Updated: Jan 21
Last week, Blantyre City decided it was not ready to continue with the momentum built in the last two-and-a-half years of Noel Chalamanda’s mayoral duty. At least, not under Mr. Chalamanda’s charge any more. Instead, the Malawi’s commercial and industrial capital opted to settle for Mr. Chalamanda’s deputy, a subtler, more partisan choice, a candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). A minor technical problem: it was not by Blantyre’s popular vote.
It has been years since Blantyre walked tall, saturated with pride for being one of the cleanest cities in Africa. It cherished this status that treasured order, discipline and its citizens’ commitment to take only one direction, forward. Since the fall of Kamuzu Banda in the early 1990s, the steady and sure decline of the City tiptoed it to dirt and chaos, which claimed for it ranks juxtaposed to Lilongwe and others in Africa that had not quite made par. The reign of Mr. Chalamanda that started in 2014 not only promised the reversion away from mediocrity, although he did not prefer putting it in these words, but actually started making the steps to making Blantyre clean again and more. Barely three years on, Mr. Chalamanda’s achievements seem to have unleashed the nostalgia for the good old days that he had silenced for longer than the DPP could stomach.
The news from COMESA Hall (see pie chart) left many Malawians shaking their heads in disbelief. In part, because this was news befitting Lilongwe’s expectations for their own Mr. Chapondera, who successfully became a painful and consistent reminder of the importance of voting wisely. Malawi’s Capital looked forward to January 2017 with impatience, for in Lilongwe, it was cluelessness that reigned for a painful two-and-a-half years that dictated the impetus for coping with the fact. Waving goodbye to Mr. Chapondera came with a New Year’s jubilation and sigh of relief. But as Boniface Dulani, a political scientist at the University of Malawi, explained, partisan politics prevailed and candidates’ stakes were high where their party was strong.
Now, as with all cities in the world, Blantyre has its load of issues it needs to deal with. A pile that will squeeze juice from Wild Ndipo’s, the new Mayor, cranial system if he will elect to dip his hands into the dirty work his predecessor started.
Some devil took away the valve to the city’s water supply long ago, and Blantyre’s water veins have intermittently gone dry for decades. A metropolis located on high altitude, the pumps in Chileka suffer the ungratifying need to pull the liquid up the hills – from the Shire River – if the residents and factories downtown have any chance to make something productive for themselves. And the water scarcity that has mainly resulted from ailing machines (previously) and relatively weak pumps (since the installation of the new Kirloskar ones), but also due to the troubled electricity supply to fire the pumps into action, has been a key factor in fueling the gaping inequality between the city’s rich and poor.
The state of inequality that inadequate water supply continues to characterize Malawi’s largest city is poised to worsen across a number of key livelihood dimensions, including sanitation, clean water access and the social indicators of progress that are set aback by the prevailing water and sanitation situation. It only means Blantyre’s women and girls have to go the extra mile to fetch water for the household, losing out on more productive engagements such as entrepreneurial activities and education. More often than not, this water will have one contamination or another. And the men and the boys will join in on the effects of poor water quality on human health. The long-term effects on society in general can be guaranteed to get extensively felt, with potential to reverse the gains on development that were made in the past, and those that Mr. Chalamanda’s leadership had a chance at bringing back.
And yet another unruly problem hovers over Blantyre, one that associates with waste management and, therefore, the city’s state of public health. Dump coming out of houses and factories is quickly finding itself in landfills and mingling with the fresh waters flowing through the City, for which the poor have too few questions to ask before they can introduce it into their diets and sanitary activities. A case in point tells the long story of Mudi River and its pollution.
Furthermore, the environmental damage that is affecting Blantyre’s water supply is coupled with other environmental hazards that are filling the City’s skylines.
Blantyre's transportation systems also bear much responsibility regarding the environmental problems the city is experiencing. Thanks to liberalization in the structural adjustment days, shrinking the size of commuter buses to minibuses sharply increased the number of operators, and with it accelerated the production of greenhouse gas emissions, which further lower the quality of life, and escalated the presence of car repair garages, which dump inorganic oil in the ground. The list for the municipal government to attend to continues, as one treks from security, to education, to employment.
Without undermining his capabilities, relative to Mr. Chalamanda’s, Mr. Ndipo’s to-do list is already overwhelming. To make all this happen, on top of his list will have to be revenue collection. And we can hope on his sanity to desist from the limited ambitions that Lilongwe’s new mayor, Malawi Congress Party’s (MCP) Desmond Bikoko, proudly and naively demonstrated as part of his keynote acceptance speech. Mr. Bikoko claims the City Assembly has the capability to raise MK60 million every month. We think “no.” Soon, a wake-up call will hit Mr. Bikoko with how, although right that the City can raise more money, MK60 million per month will not amount to much to improve the services the capital needs. Our second point on this is that we are confident a well-functioning revenue collection mechanism can collect far more than the estimations Mr. Bikoko aspires for.
Mayoral duties need to move past the feeling of importance, an aspect Mr. Chapondera seemed to excel at with flying colors. It also needs to resist appeasing political masters, for cities can be powerful vehicles for development in the country as a whole. If one considers the impacts of rural-urban linkages, in which urban areas facilitate commercial activities with the rural sector in providing commodities for city livelihoods, the scope for everyone's progress is wide.
We believe Blantyre City was on a path to development. This was possible, in part, due to Mr. Chalamanda’s not being leashed to any interest other than his vision. Our hope is that Mr. Ndipo’s overwhelming 17 victory votes will support his vision, inspired by a passion to deliver, rather than use the next two-and-a-half years navigating DPP’s appetites and propaganda.
Finally, citizens of Blantyre City, and the whole Malawi, must hope that the two votes Blantyre City gave Mr. Chalamanda will not be the costliest thing the City has done in its path to progress, and the path the city could ably tag all of us along with it.