Policing cities in Africa traps leaders in political maze

On a tour of The Golden City a few years ago, a group of us Zimbabwean journalists were exhorted from getting out of our cars during a visit to Hillbrow.

On a tour of The Golden City a few years ago, a group of us Zimbabwean journalists were exhorted from getting out of our cars during a visit to Hillbrow.

We were sophisticated enough not to ask why: we could be mugged, raped, killed or thoroughly abused, in one of the most dangerous parts of a dangerous city.

My plumbing has always been faulty, so I had to go - someone had to accompany me to do the business a distance away from the car. Phew! I survived.

What we dared not dwell on, as we continued the tour, sponsored, ironically, by the tourism and airline people in South Africa, was this embarrassing statistic - Hillbrow teems with Zimbabweans.

It would take too long, a whole chapter of War and Peace, to analyse the peculiar circumstances in which a group of intrepid (?) Zimbabweans have turned part of this metropolis into their own turf.

Recently, the UN celebrated World Habitat Day, during which the focus was on crime in the cities. I was bred entirely in the city and know a thing or two about how life there can be a desperate struggle against the cruelty of humankind.

An example: in the 1950s, I bought the most fashionable machine of the period, a three-speed sports bicycle. To show it off, I took it to New Lines in Harare township, where an uncle lived.

Another uncle, fascinated by this much-coveted possession, decided to take it for a spin. It was the last I ever saw of it - at the big market, Musika, it was stolen.

I was as heart-broken as I was nearly 30 years later when, again in this same beautiful city in which I was bred, they stole my car, outside a five-star hotel.

So, before and after independence, I had two precious possessions stolen from me. I blame it all on politics.

Policing the city is a political assignment for whoever is in charge - the mayor or the chairman of the advisory board, as Harare township once had. Residents have to feel totally safe in their city and the person in charge has to make a calculated move to ensure that they can identify their safety in the city with their leader.

In independent Africa today, everything is tinged with politics, more or less indelibly. Harare, for instance, politically belongs to the opposition: the government couldn't countenance this for long. So it engineered, in the most dastardly act of subterfuge imaginable, to have Zanu-PF take it over.

In essence, the people of Harare are under a dictatorship - they didn't elect the mayor and the councillors, a bunch of Zanu-PF zealots foisted on them by a government pathologically intolerant of dissent.

Whether we like it or not, running cities in Africa has become as big a job as it is in the rest of the civilised world: people have to have total confidence in whoever is running the city, much as they have to trust totally the people running the government.

The high-profile case of National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi, and the likely repercussions of its outcome on President Thabo Mbeki's political profile is a poignant reminder of why almost everything an African leader does today has a huge political element. Ignoring it has cost some a lot. It's a global thing and African leaders have to play the game by the rules, or risk being ruled offside.