In a landmark ruling, the High Court in Zimbabwe has curtailed the power of Local Government minister July Moyo, a move is seen as a step towards improving service delivery in urban areas. The court set aside Section 314 (2) of the Urban Councils Act, which had given the minister excessive control over local authorities.

The ruling followed an application by the Combined Harare Residents Association, the Borrowdale Residents and Ratepayers Association, and several individuals, who argued that Moyo had taken over the running of local authorities through numerous directives and that these actions were tantamount to acting contrary to the provisions of the constitution. The judge agreed, stating that for the minister “to reverse, suspend and rescind resolutions without consultation whatsoever is tantamount to acting contrary to the provisions of the constitution, which provides residents with powers to manage their own affairs.”

The case highlights the ongoing struggle for power between the central government and local authorities in Zimbabwe. The ruling party, Zanu PF, lost control of urban areas at the turn of the millennium and has since adopted a scorched earth policy when dealing with urban councils. The party’s belief that making councils ungovernable would lead to urban voters turning against the opposition-dominated councils has been widely criticized.

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One of the directives by the Local Government ministry that contributed to the collapse of service delivery was the cancellation of debts owed by ratepayers in 2013. The Local Government minister Ignatius Chombo issued the directive, the effects of which are still being felt today.

The ruling should trigger self-reflection by the Local Government ministry and Moyo himself, as they begin to undo the damage done to local authorities. All directives that affect service delivery by councils must be rescinded forthwith and going forward, the government should ensure that duty-bearers act within the confines of the constitution at all times.

The ruling is seen as a victory for the devolution of power and a step towards President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration’s stated goal of advancing it. It remains to be seen whether this ruling will be implemented in practice and bring about a meaningful change in the governance of urban areas in Zimbabwe.