your circumstances. Some critics think religion is overplayed by the political class to win votes but more significantly, that it impacts decision-making in ways that are not rational. What is your view on this?

Manyenyeni: The Church and politicians have a largely insincere relationship. Politicians seem to seek the endorsement for votes but hardly ever seek the guidance for righteous political leadership. Given the very sore route travelled since independence some politicians should have no business being near any Church. The Church similarly stands accused of watching political ills with blind eyes for far too long and benefitting from poverty-driven growth in followers

BSR: Secondly, when I teach Public Law, one of the issues we discuss is sources of political authority. Over the course of history, rulers and leaders have justified their roles in various ways, such as military conquest, hereditary succession, the will of God and consent of the people, which is more common these days. You were obviously voted into office (which is consent) but from what you have said would it be correct to say you do see your unexpected and unplanned rise to become mayor as the will of God? How much influence do you think similar beliefs have in our politics?

Manyenyeni: My case was different – an unusual source of deployment.

Many derive their authority from all sorts of forces including the various theatres of the struggles, political CVs, scars and wounds, loyalty to struggles, to their party, to a faction or to a leader – in very few cases to their own pedigree

My case begs the question why it was such a tormented tour of duty if God was in it? My answer being it was going to be even worse if HE wasn’t in it!

BSR:  Finally, what reforms would you recommend in the difficult relationship between local authorities and central government?

Manyenyeni: The Urban Councils Act which has many constitutional flaws must urgently be challenged or aligned with the Constitution of the Republic to allow effective devolution.

The sincerest way to respect Chapter 14 of the Constitution would be to re-designate the Minister of Local Government to be Minister for devolution progressing into a ceremonial role almost non-executive and to reduce the number of decision-makers in the ministry because in the letter and spirit of the devolution their traditional mandate work has been devolved.

The residents and stakeholders must get more literate, more intimately involved and knowledgeable about municipalities which are the custodians of their urban lifestyles.

The conversation around who is responsible for what successes and what failures for Harare City is a disappointing one because of poor performance attributions by our expectant residents and observers.

Very few people are able to do a competent and informed performance analysis for Harare City. The majority rely on sentiment, emotion, expectation, assumptions and to a very large extent partisan politics to evaluate the municipality.

Those who dream of a well-run city must demand a Harare that is run like other world cities: what we have now is exactly what we deserve. Village politics has been in the driving seat for over two decades.

BSR: Thank you very much, Mayor, for your time. It’s been a pleasure engaging you and we wish you the best in your current and future endeavours.