Recently we were driving to one of our study sites in Mvurwi area in Mazowe district for a showing of one of our videos on land and markets. We were surprised by the quality of the road. It was recently graded and in good condition; a far cry from when we last struggled to get to the same A1 resettlement area. We arrived at the homestead of Mr and Mrs Nyamarova where a group were gathered for the video showing, and we commented on the quality of the road. Had the government come and improved the road?, we asked.
Mr Nyamarova explained. The road had got progressively worse in the past year or so, and it had become increasingly impassable especially in the rains. This had caused major problems. Minibus taxis (combis) had stopped coming, and people had had to walk several kilometres to the nearest junction in order to get to town. This was not only costly in time and energy, but also meant that cases that those who had to get to hospital fast were at increasing risk. This is a vibrant tobacco growing area, but the contractors for the tobacco complained about the road and charged higher fees. Other traders who once came to buy crops and other products failed to show up, and those who had bought ‘town’ cars from the proceeds of their tobacco were unable to use them. The lack of a road was hitting the community hard, increasing costs and imposing inconvenience and risk.
The roads in the resettlements were all farm roads originally. They were used infrequently and often with heavy vehicles or tractors. They were not constructed for large populations with diverse transport needs. Their locations connected sections of large properties, but were not necessarily geared for the plying of goods and people between homes, farms and town. The resettlement areas across the country have suffered badly from a lack of infrastructure support, the consequence of the lack of post-settlement planning and investment over the past 15 years. This is hitting agricultural potential, as well as people’s livelihoods and well-being, hard.
So why was this road in such good condition? Had the state come to the rescue, and finally prioritised resettlement infrastructure development? Had the old ‘district development fund’ been revived and a new fleet of graders deployed? Now ‘sanctions’ had been relaxed, had a donor provided the funds? Well, no. The state remains as broke and incapacitated as it has been for years, and no magical external donor had arrived on the scene. In this case, an innovative local solution was forged.
Frustrated by the lack of action by the local government services in Mvurwi (the community had petitioned them for months, requesting that the road be repaired and regraded), a group of farmers got together and proposed a solution. Everyone in the A1 scheme would pay US$10 into a fund, and they would approach the council and pay for the job to be done. And indeed this is what happened. A deal was struck that the grader, languishing for years in the CMED compound in Mvurwi would be serviced, and filled with fuel through the community contribution, and the council would deploy the driver and technicians who were equally languishing in their offices – paid a salary with little to do. The $10 a head fund was not enough to cover the costs, so they decided that a surcharge would apply for those with transport businesses and large tobacco crops, and so three such farmers, including Mr Nyamarova, added a further $200 each.
The basic infrastructure, expertise and capacity of the state still exists in Zimbabwe. Unlike in some countries it has not been completely lost. Against all the odds, civil servants – from senior officials to lowly technicians or drivers – still turn up to their jobs. Offices are full of people, but action on the ground is limited because the state financing of recurrent costs has dropped effectively to zero. This means extension workers don’t travel to the farms, schools have teachers but not books, health centres have nurses but no medicines, and roads departments have graders and drivers with no fuel or maintenance budget. Small amounts of funding therefore can go a long way. NGOs often make use of this rather remarkable latent capacity of this languishing state infrastructure and pay government workers to do a range of jobs.
Regalvanising state capacity for investing in public goods is an essential task in the post-land reform era. In the absence of an effective centralised taxation system that can generate significant revenues, and in the context of rampant corruption that removes funds from the state, particularly at higher levels, local solutions must be brokered. This case of local, informal, community-organised taxation from Mvurwi, that meant our Toyota Corolla town car could reach our destination and without the walk we expected, certainly offers some hope for the future.