Nqobile Bhebhe, Analysis
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” is a Latin question famously attributed to the first-century Roman satirist and poet Juvenal, translated to, “Who will guard the guards themselves.”
It quickly comes to mind for Bulawayo residents after two recent revealing articles from our sister papers, the Sunday News and Business Weekly grabbed the attention of readers.
Ordinarily, they would not have raised dust and let pass as any other read.
However, both articles focused on Bulawayo City Council’s noble (or lack of it) fire safety measures, hardly a week after a raging fire razed down a massive Mpopoma Outspan Association-operated informal traders complex.
Read the Sunday News article, “BCC condemns over 230 of its own buildings”, while Business Weekly ran with the headline, “Bulawayo City Council now inspecting government buildings for fire safety”.
As a recap, the executive summary of the internal report by the Audit Committee dated 23 November 2022 noted two striking issues – that “city facilities are exposed to hazards” and “many city facilities are in poor condition”.
The extent of exposure to hazards and poor conditions is extensively detailed in the audit report.
It reads in part, “According to an analysis of the fire extinguishers and other fire protection systems in the facilities we visited, 86 percent of the facilities are at a risk of catching fire due to outdated fire extinguishers or lack of servicing of fire extinguishers and fire sprinklers.”
Some of the facilities at risk include the treasured and frequently visited assets by stakeholders – the Tower Block and Revenue Hall buildings.
“We were informed, for example, that fire extinguishers at the Tower Block and Revenue Hall buildings were last serviced in 2014, increasing the risk of these buildings being extensively damaged in the event of a fire outbreak.”
Added the report “… in fact, early in the year, a fire sprinkler at a Revenue Hall office failed to detect the effect of fire leading to extensive damage to the office”.
The “many city facilities (which) are in poor condition” led the city fathers to condemn over 230 facilities noting that if urgent measures are not taken to renovate, the buildings will continue to deteriorate while others may face collapse.
Grimmer is the situation that the council has no definite number of buildings it owns.
The Auditor General, Mrs Mildred Chiri, has on several occasions raised a red flag on the council’s asset register after several audits have revealed that it was in shambles.
For instance, in a 2017 audit report, Mrs Chiri said there was no differentiation between minor and major assets at BCC, posing the risk that capital assets could be misappropriated if expensed as minor assets.
She recommended that a formal policy on what constitutes a minor and a major asset be documented to promote uniformity and consistency in the accounting for assets.
The council’s audit report refers to “approximately the 1 100 facilities” and a breakdown of the conditions of the building says “currently 32 percent of the city facilities are in a good state, needing minor repairs and maintenance, 47 percent are in moderate condition, requiring manageable repairs and 21 percent are in a bad state needing major maintenance”.
Council chamber secretary, Mrs Sikhangele Zhou is quoted by Business Weekly during a recent handover of three state-of-the-art equipment to the department of fire and ambulance services by United Kingdom based humanitarian and non-political organisation Operation Florian saying the same council that condemned 230 of its buildings has started inspecting all government buildings for fire safety.
“We have, during the period under review, carried out 1 559 inspections and these include government buildings which we ordinarily do not inspect because we believe our colleagues in the Ministry of Local Government within the Department of Public Works would have done that.
“However, we took a deliberate effort to inspect government buildings and we have advised our colleagues in the public construction division to attend to certain areas which need attention to prevent loss of life and property,” said Mrs Zhou.
Granted, it is a noble move for the local authority to inspect Government buildings which attract hordes of people seeking various services daily.
People seeking services at public buildings let alone private ones should do so without putting much thought on their safety.
Buildings should be routinely checked for safety.
What is mind-boggling to residents is the fact the council is struggling to maintain its own buildings yet senior officials are advising “colleagues in the public construction division to attend to certain areas which need attention to prevent loss of life and property.”
Is it not an issue of first putting one’s house in order, setting a perfect example before issuing genuine advice without raising eyebrows?
What is more worrying is that the council says its building and maintenance section went “without a substantive head for 18 years, from 2004 until 2022”.
Even without a substantive head, those under the employ should, if routine inspections are carried out have easily detected “leaking roofs, rotten timber, falling roofs… interior and exterior paint peeling off, cracks on walls and pavements…toilets with no covers, faulty flushing systems, cistern, sink, putty falling off, hanging electric wires and some live.”
That does not require money to notice and “who will guard the guards themselves” springs to mind among residents.
Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association (BPRA) is of the view that the lives of residents are highly endangered and their safety very much compromised by the alarming levels of neglect which BCC has admitted.
BPRA Secretary for Administration, Mr Thembelani Dube said it is time for the residents to speak with one voice and condemn the unprecedented proportions of negligence by the local authority.
“There’s an urgent need for collective advocacy to push the local authority to attend to the issue of safety in their structures as the risk percentage is alarming.
“In that regard, the local authority doesn’t have any locus standi to inspect the safety of buildings of other stakeholders if, in their own backyard, the situation is unfavourable,” said Mr Dube.
Ratepayers expect the council to walk the talk, practice what it preaches, and expeditiously implement audit report recommendations.