Debt cancellation and the Poor residents of Harare

AS residents across Zimbabwe celebrate the cancellation of all debt accumulated from February 2009 to 30 June 2013, those in Harare felt vindicated because they had always demanded debt cancellation up to December 2010.

With biting economic hardships that continue to affect Zimbabweans in their communities, residents had been experiencing difficulties in paying their monthly bills to the City Council. Without sympathy to the residents, the Harare City Council mischievously continued to charge a 51 percent interest rate on overdue accounts from the time of the introduction of the multi-currency regime to June 2009, worsening the debt situation for the residents. The council then introduced a 10 percent interest as directed by the Government.

The City of Harare has a mammoth task to overcome the inefficiencies that dogged their BIQ billing system, which is subject to manipulation through the journal voucher system, auto credit, and alleged rampant hacking of accounts by senior management, who have unhindered access to server passwords. Through this chaotic billing system, dependable ratepayers who regular settle their bills have been found in desperate situations where their bills continue to rise, despite making monthly payments.

Several meetings were organised with targeted councillors in Harare and council officials to try to persuade them to see things from the perspective of the suffering residents, but all that failed to yield positive results. But issue letters of final demand, summons and subsequently attached residents’ properties in Mabvuku, Tafara and Rugare for failure to settle outstanding unjustified bills.

In the wake of these attachments, plus 300 Rugare residents quickly organised themselves, and demonstrations, supported by the HRT ensued. Without hesitation, we sided with the 15 residents whose properties had been attached, and we pursued this matter until every one of the victims had their properties restored to them. The City of Harare had no justification to attach residents’ property, against the policy of the council, and without listening to residents. Property attachments are a form of cruelty to the poor citizens who cannot find money to settle inflated bills. They only leave residents poorer, without any means to live in peace. For instance a resident from Mabvuku, whose property was attached in February 2012, at a time she claimed she was admitted in Hospital. When she discovered other residents had recovered their properties, she visited the HRT offices and reported her case. Upon follow-up on the property the HRT and the Community were shocked to discover that out of the property attached to cover an $800.00 debt only $67.19 went to City of Harare towards debt settlement while the rest of the money went to the Messenger of Court. Many residents across Zimbabwe found it difficult to clear their Council debts as a result of economic and social difficulties, plus the unjustified interest rates charged by local authorities.

After realising that property attachments are impoverishing residents and settling for payment plans was not helping much, plus 3 000 residents of Harare signed a petition that demanded the cancellation of debts from the period February 2009 up to December 2010. This petition was handed over to then Deputy Mayor of Harare at Town House on 06 November 2012 during a demonstration. Councillors, led by then Mayor Muchadeyi Masunda ignored residents’ calls for debt cancellation, based on arguments that bordered on arrogance and contempt for the poor majority.

With all this in mind, the Harare Residents Trust celebrates the move by the Minister of Local Government, Urban and Rural Development of ordering local authorities to cancel residents’ debts, in direct response to residents’ demands within communities. The Minister was however not clear on how to handle those residents who were paid up.

The debt cancellation which was done by the Minister would have been done by the Councillors who were the first point of engagement for the HRT on this matter, if they were listening to the voice of the residents whom they should primarily represent in their council. Residents are not concerned on who really made it happen, but are celebrating a victory over tyranny at Town House where arrogance and contempt for the poor people reigned supreme in the last four and half years. Some were being diagnosed with high blood pressure due to economic and social hardships.

Going forward, residents are encouraged to pay their bills on time in order to receive services they can complain about. The Minister’s directive on debt cancellation should not be misconstrued to mean people should live for free in urban local authorities but should strive to pay because money is needed to provide essential services. But residents will not pay for services not rendered as a matter of principle. As residents we must take this debt cancellation as a once in a lifetime, and should provide us with a clean start, and a departure from non-payment of bills.

The incoming Councillors should work with the residents who voted for them, address their grievances and engage them within the communities.

Post published in: News
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