LOCAL Government Minister Ignatius Chombo issued a controversial directive to councils recently, ordering them to write off debts owed by individual ratepayers from February 2009 — when the country’s economy was formally dollarised —to June 30, 2013.In his directive, Chombo said it has become apparent that the country’s tottering economy has not been operating optimally and in the process relentlessly unleashing severe hardships on the citizenry.
“Thus, from 2009, ratepayers have not been able to meet their obligations in terms of payment of taxes, rentals, levies and related charges resulting in an enormous and crippling debt burden frustrating the majority of the population,” reads part of the directive.
“Given the above circumstances, all local authorities are in terms of Section133 of the Rural District Council Act (Chapter 29:13) as read with Section 303 of the Urban Councils Act (Chapter 29:15) directed to write off debts in respect of rentals, unit tax, development levies, licences and refuse charges owed by individuals ratepayers as at 30 June 2013. In the same vein, money owed by residents for rates, stands prescribed in terms of the Prescription Act (Chapter 8:13) as from February 2009 to 30 June 2013.”
Chombo said the directive was meant to cushion individual ratepayers from the severe effects of the economic challenges experienced during the period in question.
“Please note that, corporates are expected to pay their obligations in full, and where they have challenges viable arrangements shall be worked out with the relevant local authorities,” he added.
Populist as Chombo’s directive might appear; everyone agrees that residents have been struggling to pay their municipal bills due to the low disposable incomes and the high levels of unemployment.
Unemployment currently stands at above 90 percent. In this category are some residents who are also expected to honour their obligations to councils whenever they fall due despite being jobless.
Outside this category, the majority of the residents who are gainfully employed are lowly paid. Some of them being civil servants who are taking home less than US$300 per month. In the informal sector, salaries are much lower than those earned in government.
Against this background, the majority of the residents cannot cope with the bills being charged by councils on a monthly basis. Focus has therefore tended to be on survival than keeping their payments up to date.
The result has therefore been the accumulation of bills owed to councils in respect of rentals, unit tax, development levies, licences and refuse charges as correctly noted by Chombo.
This scenario is not just limited to municipal bills; it extends to water and electricity bills owed to ZESA Holdings and the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA) among other public utilities.
Even our top politicians find themselves in a similar predicament whereby they now owe substantial amounts of money to ZESA, ZINWA and other public enterprises.
While Chombo has every reason to feel for the embattled residents, some of whom are said to have lost houses to crooked Movement for Democratic Change councillors, he must avoid short-term solutions that would eventually plunge the country into a much bigger crisis.
Even after writing off the debts accumulated from February 2009, there is still no guarantee that these residents would be able to meet their future obligations no matter how reasonable they might be unless the tripartite arrangement of labour, the private sector and the government itself work tirelessly to improve the country’s economic fortunes.
It is not a secret that all the municipalities are sitting on huge debtors’ books that are growing at an exponential rate every month. What this means is that a service was rendered by these councils at a cost but those who enjoyed it are unable to pay for it. This obviously results in poor service delivery because the city fathers are unable to collect cash to fund service provision and other administrative costs.
While there is also an element of corruption affecting service delivery in all the municipalities countrywide; government cannot just wake up to announce they have cancelled these debts without preferring solutions that would insulate councils from the lost revenue.
In order to provide service, councils rely on various service providers to supply them with chemicals to purify water, spares etc. There are also banks that provide funding for their operations. These suppliers and banks need to get paid or have the loans serviced to remain in business and that payment can only come from the councils’ ability to collect whatever they are owed by residents.
Without government picking up the tab in the form of inheriting the debts, the move by Chombo will lead to the collapse of suppliers and banks exposed to these municipalities while compromising service delivery and exposing residents to cholera outbreaks, water shortages and deteriorating service levels.
While government has every reason to sympathise with residents and help them out in these difficult economic times, it must not reward defaulters and encourage the dependency syndrome, which has destroyed the country’s economy.
By not giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, government is leaving a trail of disaster in its wake: Just look at what has happened to the once thriving public enterprises such as Air Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe United Passenger Company, the National Railways of Zimbabwe, Cold Storage Company, TelOne and other parastatals that are currently on the brink.
The latest move is also at variance with the values and ethos that underpinned the liberation struggle whereby the bush war fighters used to borrow heavily from chairman, Mao Zedong’s teachings. In the song, Nzira dzemasoja, is a chorus that implored the liberation war fighters to pay for services rendered. It goes thus;
Bhadharai zvamunotenga nenzira dzakanaka
Mudzorere zvinhu zvese zvamunenge matora x2
Awa ndiwo mashoko akataurwa kare
naivo vaMugabe (VaMao) vachitidzidzisa x2
The Bible equally teaches us to honour our debts. God clearly warns us not to go into debt or cosign a loan unless we are certain we can repay our obligation (Proverbs 22:26-27).
It goes without saying that if government currently has no capacity to take over these debts, it must encourage residents to enter into workable payment arrangements with the municipalities while assisting in making life easy for the ordinary people by creating employment opportunities, which is only possible through growing the economic cake.
While the temptation during the electioneering period had been to sell bottled smoke in order to appeal to the masses, we must always avoid dabbling in short-term adventures that would, in the end, destroy the country’s economy.
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