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Special interest councillors ideal but not necessary
Harare Residents' Trust (HRT)
April 26, 2012

So much has been in the media and in other discussion forums concerning the usefulness of special interest councillors within local authorities as provided for in the Urban Councils' Act (Chapter 29:15), under administered by the Minister of Local Government, Rural and Urban Development, who shall be referred to as the Minister throughout this instalment.

In this article I will evaluate the impact of special interest councillors on service delivery in local authorities, and make suggestions that would ensure the citizens derive maximum benefit from the nation's systems of local government. Harare City Council would be ideal as a case study so that there is clarity in the minds of citizens and other interested stakeholders.

Under Section 4A (b) of the Urban Councils' Act (UCA), titled membership to municipal and town councils "such number of appointed councillors representing special interests, not exceeding one-quarter of the number of elected councillors, as the Minister may fix in respect of the council by statutory instrument, and who shall hold office during the pleasure of the Minister."

Part (2) of the Section 4A states that appointed councillors shall participate in the business of the municipal or town council to which they are appointed and perform the same functions and be entitled to the same benefits in every respect as if they were elected councillors, except that they shall not have a vote at meetings of the municipal or town council concerned.

The above legal provisions passed through the Parliament of Zimbabwe as part of Constitutional Amendment Number 18 in 2008, comprising members of Parliament from the Movement for Democratic Change- Tsvangirai (MDC-T), the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic front (ZANU PF) and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) of Professor Welshman Ncube.

Against this background, there are genuine contestations against the appointment of special interest councillors to contribute to the running of local authorities. Supporters of the appointment of special interest councillors, mainly the Minister, argue that because democracy does not always give the best councillors, the special interest councillors are skilled and experienced personnel that come in to complement the capabilities of elected councillors. But the major handicap of this argument is that there are no legal provisions defining a special interest councillor except to say the one appointed by the Minister in terms of the Act.

On the other hand those who oppose the appointment of special interest councillors say the incumbent Minister is to bring through the back door disguised as special interest councillors rejects of electoral contests, drawn mainly from his party Zanu PF. The special interests have also not been defined in the Urban Councils' Act to assist in the identification of suitable personnel to complement the gaps in the elected officials. Currently this is only done by the Minister instead of being done by a panel involving major stakeholders in local government like engineers, land developers, residents and ratepayers, and women and youths. Whose interests are they serving? Surely not residents' interests!

On 29 March 2008, during the harmonised elections, Harare residents elected 46 councillors for the 46 wards under the city's jurisdiction. But when they were sworn in to officially start their work on 2 July 2008, 11 special interest councillors, all with known links to Zanu PF, were also sworn in, bringing the number of councillors in Harare to 57. Of the 46 were, only five were women, none of them 'specially' appointed to represent women. These are Evelyn Njiri (Zanu PF- ward 1), Joyce Kariwo (Mufakose- ward 36), Ruth Kavunika (Ward 2- Harare Central), Charity Bango (Ward 41- Marlborough), Paula Macharangwanda (Ward 5- Belvedere), all from the MDC-T. Of the 11 appointed special interest councillors, there was no woman. Only recently, I think January 2012, the Minister only replaced Provincial Administrator Alfred Tome with a female special interest councillor Ms Chikumbirike.

This approach does not augur well for gender mainstreaming within the City of Harare, particularly with Zimbabwe focused on achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goal Number Three which aims to promote gender equality and empower women. It is unfortunate that the 'special interests' as defined by the Minister do not cover women representation at the policy level for local authorities.

Since they came into office, the special interest councillors have attended full council meetings; they have participated in committee meetings, making significant contributions in shaping council's policymaking. But they have no mandate from the residents of Harare. They are loyal to the Minister. Still, residents of Harare pay their allowances, and the Ministry of Local Government, Rural and Urban Development contributes nothing towards their upkeep.

Repeated efforts to amend the Urban Councils' Act have met with resistance from the Minister who argues that the nation needs a harmonised piece of legislation governing local government. Yet Honourable Tangwara (MP- Buhera Central- MDC-T) brought a Private Members Bill proposing amendments to the UCA. These two actions and views on the local government legislation speak volumes on the vision of our national leaders to issues of national development. Chombo's arguments and the views of Honourable Matimba, while divergent, tells us that the legal framework governing the administration of local authorities is fragmented, chaotic and inadequate to propel service delivery to desirable levels. They both see the gaps in existing legislation but with totally different motives. The mere fact that Minister Chombo is advocating for a harmonised local government legislative framework is an indicator that while he wields executive and unchecked powers over local authorities under the current set up, he realises that the Urban Councils' Act, the Regional, Town and Country Planning Act (Chapter 29:12), Rural District Councils Act (Chapter 29:13), and the Traditional Leadership Act which he administers are insufficient to curtail corruption within local authorities, deal with excessive incompetence among councillors and transform service delivery. The various pieces of legislation are a genuine hindrance to community development.

From our viewpoint as the Harare Residents' Trust (HRT), the contests on whether or not special interest councillors are relevant or not have not been done in the interest of improving the welfare of residents, but a desire by respective political parties to have total control and authority over residents so that their party get credit for 'bringing development' to the community instead of focusing on facilitating development.

Although the focus of elected councillors has been on their power and authority within local authorities, their roles as elected councillors have not been clearly defined, leaving them at the mercy of the Minister who capitalises on their lack of real power and authority to direct operations within local authorities from the comfort of his office, using, of course the Acts of Parliament.

With this legislative oversight, they are left in the same position as special interest councillors, without much power. Taken into the bigger picture, this scenario plays out openly during the annual budget consultations that local authorities are expected by the citizenry to undertake. But in terms of the Urban Councils' Act, there is no obligation on the part of the local authority to actually conduct the pre-budget consultations, further highlighting the inadequacies of existing legislation to serve the interests of residents as the electorate. Assertions by the Minister that urban local authorities are not consulting residents smack of hypocrisy. He is aware that there is no legal provision that compels local authorities to do pre-budget consultations. When they actually go out to consult it is a mere formality to hoodwink people into believing that their views will be factored in budget formulation.

What has apparently been happening with regards to the powers and authority of the Minister over local authorities has been mainly driven by political motives and not a conscious development agenda. Political parties have repeatedly narrowed the scope for engagement around such important development issues. Legislation has capacity to hinder and propel development.

Because of a system failure to address expressed needs of citizens regarding the appointment of special interest councillors and the absolute failure of legislation to provide for clearly defined roles and responsibilities of special interest councillors, the only other possible alternative is to repeal the Urban Councils' Act (Chapter 29:15) to; (1) recognise residents bodies as major stakeholders in local authorities administration , (2) revamp the structure of local authorities to provide for the abolishment of special interest councillors, (3) clearly define the roles of elected councillors and set criteria for election of councillors beyond merely being on the voters roll and above 18 years (4) empower councillors to have power and authority to oversee the implementation of their decisions at committee and full council level by senior council management .

The appointment of special interest councillors, just like the appointment of 'Caretaker councils' as provided for in terms of Section 80 of the Urban Councils' Act is at the 'pleasure of the Minister' meaning the Minister retains executive powers over these individuals. The Act is silent on the meaning of 'pleasure of the Minister'. This suggests that it remains in the power of the Minister to define this term. In a deeply partisan local government in Zimbabwe, the probability is such that such term as 'pleasure of the Minister' may be interpreted within the context of the party ideology and policies the local government Minister belongs to, and this raises high chances of abusing this 'pleasure'. The legal provisions indicate that while these appointed caretaker councils derive their authority from the Minister, the burden is on the rate payer to meet their expenses like salaries and allowances, determined 'by the Minister.'

Unless the Urban Councils' Act is repealed, the appointment of special interest councillors should be stopped and removed from the legislation, as it is an unnecessary burden on the residents. Without legal provisions outlining how the Minister selects the special interest councillors, this becomes unnecessary. Only the Minister knows the 'special interests to be represented', which I do not think was the intention of the legislature. The legislature needed all stakeholders represented and competencies brought in to complement the crop of inexperienced councillors.

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