The depopulating Bulawayo

The 2012 Zimbabwe preliminary population census results indicate that the City of Bulawayo lost around 3.1 percent (an average of 0.31 percent per annum) of its population in the period between 2002 and 17/18 August 2012. According to the census, the sex ratio of Bulawayo is 87/100 (87 males for every 100 females) and the population density was 479 per km2.

A population census is the prime source of analysing human settlement. There are two basic methods of conducting a population census: the de facto concept and the de jure concept where, the former involves counting persons present on the reference date in the geographic unit examined and the latter refers to counting persons habitually residing in the specified geographic unit regardless of whether they were present or not at the reference date.

The Zimbabwean census was conducted using the de facto method of enumeration, that means all persons in the Bulawayo territory on the night of the 17th/ 18th of August were included irrespective of their citizenship, nationality and residency status. Residents who were outside the city on the census night were not counted or at least attributed to the city.

The de facto census is easy and less expensive yet among its disadvantages is the fact that people in transit may not be counted, the likelihood of an incorrect picture of the population and the distortion of vital rates. It has to be noted that the Zimbabwe preliminary census does not give detail beyond the basic population size, growth rate, sex ratio and population density. Arguably, this makes it difficult to objectively discuss the apparent population decline in Bulawayo and understand why Matabeleland’s capital will experience a population decline at a time when feeder provinces exhibiting major socio-cultural similarities experienced positive growth. Table 1 shows the population changes in the City of Bulawayo between 2002 and 2012.

Year20122002Population Change
Total Population655,675676,650-20,975
Total Male304,446323,550-19,104
Total Female351,229353,100-1,871
Table 1 Bulawayo’s inter-census population change 2002 – 2012
Adapted from Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (2012)

What is evident from Table 1 is that more males than females have left the city since the last census. For every 100 females in Bulawayo, there are only 87 males which may of itself be socioeconomically problematic. However, Table 1 as derived from the census results is too basic to tell the whole story. For instance, has the apparent depopulation been gradual and steady or there was one major population dip at a certain period in the last ten years?

If indeed there was a dip, what was the reason? It is difficult to believe around 20,000 people would have been in their rural homes on the census night. Were these people visitors or temporary workers who have since gone back to their countries or cities of origin? How much of this change is a direct result of migration and how much is due to deaths?

Men tend to be the main bread winners in Zimbabwe, it can thus be argued with a high degree of confidence that the population change experienced by Bulawayo results from migration more than other factors. In the absence of objective comparable household income data it is rather difficult to measure the economic impact of the migration.

The socioeconomic impact goes beyond Bulawayo right into Matabeleland villages and this has arguably been largely negative due to families being torn apart and traditional family support systems disintegrating as individuals outside the country struggle to meet their economic responsibilities among other responsibilities to families left behind. Many children have to endure living apart from either or both of their parents who have sort economic refuge outside the country.

It can be argued that the deindustrialisation of Bulawayo – a direct result of a combination of Zimbabwe’s misplaced political priorities, weak economic fundamentals for much of the 21st Century and the government’s misdirected centralisation policies – has overseen the near collapse of Bulawayo’s economic activity.

Zimbabwe has continually shown disinterest in matters concerning Bulawayo. After some lobbying from the industry ministry, the ministry of finance allocated US$40m to the Distressed Industries and Marginalized Areas Fund (DIMAF) ostensibly to resuscitate Bulawayo industries yet Bulawayo quietly sinks deeper into a state of economic decay as the funds continue to hit unseen obstacles on their way to the city.

The city located in a predominantly arid region has continued to suffer serious water shortage problems; in 2007 it had to decommission some of its supply dams leading to water shedding (controlled water cuts) which resulted in the supply of just under 70,000 cubic metres of water against a daily consumption average of 150,000 cubic metres.

In 2012 water shedding resulted in residents going for 72 hours without water each week, during this period the city could only supply 95 mega litres per day against a consumption average of 110 mega litres. While water shedding eased in 2013, by the start of the last half of that year Bulawayo’s dams were at only 46.6 percent of their capacity, a source of worry for residents and the industrial community.

Crucially, beyond mere rhetoric, the Zimbabwean government has shown little interest in finding and/ or funding a long-term solution to the city’s perennial water problem, a position that has negatively impacted local and international industrial and economic confidence in the city. Poor economic activity has in turn frustrated the ambitions of the working age population of the city resulting in significant emigration to neighbouring states in pursuit of job opportunities.

Bulawayo once an industrial hub has been run aground by the 33 years of ZANU PF incompetence. For the city to lose 3.1 percent (of which 91.1 percent is male) of its population in a decade is scandalous to say the least; it should be an embarrassment to any right-minded government as much as it is damaging to local residents. Population growth is vital for the city’s economic growth. Central government must not enjoy exclusive rights to determine the fate of local regions; devolved powers and not centralised governance is important to meeting the needs focused socioeconomic development of Bulawayo.


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