Of Zimbos, their right to freebies
IF Zimbabweans are to be credited for having a long memory, it should be their memory for things that the country’s liberators promised them during the brutal war of independence…that everything they would need — be it basic or luxury — would be free in a free Zimbabwe.
From the look of things, more than 35 years after Independence, Zimbabweans might have forgotten everything else, but not their right to freebies.
Over the years, it has become almost fashionable for Zimbabweans to insist on their rights to free education, free access to health, access to free agricultural land, access to free farming inputs, access to free business loans, free urban residential stands and a host of other things that otherwise cost money.
Currently, most major urban authorities are fighting pitched battles with residents who are fiercely resisting the introduction of smart water meters, which development would make it impossible to access piped water without paying for it.
According to the residents and the organisations that back them, water is a right that is not negotiable, even in cases where the beneficiary is unable or unwilling to meet the cost of getting it delivered at their home.
It does not matter how such an intransigent attitude would impact on the overall capacity to get that right delivered. What they just know is that they are, by right, entitled to water come rain, come sunshine.
However, these rights have costs. Who should pick the bill?
In his response to the opposition to pre-paid water meters, Local Government, Public Works and National Housing minister, Saviour Kasukuwere, is adamant that the programme should go ahead as there is a cost attached to piping water to our homes; from the purchase of water purification chemicals, maintenance of water reservoirs to the installation and maintenance of infrastructure such as water pipes and plant and machinery, as well as the cost of labour and therefore someone has to pay these cost, and this is the beneficiary through paying their rates.
This is what the residents of Harare do not want to hear about.
Harare Residents Trust director, Precious Shumba pointed out that while the pre-paid water metre project was being done for the benefit of residents, the biggest winners would be corrupt city officials.
“The City of Harare is totally confused about their own project. But one thing they are fully aware of is to create more confusion so that they find more ways of exploiting the residents of Harare,” Shumba said.
“The prepaid meter project is rejected, and should not be implemented without adequate information provided to the citizens. Water is a right, which should not become a burden to the already burdened ratepayers, also experiencing socio-economic hardships. The challenge is that most of the councillors in Harare have benefited from the chaos created by the senior management and they are now going along with every sick project initiated by the officials to make more money out of the smart meter gadgets.”
Harare City spokesman, Michael Chideme, told the Financial Gazette in an interview that just as the country belongs to the citizens who should pay for its upkeep through taxes, the city belongs to residents who should pay rates for service to be delivered.
“The (Harare City) infrastructure belongs to council but it has to be funded. Council gets its revenue from the residents. The residents are the city,” he pointed out.
The city is owed more than US$360 million by the same residents who demand water but are unwilling to pay for it.
What is happening in Harare is a microcosm of the problem at national level where citizens appear to conveniently think of themselves as removed from “the government”, which to them is a mysterious creature removed from them and somehow has some magical powers to deliver anything without limit.
The actual cost of freebies
In the past, President Robert Mugabe’s government populist policies have shown in a practical way what the real cost of “free” things is as virtually all parastatals that were reduced to public free feeding troughs are tottering on the brink of collapse.
To mention but just a few, the National Railways of Zimbabwe had its “freedom train” project where passengers paid next to nothing for a ride and after several years its locomotives and infrastructure had been reduced to a state of disrepair as it was collecting a measly fraction of what it costs to maintain these in good working condition.
The Grain Marketing Board was made to sell grain at a fraction of what it was costing to buy, transport and store the commodity. Now its empty silos are in a decrepit state and it cannot afford to buy grain any more from farmers.
For years, ZESA had been selling power both generated or imported at a premium not just as a fraction of the cost, but also on credit, which debts it had not capacity to collect. This is the context in which current power outages should be viewed, as it has not been able to service its regional power import debts, let alone maintain or upgrade its power generation and distribution infrastructure.
Air Zimbabwe can no longer sours like the proverbial eagle under the weight of a US$300 million debt that arose from its planes flying to such uneconomic routes like China and Dubai at sub-economic fares just to satisfy its quota of national freebies that the citizens of Zimbabwe insist they are entitled to.
State-owned telecommunications fir-ms NetOne and TelOne for several years charged sub-economic tariffs on credit when its competitors had long emigrated to the pre-paid platform resulting in the two lagging behind in their infrastructure upgrading programmes, while at the same time they are saddled with multi-million dollar debts in interconnection fees.
The same has been the case with the Cold Storage Company, the National Oil Company of Zimbabwe, the Agricultural and Rural Development Authority, the Zimbabwe United Passenger Company among several other State-owned enterprises.
Farming equipment, inputs and other “freebies” from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe that citizens stampeded for saw the bank being saddled with a crushing debt of nearly US$1,4 billion, which debt has since been taken over by the government, meaning that the same taxpayers who view the government as a distant creature would have to contribute to its eventual repayment.
Political and social analyst, Rashweat Mukundu, said the friction between citizens and the government via its various authorities is a result of lost trust by the former towards the latter.
He said due to mismanagement of public resources, the State, and its various arms, is no longer trusted to deliver social service resulting in frustration. “There is a growing frustration with leadership capacity on service delivery more so an absence of concrete responses to the suffering caused by the economic problems. The frustration is very personal, and emotional and yet to be organised or result in a major threat to the ruling elite,” Mukundu said.
“Zimbabweans are yet to cross the bridge of seeing beyond officials and still hope solutions can come either from the ruling ZANU-PF or MDC-T’s local councils, or better still want to be left to carry out their activities without interference, vending, as an example. The diagnosis of the problem as a leadership challenge is not yet complete as citizens still somewhat look forward to the same leaders to deliver,” he added.
Are Zimbabweans becoming cry-babies who think they are entitled to a whole cornucopia of free things simply because they are Zimbabweans? Are they entitled to rights without obligations?
Writing in one of his articles, Zimbabwean motivation coach, Milton Kamwendo says while some cases are genuine, there is need to guard against turning begging into an addictive enterprise.
“The beggar spirit plays out at all levels: personal, family, organisational and country levels. The roots of this spirit are self-pity and laziness. Many people go through life expecting someone to feel pity for them and carry their burden through life’s gates while they stroll along to the march of the donor bandwagon. Thinking like a victim disables creativity and innovation and blinds true vision. Things do not change because you count yourself among the unfortunate and glorify your miseries and feel you deserve showers of pity. Change only comes through taking responsibility and challenging yourself to be better and to take action.”
It looks like, for Zimbabweans and their government, the war over rights for free things might continue until the Second Coming, when Jesus Christ comes to repeat his miracle in which — at no cost — he was able to make five loaves of bread and two fish feed a multitude of over 5 000 people so much that they got so full resulting in several basketfuls of left-overs. – Cyril Zenda