Debt cancellation pushes country to new crisis

The Zanu (PF) government directive, which forced local authorities to cancel debts owed them by ratepayers, will push the country back to an economic crisis worse than in 2007, according to local government consultant Christopher Matumbike.

Rodgers Mazhenty: Councils should spearhead land leaseholds.
Rodgers Mazhenty: Councils should spearhead land leaseholds.

In a policy described by Zanu (PF) critics as a costly and populist political gimmick, government ordered councils to cancel debts for the period 2009 to June 2013. As a result, councils have been unable to pay workers or provide services.

Speaking at a public meeting in Harare, Matumbike said the directive stemmed from an irrational election-inspired decision by Zanu (PF), and that it would haunt Zimbabwe for a long time.

“The unfortunate reality is that ratepayers are no longer willing to pay monthly dues, hoping for another benevolent gesture by government. At the same time, local authorities are unable to provide services due to lack of funds,” said Matumbike.

Matumbike warned that Zimbabwe was fasttracking back to 2007 and the scenario would take its toll on poor people, who would have no alternatives to make ends meet.

He suggested that government pay for debt relief extended to ratepayers by local authorities to resuscitate services.

Another option for struggling residents, he said, was to cut the council budget through settling monthly bills in kind. Residents could pay bills by doing work such as refuse collection, pothole filling, attending to burst sewer and water pipes and waste management.

Matumbike also noted that the transfer of water management from local authorities to the Zimbabwe National Water Authority free of charge deprived local authorities of a traditional source of finance.

The government land reform programme was partly blamed for the district councils’ financial woes. Unlike their predecessors, new farmers failed to contribute to unit tax, which was the main revenue base for rural district councils, since their plots were small and production low. Many mining businesses, another contributor to unit tax, had closed down.

Matumbike attributed local governance failure to council negligence, inconsiderate private developers, systematic corruption, political interference in council business, abuse of office by councillors and inadequate funding among other reasons.

To turn around fortunes in local authorities, he suggested that councillors and residents should join forces and address the poor services situation, and that councils should create private/public sector partnerships to reduce costs.

As a way forward, Matumbike said there was need to revive the economy by empowering industry to cut the country’s dependence on imports.

“There is need to improve the investment climate to attract internal investors to our economy,” Matumbike added.

He said government should not blame the targeted sanctions for its shortcomings “as Ian Smith improvised things and survived sanctions against his regime”.

The Smith sanctions issue attracted a rebuke from a Zanu (PF) panellist at the discussion, Godfrey Chaibva.

Chaibva said: “It is wrong for anyone to compare the brutal and ruthless Smith regime, which was only affected by window-dressing sanctions, unlike the Mugabe administration reeling under unjustified and real sanctions.”

Rodgers Mazhenty, chief executive of the Zimbabwe Local Government Association said ratepayers should regard the debt cancellation as a relief initiative by government to encourage them to pay bills and support service delivery and not use it as a basis to desert their responsibility.

He expressed hope that financial decentralisation, which entails giving not less than five per cent of national revenue to provinces and local authorities, would help improve the operations of local authorities.

“Besides engaging in partnerships with private players, there is need for agencies and departments within councils to foster private/public sector partnerships on a full-time basis,” said Mazhenty. He also urged councils to spearhead issuing leasehold deeds for land.

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