ALTHOUGH restrictions have traditionally been imposed on civil servants engaging in political activity to ensure public confidence in the impartiality of the civil service, Zanu PF and the MDC-T are battling for the heart and soul of the professional bureaucracy ahead of crucial elections.
Report by Paidamoyo Muzulu
Zanu PF is fighting to perpetuate the spurious claim that it is the legitimate representative of the poor, while MDC-T is trying to sustain its own dubious assertions that it is a workers’ party.
This has brought the issue of improving civil servants’ salaries and working conditions to the fore, with both parties trying hard to endear themselves to the workers despite clear evidence that government has no resources to adequately remunerate public servants.
Even though there is no money to pay government workers, the two parties have been fighting to win over the support of the country’s 230 000-strong public service, particularly after the formation of the coalition government in February 2009.
Initially, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who is also MDC-T leader, endeared himself to struggling civil servants in his inaugural speech at the Glamis Arena in Harare soon after he became premier committing himself to resume paying public workers’ salaries and benefits, which had fallen away during the economic meltdown.
Tsvangirai announced the voucher system of payment, introduced by the Zanu PF government to counter skyrocketing hyperinflation, was being scrapped and civil servants were going to be paid in cash henceforth.
The restless civil servants and the security services in particular, were resultantly calmed down as the coalition government promised to usher in a new era of political and economic stability. Security forces were on the brink of rioting when the inclusive government was formed due to government’s failure to pay them. There had been disturbances, with disgruntled soldiers involved in riotous behaviour in central Harare.
After initially accepting the resumption of paltry salaries in 2009, civil servants — the following year, June 2010 — started demanding a pay rise, but Treasury could not afford, let alone sustain it.
The burden of explaining the lack of money fell on Finance minister Tendai Biti, also MDC-T secretary-general, and suddenly close relations that had been seemingly forged at the creation of the coalition government began to get uneasy and later sour.
Biti, realising government could not afford salary increments, blamed the opaqueness surrounding diamond revenue inflows and the 75 000 ghost workers on the civil service payroll for affecting fair remuneration.
Relations between government and civil servants slowly began to deteriorate while restlessness intensified. The MDC-T was on the back foot as it runs both Treasury and the public service portfolios.
President Robert Mugabe and Zanu PF quickly seized the opportunity, accusing the MDC-T of blocking workers’ demands and of being anti-working class. Mugabe publicly ordered Biti to review civil servants’ salaries in a populist bid to gain their support even though he knew there was no money.
Biti initially resisted, leading to clashes not just with Mugabe, but also Tsvangirai who wanted to be seen as sympathetic to workers.
Due to pressure from Mugabe, civil servants’ salaries were eventually improved from US$100 to an average US$250 a month in January 2010, leaving the impression the MDC-T was against the workers.
Mugabe and his party officials continued to demand further reviews of civil servants’ salaries, piling pressure on Biti.
However, last week Biti, who continues to stick to his guns, found himself with the unenviable task of informing civil servants they might not receive annual bonuses because of scarce cash inflows.
The announcement triggered fears of a strike by civil servants. The MDC-T seems aware of Zanu PF’s role in this issue and this week released a strong statement urging government to stop politicking and address the civil servants issue.
“It is disturbing Zanu PF continues to dabble in selfish politics by blocking minister Biti’s proposals to raise money from the diamonds proceeds in order to make a respectable salary package for the civil servants a living reality,” MDC-T spokesperson Douglas Mwonzora said.
In July, Biti revised the country’s economic growth projection downwards and warned that revenue inflows were generally performing below target.
He said Treasury had only collected targeted revenue in March and June simply because these are the months corporates paid their quarterly taxes.
The minister continued to complain about lack of transparency and remittances of diamond revenues and government’s foreign trips.
Political commentator Dewa Mavhinga said government should stop playing to the gallery, but concentrate on fixing the economy.
“Political grandstanding on the issue of civil servants’ salaries is very easy, but the central issue is that Zimbabwe’s economy is not performing,” said Mavhinga. “It is plagued by massive corruption and leaks of its precious resources like diamond revenues where there is little or no accountability to enable proper planning and distribution of resources in a way that benefits the nation.”
However, development specialist Maxwell Saungweme said both parties should just work on improving the conditions of workers than blaming each other since they are part of the same government.
Saungweme said: “Zanu PF, together with its MDC partners in the coalition government, should take the blame for allowing conditions of service for civil servants to plummet under their watch while they are part of a bloated government with many useless ministries. It’s a government that buys expensive vehicles for ministers while its civil servants don’t earn enough money for bus fare for them to commute to work every month.”
The politicisation of civil servants’ salary and hijacking of trade unions by political parties have created a situation in which civil servants’ salary and working conditions issues have given parties convenient political campaign platforms, while workers continue to suffer. Resultantly, civil servants have become political pawns on the electoral chessboard.