Municipal Council of Mbabane: The catalyst for socio-economic development

The partnership between public and private sector continues to help drive through infrastructure and socio-economic improvement across Africa. However the involvement of local community engagement should not be underestimated, particularly in the context of local government activity.

mbabaneThe Municipal Council of Mbabane is accomplishing necessary work through both channels, with the result an improved road network, better housing facilities and the first steps towards fostering a spirit of entrepreneurial endeavour.

The city of Mbabane is Dlageni Hills, in Swaziland’s Highveld, at an altitude of about 1,200 metres above sea level. Other than being the country’s capital city, it is also the administrative capital. About 5 years ago Mbabane celebrated its Centenary, although it operates very much as a modern city, with a mixture of local and multi-national companies and financial centres based there.

That does also mean that the city has its share of modern-day social issues to contend with and by night-time there is a population of around 60,000 residents, although this number swells to 100,000 during the daylight hours.

Indeed, the City of Mbabane Economic Development Strategy 2012 – 2015 recognises the issues faced in its Executive Summary:

“The City of Mbabane (CoM) is faced with a development challenge in that, a mix of urban and rural economies characterizes the Municipal area jurisdiction. Ranging from a relatively strong economic performance to relatively isolated rural settlements with high levels of poverty.

“The CoM, as the capital city of Swaziland, hosts government administration and international institutions. It is amongst the developing cities in Africa since it was declared a city by the His Majesty King Mswati.

“This prestigious title comes with its own obligations, challenges and expectations. Paramount amongst these is the need to live up to being a city and constantly improve its socio-economic status to enhance the quality of lives of its citizens.

“Amongst its obligations, is the need to develop and support the local economy in:

“Ensuring reliable delivery of basic services; creation of a suitable environment for business and citizens to thrive; supporting local business for expansion and attract new ones; and, facilitating the development of critical scarce skills in the local economy.

“Intensive mixed land uses are spread out along the northwest – southeast valley between Pholinjane and Mbabane Rivers at the core of which is the Central Business District (CBD) and city industrial area.

“Low to middle income housing estates have been developed in the far north at densities of around 12 to 15 units/hectare. Informal settlements where the majority of low-income groups live are in the southeast, south and west of the CBD.

“The formal areas of the city have good infrastructure but there is a generally skewed provision of community facilities in favour of the CBD and environs. Built development since the City’s establishment in 1994 has tended to be piecemeal and dictated by difficult topography of the city and by ad hoc subdivisions by private developers.”

Benedict Gamedze, Strategic Planning & Budget Manager for the Municipality, says that one of the biggest challenges that Mbabane faces is the sheer weight of traffic on its road network each day.

“The availability of efficient public transport is a very important element to our society but more and more people own their own vehicles nowadays and we have an issue of outdated infrastructure and increasing congestion.

“Because the infrastructure is old we are on a programme of upgrading and widening roads, putting in proper pavements and traffic lights. We are building new roads, so that the city can breathe,” he says.

“We are doing quite well in the process of upgrading arterial roads and hope to complete this work in the next financial year. There is no rail system within the city which is quite compact and out public transport system involving buses is very important,” he adds.

Another big economic turning point for the city could arrive soon in the shape of extended retail hours for the myriad of shops in Mbabane.

According to Gamedze, the municipality is now looking at ways to encourage 24 hour shopping, although he says that the transport system will need to mirror these hours.

“The initial mandate was revealed 5 years ago and was looked at as a 10-year vision,” he says. “We are moving slowly towards that vision. Mbabane used to be a ghost town for shopping after 5pm but there are now extensions up to 10pm.”

Another aspect of retail that the local authority is working to improve is that of the small independent roadside traders that are endemic within certain areas of Mbabane.

“This is a traditional challenge and there are many people who fall within the informal business category. We have had to remove people from the streets and put them in properly constructed shelters and demarcated areas.

We recently had to undertake a project to remove people trading on roadsides and the bus rank – which was of course quite a challenge. Now we are on top of that and one of our key challenges is to focus on low income people and avail opportunities for them to start their own businesses.

“A number of parastatals, internal and private sector businesses are available to train people and the municipality wants to ensure that these individuals have outside support.

“We want to help encourage vibrant businesses for the community and transform the people trading in the streets into formal businesses, creating wealth rather than just a basic survival.”

Gamedze feels that one of the big successes of recent years has been the upgrading of infrastructure in informal settlements, which is improving the condition of housing in these areas and turning the settlements into formal settlements as part of the upgrading projects the Municipal Council has been pursuing over the years.

“This has had the effect of giving people more opportunity and they feel more empowered to build proper housing. Our other big success has been the roads project in strategic parts of the city, which has undoubtedly helped to alleviate congestion.

“We have also been building social centres which provide primary healthcare. Our flagship project has been the Nkwalini Social and Healthcare Centre, which has become an important central aspect of life community and involved the local community from inception and design through to completion.”

Of course financing is absolutely paramount to the success of these social projects and according to Gamedze, up to 80 per cent of revenues are derived from property taxes, which he describes as a very narrow base and one fraught with political risk. The municipality is already working towards diversifying its revenue base in the future, especially through public private partnerships (PPPs).

Part of the solution is the local government’s relationship with the private sector, which as we have seen, is already creating economic and social change for the better in Mbabane.

“From the mid-Nineties we realised there were many more services that we could offer and we engaged all stakeholders, including the business sector. We now have regular engagement with business leaders and have a very healthy relationship, working in partnership on projects. This is a huge benefit, particularly in times like now when we have the threat of drought. So we can say that the business community is an active partner,” states Gamedze.

The year ahead will see further progress in the upgrade of infrastructure: “Our big drive will be infrastructure development and our plan is to reconstruct and upgrade roads and start to develop a new financial proposal for these works.

“We want to not only provide a basic provision of services for the population, but a complete solution in terms of housing, sanitation, clean water and electricity and help people to build proper housing. Part of our plan will involve providing low-income people with affordable high-rise housing.

“These will be complemented by the existing reliable safety structure supported by a good collaborative effort between the state police and the Municipal security services to provide the people of the city with safety comfort,” he concludes.