Zimbabwe: As services collapse, corruption flourishes

HARARE, 28 May 2007 (IRIN) - Besides having to contend with leaking water pipes and frequent power outages, Zimbabwe's urban residents, still have to grease the palms of officials to ensure they can get access to even these dysfunctional services.

"As residents, we are faced with the twin evil of a continuously deteriorating service delivery system and corrupt officials, some of them in decision-making positions, who take advantage of the sorry state of affairs to fleece us when we ask for the situation to be rectified," Edmore Mbirimi, a resident of Chitungwiza, a satellite town 35km from the capital, Harare, told IRIN.

Three weeks ago, the sewage pipe at his house burst, an increasingly common problem in urban areas throughout the country, and he telephoned the works department that promised to come "soon".

After a 24 hour-wait, he decided to call again and was grumpily told that the sewage department was overwhelmed and he had to wait his turn.

When sewage started to seep into the house, he was assured that the problem would be rectified the same day but, again, no one turned up.

"It was on the sixth visit that a young employee accosted me on my way out and bluntly told me that nothing would be fixed unless I 'dropped a feather', suggesting that I had to pay the plumbers for them to repair the burst pipe", Mbirimi added.

The public works officials have now stalled work at his home, after he attempted to report the corruption to higher authorities, who also failed to take action.

It is now commonplace for urban centre residents to experience weeks-long water cuts, frequent power outages, uncollected refuse and live with a broken down sewage system. Municipalities, power and water utilities often cite the lack of foreign currency to import parts needed to make necessary repairs on infrastructure, buy new vehicles for refuse collection, or to buy electricity from neighbouring countries.

Last week, the Chitungwiza municipality indicated in a report that it had suspended garbage collection because its trucks had broken down, and it lacked the capacity to repair them, adding that the situation had been worsened by the rampant theft of spare parts.

Grease works

Mbirimi's neighbour, Josphat Matema, is a pragmatist. He has made friends with the official plumbers by paying them and buys them an occasional beer when they come around to do a job.

"I don't even have to visit them. They have pledged to check on my house every fortnight because I am now their friend. Faced with such a crisis, I don't have a choice but to pay, otherwise I would forever be moaning", Matema told IRIN.

Matema, a mechanic, is one of several thousand residents who have to pay kickbacks to authorities to access water, electricity and a functioning sewage system.

The need to pay kickbacks is despite the fact that municipalities and utilities such as the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA), which recently hiked tariffs by 350 per cent, are charging exorbitant rates that most ratepayers cannot afford.

Annual inflation currently stands at more than 3,700 percent and unemployment is estimated to be around 80 percent, those with jobs struggle to raise money for transport to go to work and have a decent meal because of poor salaries. Many pensioners receive monthly payouts which can only buy a bar of soap.

Pensioners suffer

Harare resident, Margaret Muhoni, 66, a widow, has to live without water and electricity for a year.

Before being cutoff, Muhoni had paid about US$0.10 (at the parallel market exchange rate, where US$1 buys Zim$50,000) a month for services until her bill suddenly shot up to US$60. She was told that her bill was incorrect, but to her surprise, authorities insisted that she pay the amount while they corrected the anomalies.

"I shed tears when one of them who seemed to know me suggested that since I have a daughter living abroad, I should pay him in foreign currency to have my bills normalised but the truth is I could not pay for what I think were deliberate errors meant to force me to give them something," said Muhoni.

She accused the authorities of taking advantage of her old age. Muhoni has let out some rooms in her property, but the rental is nominal because of the absence of running water and power. She has to buy firewood for cooking and heating, while she and her tenants fetch water from a nearby church.

Unaccountable officials

IRIN was unable to get comment from the municipality, power or water authorities, but an official in the Chitungwiza works' department said it took two to tango.

"The issue of corruption is real, especially in these times of suffering where employees are poorly paid and are extremely demoralised because they mostly have to work without protective clothing, but residents are also to blame as they encourage unscrupulous practices," the official told IRIN.

The Combined Harare Residents Association (CHRA), a ratepayers' watchdog, blamed the corruption and shoddy service delivery on the absence of an elected council.

"This (corruption) is an issue of serious concern to us but it does not come as a surprise because there is no legitimate authority to monitor and instill discipline in employees who feel free to do whatever they please knowing that they will not be called to account for their unscrupulous actions," said Precious Shumba, CHRA spokesman.

Since Elias Mudzuri, elected as mayor on the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) ticket in 2002 was fired by the government for alleged incompetence three years ago, the Harare municipality is being run by a controversial commission. Most of the municipalities in the urban centres are run by MDC-dominated councils, who complain that they are being frustrated by the ZANU-PF government.