Cars for chefs: A malady of misplaced priorities

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GOVERNMENT’S splurge on luxury vehicles at a time it is failing to meet critical obligations has once again exposed the authorities’ penchant for excessive spending amid a sea of poverty.

By Kudzai Kuwaza

The State Procurement Board is currently facilitating the purchase of new cars for senior government officials among them ministers, deputy ministers and permanent secretaries.

The purchase of new cars, estimated to cost well over US$20 million, barely a year ahead of general elections, is seen as a “golden handshake” for ministers who may drop by the wayside after next year’s harmonised elections.

According to salespersons at Premier Auto, a leading Land Rover dealer, the price of a Range Rover varies from US$150 000 for a three-litre diesel engine to a whopping US$192 000 for the same engine capacity but with superior specifications.

Zimbabwe’s bloated executive — which can’t live within its means — currently consists of 33 ministers, 22 deputies and 33 permanent secretaries. Senior officials from the Office of the President and the Civil Service Commission also enjoy executive perks such as luxury cars.

The spending spree is occurring when the country faces power cuts as South African power utility Eskom has given Zesa Holdings until the end of the month to clear its debt arrears, failing which it will cut the supply of 300 megawatts it supplies to the country.

This also comes happening at a time when government is spending more than 90% on recurrent expenditure, including civil servants’ wages which have been staggered since 2015.

Besides, government’s profligate spending also comes against a backdrop of public hospitals which have become death traps due to years of gross under-funding and dilapidation.

Such has been the parlous state of the health sector that some of the public health institutions have at times suspended surgical operations. Health workers recently went on strike due to poor working conditions.

The disastrous state of the health sector has resulted in President Robert Mugabe and senior government officials such as Policy Co-ordination and Promotion of Socio-Economic Ventures minister Simon Khaya Moyo seeking treatment outside the country.

This week, Mugabe left for Singapore where the government says he is seeking a “routine medical check-up”. Ordinary Zimbabweans, meanwhile, cannot afford the services of private hospitals and foreign medical tourism. Public hospitals are failing to dispense basic medicines and painkillers.

The country’s education sector is not faring any better, with most students learning in deplorable conditions.

Overcrowding and a lack of teaching material have become synonymous with most government schools.

Government is also struggling to pay 2016 bonuses for its workers as reflected by the staggered payment of the 13th cheque from April to August this year. This was only after the paymaster had offered residential stands in lieu of the bonus, an indication that the government is desperately broke.

The government was armtwisted into paying cash after civil servants vehemently protested against being paid in such a manner.

The excessive spending in the face of a deepening economic crisis is not limited to the purchase of luxury vehicles.
Right at the top, Mugabe spent more than US$30 million on foreign trips in the first 10 months of both 2015 and 2016.

Expenditure on foreign trips and luxury vehicles is occurring despite Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa repeatedly expressing alarm at the state of national coffers that have been severely depleted due to liquidity constraints, which has resulted in a severe cash shortage, low capacity utilisation, company closures and job losses.

The outlay on luxury vehicles amid worsening poverty signifies not only misplaced priorities and insensitivity, but also electioneering ahead of next year’s polls, according to economist and Buy Zimbabwe chairman Oswell Binha.

“Electioneering mode triggers populist measures to be made at every level of government,” Binha said.

“Surely, for a country like Zimbabwe with low levels of productivity and the multiplicity of challenges that we have, I would advise against such unstrategic expenditure.

“It is incumbent upon government that expenditure be transferred to productivity. It is amazing that government does not have problems with spending money on politically instigated activities. The country will not eat politics.”

Binha said government should be focussed on ensuring that the country maximises on its “optimum strategic sweet spot”.

Binha’s comments on the need to cut down on expenditure resonate with what Chinamasa tried to implement last year. In his mid-term fiscal policy last year, Chinamasa proposed a raft of measures to cut down on spending which included retrenching civil servants, reducing salaries of cabinet ministers and closing some of the country’s embassies. The proposals were thrown out by cabinet.

In 2015, Chinamasa announced that government would suspend the payment of bonuses until 2017 given the government’s depleted coffers. Mugabe, however, within the same week, reversed Chinamasa’s decision, claiming that the presidium had not been consulted and that civil servants should always get their 13th cheque.

Bulawayo-based analyst and Crisis Coalition spokesperson Dumisani Nkomo said the excessive spending in the face of grinding poverty shows the government is divorced from the deepening economic crisis.

“It means our leaders are more and more divorced from the people,” Nkomo said.

“It is now an Animal Farm type of situation. Instead of fixing the roads, they buy vehicles. The healthcare system has collapsed. The malady of misplaced priorities is now a chronic and incurable disease in government.”

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