His Worship Bernard Gabriel Manyenyeni managed to slot us into his busy schedule at the last minute. He’s got a lot on his plate and, as he’s trying to find his feet, he’s frantically juggling his day job at Altfin Life Assurance with his new responsibilities. His day, he tells us, is starting an hour earlier and ends at least three hours later than normal.
The word ‘unenviable’ kept springing to mind as I prepared for this interview. It’s pretty obvious that Manyenyeni’s taking on a city that’s falling apart at the seams. Sitting in the Mayoral parlour, we get on to these issues rather quickly when I ask what he thinks are the biggest challenges facing us as a city.
“Our inability to meet our residents’ expectations to the full extent,” he says immediately. “Particularly water, roads, street lighting, housing…our failure to deal with this is a big challenge for the city. And the community is very sensitive to those shortcomings.”
We agree that some of these are also the most dangerous issues for Harare’s citizens. “We are going to look at everything in terms of priority. Each and every one of those things, and more, requires attention. We are going to see where the low hanging fruit is, where the quick wins are, where can we satisfy our residents more, equitably, quickest.” However he goes on to say, “The issues that are going to be difficult are the issues that have high resource requirement but with an equally high demand. Like water. It’s something that people want fixed over night but it is very much long term in terms of solutions. We are at a station where we are weighed down by a planning deficit. Phase One of Morton Jaffray is 60 years old. In the last 20–25 years we haven’t planned enough for water. People want their water but to rectify the planning deficits of the last 2–3 decades will be a challenge. The solutions cannot be immediate, even with the best will in the world.”
Then he throws in a comment that takes us a little by surprise: “It goes to a situation where we will look to our residents to look for local solutions. In my ward [17 – Mount Pleasant], we have approached a bank to fix all our potholes, the discussions are positive. If we all took it to a local level and said, how can we deal with potholes in Marlborough?…in Highfield?…there would be varying degrees of success.”
He says that it’s not something that residents would ordinarily be expected to do, so he’s sure he’ll face resistance. But, he reckons, there must be innovative ways to deal with the issues that are affecting residents now, at least in the short term.
This is part of the ‘change of mindset’ attitude that he’s been talking about since he came into office. Imploring residents to have a think about the way they live and move in this city and to understand that there are consequences to their actions.
“They must be part of the process, all the way. They must play their part, meet their obligations – bills, management of litter, traffic congestion, etc. – there are things that don’t require resources. You don’t need donor funding to manage a traffic jam. People don’t pay rates so that they can throw their litter for the council to pick up. It is that mindset that must be dealt with. The more they do the right things, the less costly it is for council to fix the rest.”
We ask what led him to become mayor; did his life prepare him for the role? “The road,” he tells us, “is probably less exciting than the decision. I was having a New Year’s Day lunch, and someone, I had never met, turned to me towards the end of the lunch and popped the question – ‘could you be Mayor of Harare?’ – totally out of the blue.” By the time dinner was served, which he had felt compelled to stay for, he had agreed to run.
He thinks his business background will hold him in good stead in this position. “I see Town House being the meeting point of business, politics and community work,” he explains. “Those three meet in Council. And the business and social interactions I have had over the years, built me into very diverse individual. I really relate well across all social strata.”
As councillor for Ward 17, Manyenyeni is aiming to be both a practical and accessible councillor and Mayor for the city. “My office is very accessible and I am already dealing with all manner of people on a variety of issues. I don’t think a resident of this city should find it too difficult to meet their mayor.”