On Monday, top footballer Onismor Bhasera, who plays for South African premiership club Supersport United, escaped death by a whisker when his BMW hit a pothole, spun out of control and rolled on a highway which connects the cities of Mutare and Masvingo.
When a nation’s major highways are infested with gaping potholes, you begin to ask yourself whether there is still a government in charge. Bad roads are one of the hallmarks of a failed state because transport infrastructure is vital in building resilience and addressing fragility in a properly functioning country.
A dysfunctional state, by definition, cannot have world-class roads. The ability to provide public services plays a major role in ensuring that a government retains both its effectiveness and legitimacy.
Zimbabwe’s pothole-infested highways are posing serious danger to tourists, cross-border hauliers and other road users, inflicting further strain on a fragile economy that is projected to slow down this year due to a worsening liquidity crisis and heightened political risk.
Transport Minister Jorum Gumbo says the country needs US$5 billion to repair the badly damaged roads. President Robert Mugabe’s stony broke government, already failing to pay civil servants’ salaries and struggling to finance a US$4 billion national budget, has declared the pothole-infested roads “a national disaster”.
But critics say the government’s description of the road network as a national disaster is a stark admission of failure—and they are right. Opposition leader and former finance minister Tendai Biti remarked that Harare has become “a pothole capital of the world”.
Under normal circumstances, a declaration of a state of disaster would attract donors and international financiers to fund the rehabilitation of roads but Zimbabwe—ranked by Transparency International as Southern Africa’s most corrupt nation—has become unattractive to foreign investors.
Biti estimates that the country in fact needs US$14 billion to fund the resurfacing of damaged roads—and not US$5 billion as claimed by the transport minister.
“Our roads have outlived their span of life, which normally is about 20 years. Our roads are over 60 years old and they are not getting the necessary maintenance,” Minister Gumbo moaned on Monday.
“The Ministry (of Transport) is not getting enough money from the fiscus. The whole of last year, the ministry received only US$500 000 from Treasury, and definitely there’s nothing you can do with $500 000,” Gumbo complained.
Urban and rural councils, responsible for local roads, have complained that the state-run Zimbabwe National Roads Administration (Zinara), which collects toll fees, is not allocating them enough funds for maintenance.
Harare City Council spokesperson Michael Chideme has revealed that the municipality received US$1,2 million from Zinara in 2016. He said the allocation is woefully inadequate to finance the repair of the city’s vast road network.
Some engineers contend that it costs between US$800 000 and US$1.2 million to construct a single kilometre of tarred road. It goes without saying that Zinara must now explain where the rest of the money collected in toll fees is going.
Zimbabwe needs a holistic solution to the pothole menace and not piecemeal prescription that is more expensive in the long term.