It’s déjà vu as the futility and short-termism of Zanu PF’s populist decision to slash or write off residents’ rate debts to local authorities and Zesa on the eve of the 2013 general elections is fully exposed.
Candid Comment by Stewart Chabwinja
The gloves are off as the Harare City Council, buoyed by a court ruling that water was not a constitutional right, embarks on massive water disconnections in an attempt to recover about US$125 million owed by residents. This is in tandem with plans to roll out a pre-paid water programme, which basically implies those who cannot afford would go without water.
Elsewhere, national power utility, Zesa — whose service has been further dimmed by intensified power cuts owing to depressed generation at Kariba — is in the aggressive process of recovering US$1 billion owed by motley consumers. That reportedly includes forcing the multitudes of domestic consumers who owe more than US$500 into a stringent payment plan rendering those on the pre-paid platform, who skip payment, unable to buy recharge tokens thus going without power.
It might seem ages ago due to the fleeting nature of the relief, but soon after the 2013 elections — and as per government’s pre-poll promise — Zesa wrote off US$170 million in debts owed mostly by domestic customers and US$80 million for farmers.
The fact that council and Zesa are now resorting to desperate measures to recover millions owed amid revelations many residents have not paid a cent since the debt reprieve, speaks to an underlying problem. Most Zimbabweans are now members of a growing underclass that cannot meet the cost of basic necessities such as water and power. It is not a case of reluctance to pay, but rather inability to do so, for rate non-payment was never a major problem when the economy was in better health.
The perilous nature of the country’s economic implosion is manifest in a survey released this week suggesting about 75% of households interviewed would be unable to pay school fees this term.
Clearly, the solution does not lie in tackling symptoms, eg slashing debts. Nor does it lie in charity; in one such case self-proclaimed Mugabe foot soldier, Vice-President Phelekezela Mphoko, recently paid fees for impoverished schoolchildren in Guruve, pledging to support even more in future.
Zimbabweans are hard workers who deserve the dignity of paying their bills and take care of their own families. Unfortunately, they have been robbed of that capacity, by prolonged economic mismanagement punctuated by disastrous, populist policies.
The burgeoning informal sector, being touted as “the new economy” by government, is evidently not providing much besides basic sustenance to the unemployed.
The people are under siege from a rising tide of poverty and debt. It is time for Mugabe’s regime to “bite the bullet” — to quote Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa — in order to stop the rot and attract foreign investment.
Until then, more will have the task of deciding whether to put food on the table, pay the bills or send children to school.