HARARE – As July 31 approaches, politicians vying for political office have been promising potential voters heaven on earth.
Local Government, Rural and Urban Development minister Ignatius Chombo says government has scrapped residents’ water bills and is urging Zesa Holdings and the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (Zinwa) to follow suit “to bring relief to the people whose livelihoods were destroyed by sanctions over the past decade.”
Chombo insists the directive to all 92 rural and urban councils to write-off debts owed by residents for rates and bills from February 2009 to June 30, 2013 was perfectly legal.
Vice President Joice Mujuru and First Lady Amai Grace Mugabe both rubbished claims that the directive was a political gimmick. In real value, the debt forgiveness is worth $2 billion.
This is tantamount to rewarding delinquent behaviour. So what relief do those who paid utility bills on time get?
While the directive has no doubt been welcomed by hard-pressed residents, it creates serious financial challenges for local authorities.
The timing of Chombo’s announcement is obviously a political suspect, even though some residents might not see it this way.
Of course, everyone is desperately seeking relief from economic and social hardships.
The directive will be a challenge to the incoming council, to be installed after the elections on July 31, as it will have to attend to debt management as an urgent policy matter. We believe Chombo’s move is a disguised veiled attempt at “purchasing” urban votes which are generally not favourable to his party.
There is no economic calculation to this madness.
We hope the Local Government ministry has plans to handle the fall out. We also question the politicians’ call for Zesa Holdings and Zinwa to scrap outstanding bills as this will no doubt cripple service delivery.
In April, Zesa Holdings threatened to disconnect defaulting consumers as unpaid bills had reached $774 million, an untenable situation that had caused serious cash-flow problems for the power utility.
Zimbabwe imports electricity from neighbouring Mozambique, South Africa and DRC.
Just last year, Maputo threatened to suspend supplies to Zimbabwe over an unsettled $76 million debt.
So where does Chombo hope Zesa Holdings will get the money to pay for supplies if they scrap outstanding bills? And we know that Chombo and several other top Zanu PF officials owe councils large sums of money, and of the outstanding bill, government departments also owe millions.
But for Chombo and Zanu PF to chose to blame MDC-run urban local authorities, accusing them of embarking on “an unfettered disempowerment agenda by repossessing stands and houses from citizens who had outstanding bills” is self-defeating because the outstanding bills were accumulated even before the MDC came into power.
The residents are being promised pie in the sky.