HARARE – Despite the writing-off of all residents’ bills to local authorities countrywide — at the instruction of Zanu PF ahead of the 2013 elections — Zimbabweans’ debts to councils for water and utilities remain a nightmare.
While the debt cancellation was widely viewed as a campaign gimmick by President Robert Mugabe’s long-ruling Zanu PF to woo voters, it was embraced by the hard-pressed citizens, who heaved a sigh of relief from nagging bailiffs.
Nearly five years down the line, with Zimbabwe hurtling towards another election, the struggling masses — who have had their properties attached by local authorities over bill arrears — yearn for another debt write down.
For Yvonne Maisiri, a 58-year-old vendor living in the high density Zengeza suburb in Chitungwiza, her hope is squarely pinned on another debt write-off.
“Frankly, I don’t care where relief comes from as long as it comes. If Zanu PF can write-off our debts again, I will be extremely grateful,” she told the Daily News.
According to Chitungwiza Town Council records, about 40 percent of water meters are not working, and water consumption is being billed on estimates, making it difficult for residents to budget.
Out of approximately 14 000 water meters in the town, 8 000 are not working creating a ripe ground for disputes.
In 2013, then Local Government minister Ignatius Chombo ordered all 92 local authorities in Zimbabwe to write-off residents’ rentals, unit tax, development levies, licences and refuse charges as at June 30 that year, as part of the ruling party’s election campaign.
But as the 2018 election approaches, local authorities fear the anticipated debt write-off has encouraged ratepayers to default on their bills, deepening the problems faced by municipalities, which are already saddled by bad debts.
Harare mayor Bernard Manyenyeni bemoaned the debt write-off.
“Harare City Council (HCC) started 2013 on the back of two crippling signatures — the ministerial approval of the current salary levels and . . . the debt write-off of $330 million equivalent to more than two years revenue,” he said.
While HCC is currently owed $600 million-plus by defaulting ratepayers, on the other hand, it is battling complaints over poor service delivery — non-trafficable roads, unaffordable housing and erratic availability of water.
Harare has since shelved its vision of becoming a world class city by 2025 due to widening budget deficit, and increased lawlessness among citizens, Manyenyeni said.
“The chickens have since come home to roost. Your City cannot be run by politicking, slogans and wishes. The right things must be done like anywhere else in the world.
“Not only do we now find ourselves paying nearly $10 million dollars in salaries from a collection of $13 million dollars monthly, with seven months arrears, but we are also faced with a ratepayer who is expecting another write-off in 2018,” Manyenyeni said.
Mutare mayor Tatenda Nhamarare said the eastern border town’s council was currently owed in excess of $30 million, and could not afford another write-off.
“We are experiencing the same problem just like other authorities but I am hoping that government this time around will not make such a decision,” Nhamarare said.
Bulawayo City Council’s acting financial director Cyprian Dabengwa also acknowledged that the anticipated debt write-off has encouraged ratepayers not to pay bills.
“Now that we are moving towards an election, we are seeing a trend where people are now slowing down in terms of payment. Our hope is that there won’t be any debt write-off,” Dabengwa told a news conference last week, warning central government to seriously consider the repercussions of such a move.
“As a local authority, we have made representation to government that when you write-off the debts; let’s consider the costs that council has incurred in terms of providing services. So we are very hopeful that another write-off is unlikely,” he said.
Bulawayo town clerk, Christopher Dube, has previously made similar calls insisting council can only improve on service delivery, if residents pay their bills on time.
BCC bills arrears stand at $157 million.
Meanwhile, Local government minister Saviour Kasukuwere met local government authorities at an annual general meeting in the resort town of Kariba this past week and promised the local authorities that they would not be a debt write-off.