HARARE – Harare City Council (HCC) executive has defied mayor Bernard Manyenyeni’s directive to terminate contracts of debt collectors who have been terrorising hard-pressed residents struggling to pay rates.
The mayor, who issued the order last week, argues that “it is unfair to squeeze money from suffering residents in order to allocate 70 percent of that money to salaries at the expense of service delivery”.
But this week, the debt collectors — charging a 10 percent commission on every payment made — continued on the rampage, slapping the hapless rate payers with final demand warnings.
This comes as the Morgan Tsvangirai-led MDC directed Harare councillors on February 28 to cancel the debt collectors’ contracts.
In giving his order last week, Manyenyeni said the aggressive debt recovery methods were brutal and that HCC has “little moral ground to demand these amounts from suffering residents when our cost structure is far from satisfactory”.
More importantly, he highlighted that the accuracy of the outstanding debts to council was contested.
Scores of residents have lost their belongings, as the local authority attached and auctioned property to settle outstanding rate payers’ debts.
However, HCC spokesperson Michael Chideme insisted the debt collectors’ were still contracted.
“Nothing has changed. Debt collectors are still contracted by council and only a full council resolution can change the status quo,” he said.
But, Residents Forum coordinator Denford Ngadziore argued that enlisting debt collectors will not address the root cause making people struggle to pay rates — economic meltdown.
“It (hiring debt collectors) should not be unilateral decision of council management,” he said. Community Water Alliance (CWA) chairperson Hildaberta Rwambiwa said disregarding a policy directive is tantamount to assuming the power and authority of the parent ministry as overseer of a local authority.
She added that council bureaucrats cannot assume such powers and can only influence policy through research papers that are then presented to councillors for either adoption or rejection.
Rwambiwa said engaging or disengaging private debt collectors is a policy issue whose formulation lies squarely with councillors as policy makers.
“The decision by council bureaucrats is an act of insubordination, misconduct and disregard of lawful instructions. Bureaucrats who have a strong desire to formulate policy have a chance to contest for positions and get elected,” Rwambiwa said.
The CWA chairperson added that a debt audit was in order to ascertain exactly how much residents owed as a precondition to debt justice.
“Where refuse has not been collected for a month, no charges should appear on the composite bill. Where water has not been provided there should not be any charge for water consumption,” Rwambiwa said.