Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare minister Sekai Nzenza has been in her post for just over a year. During her tenure she has had to deal with various issues, including the current drought, the forensic report on the National Social Security Authority (Nssa) as well as the devastating impact of Cyclone Idai in the eastern parts of the country. Business reporter Kudzai Kuwaza (KK) spoke to Nzenza (SN, pictured) on the sidelines of the 37th Employers Confederation of Zimbabwe congress held in Bulawayo recently to discuss various issues.
Below are the excerpts:
KK: Can you start by giving me a brief of your tenure in office?
SN: It is actually one year this September, so it has been a very exciting and challenging year. More exciting in that we have a Transitional Stabilisation Programme which gives us the strategic pillars of where the President (Emmerson Mnangagwa) wants to go.
The four pillars that I talked about earlier, that is economic growth, creation of employment, social protection and corporate governance fit in within my ministry. I was coming from a background of international development agencies, but I also worked for corporates. I had come from working in corporate social responsibility in the mining sector, and more recently before I joined this ministry, I was in the agricultural sector.
So what I brought to this portfolio is a very wide range of experience and skill. So much that the different sectors that fall within my ministry did not surprise me. It was like it was just the right job for me, where I hit the ground running.
KK: What are the challenges you face?
SN: I do not want to call them challenges. I want to look at them as the task at hand — was that first and foremost I am looking after the welfare of the most vulnerable people; thus within the social welfare aspect. Under that come the basic needs for every single Zimbabwean.
We are talking about water, education, food, shelter — basically the social wellbeing of a person. That is within my ministry. When we look at civil servants, the salaries and conditions of civil servants, I was quite excited about that because it is aligned with the international labour standards and we also get guidance from there. We have the ILO (International Labour Organisation) office in the country, they always assist us with capacity building.
Let me come back to social protection, under the social welfare programme, we have the sustainable livelihood programme. What I want to do as the minister is to move away from dependency model and not use the word welfare but social protection and safety net. You know, before Independence we did not have dependency on donors. We would stay in the rural areas, and grow and eat what we grow, but over the years, with what has happened with the economy, and also climate change, the livelihoods of people living in the rural areas changed, we have seen increasing poverty. Not only in rural areas, but also in urban areas. We are in an emergency situation. It is a crisis, we are ensuring that people in rural areas get food, but the challenge we are now facing is to identify those in urban areas who need food, and in doing that we are supported very much by the World Food Programme.
For example, we have started identifying those who are hungry in Epworth and already feeding people in Epworth, we would want to be replicating that in other cities.
KK: You have talked about an emergency situation. Can you take us through the challenges that are there and the efforts you are putting in place to mitigate against the effects of drought?
SN: We are looking at a provision of food in every province on a weekly basis. We provide food and we go according to each province. I can tell without figures in front of me that Masvingo province has had the highest number of those in need of food, mainly because of the high population and also many of the areas affected are where it does not rain.
So when we look at the drought like now, we have to reach more people in Masvingo and then we also provide food for Matabeleland South, Matabeleland North, all the provinces and I give figures of food distributed in each province in cabinet every single Tuesday. The President expects me to present that. Some of the challenges that you know of, such as fuel prices, just the logistics are difficult.
However, to mitigate all that we now agreed to work with DDF (District Development Fund) and also with the army because, as I said, it is a crisis. In the short term, we had to ensure that we are able to deliver food to so many households.
KK: What numbers are you looking at?
SN: The numbers are there. We have what we call the Zimvac (Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee) report, that came out about two months ago. It gave us a figure of 5,5 million, but based on what the district social workers and the community-based social workers tell us, we have a lot more. So our current estimate is well beyond 6,8 million and again the Zimvac report had given us a figure, in terms of food of about 880 000 tonnes, but our estimate now is about 1,2 million tonnes of maize are needed.
This season is a very much lean season because from September to the time the rain comes, to the time we harvest, it is going to take us time. So we are counting the time from the dry season right up to harvest.
KK: That brings me to the question about some of the reports that have come out from Cyclone Idai, of food which was supposed to benefit victims of the cyclone, rotting in warehouses. What can be done to avoid such situations recurring?
SN: We are prepared for drought, but we were not prepared for the cyclone. The cyclone took us by surprise. When I heard that the cyclone had happened, I went there personally with the minister of Local Government and Public Works, Honourable July Moyo, he is in charge of disaster management, so we went there together with honourable (Agriculture minister Perrance) Shiri. We got there and it was raining. It was around the 17th of March, that is when we tried to cross over and found that there was no road.
Then we got the helicopter and the mist was just too much, that is when we became aware of the disaster and it hit us that those funds that my ministry had put aside for social protection now needed to go quickly to support the people.
During that time, in the very first few days, we were able to get support from the kindness and generosity of corporates and even other countries came to our aid through the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Local Government.
My ministry’s role is to identify the affected and then to provide them with food. So there are lessons learnt to what happened. I haven’t got the facts with me but we will ensure that in the future, we will be better prepared.
KK: Let me come to the National Social Security Authority. You came under a lot of pressure for delaying the release of the audit report. How far have you gone in addressing the various aspects of the report?
SN: They were right in saying that I had taken time to release the report. When I got into this role, the first thing I did was to try and understand Nssa. I knew that the Auditor-General ordered that a forensic audit be carried out on Nssa.
I talked to the people who had done the report and I got the draft. When I saw the draft, I realised that it was not a simple forensic report. It needed to be unpacked so that we can understand whether there were legal issues or it was just bad governance or whether someone might have committed a crime. I was not sure, so I needed guidance from the experts. The experts that I got had to do with human resources, investments, corporate governance, and with IT (information technology).
And you know our system; through procurement, it does take time because you have to do due diligence and show the people the right thing. That process took long, that is when the parliamentarians were saying “what is holding you back?”. When I finally got the experts that is when they unpacked it.
KK: When you talked about the report, you cited significant irregularities. Were you shocked by the irregularities you saw in the report?
SN: I cannot say personally I am shocked. I just realised something within the corporate governance system was broken and it must be fixed because at the end of the day we must realise that we are working for that person who subscribes to Nssa. So what I saw being broken is that we needed to be accountable to that person.
KK: Minister, are we bound to see more arrests as a result of the forensic report?
SN: I am pleased that I have a board. When the system gets broken and there is lack of accountability and we have a situation like we have at Nssa, often it is because the corporate governance best practices are not being followed.
The government is putting in place what we call the Public Entities Corporate Governance Act. It was not there before. It was put in last year so what I have done soon after I got into this ministry is to ensure that I have the right board members with diversity of skills so they are working closely with those experts that I mentioned, the lawyers.
Their role now is to say are there any criminal activities that happened or was it just an HR (human resources) matter? When I say HR matter, is it the case of incompetence, misconduct or unethical practice? So as you can see, as minister my role is to ensure that good governance has been put in place. They work with the board.
I cannot possibly comment on whether there will be more arrests or no arrests, but what I can say is that I do have lawyers who are unpacking whether these irregularities involved criminal offences or simply misconduct.
KK: Are you confident that this board will not repeat what we have seen in the past such as misuse of funds?
SN: I am absolutely confident, because this board is properly constituted, it has got representatives from the business though we still have one more to put in the board who is not from the business. We have ZCTU and Peter Mutasa (ZCTU president) was here today and he is happy, we have the ZFTU so everybody is represented and what is crucial here is the skillset that I have but what is still missing is the CEO.
KK: Could you give us a timeline as to when we can expect a Nssa chief executive in place?
SN: I was hoping as soon as possible, but I have not been able to identify the right candidate. I cannot give you a timeline because I do not know whether the few names that we have will pass the test. But, look, if they pass the test next week, fair enough, but I do not know because if they don’t I might have to get back to the drawing board.