A colleague felt wretched the other day, when coming out of a Zesa banking hall, receipt in hand, people milling outside jeered at him asking why he had paid the power bill when there was a real possibility that it would be scrapped.
From The Editor’s Desk with Nevanji Madanhire
He said he felt like walking back into the hall and demanding his money back. Realising the futility of it all, he got into his car and drove home licking his wounds.
He is not alone in feeling robbed; thousands other homeowners feel the same. Since dollarisation in 2009 there have been people who have religiously paid their bills every month in very difficult circumstances.
They have also paid their water and rate bills in a similar manner. But now it seems they were foolish to have done so!
When the discussion came up at the hangout, opinion was naturally divided. Those who were for the scrapping of the debts cited lack of transparency in the way the local authorities and the power utility converted their Zimbabwe-dollar-designated debts into US dollar bills.
They questioned the rate at which the change was made. They also cited poor service delivery; some said they go for long periods of time without running water and electricity and their bins are collected irregularly, if at all. They point at the dilapidated infrastructure including heavily potholed roads and street lights that are never lit.
Those against the scrapping say it can only make sense if those who have been paying their bills get refunds; they say natural justice demands it. They say the principles of natural justice demand procedural fairness that ensures that a fair decision is reached by an objective decision maker. They say maintaining procedural fairness protects the rights of individuals and enhances public confidence in the process.
They have got a point.
There are many anomalies that a global scrapping of bills does not address. For example, many enterprising people have turned their backyards into factories in which they manufacture wares for sale. A family in the neighbourhood manufactures safety clothing which it sells to big mining companies at huge profits. At the last check the family’s electricity bill was way above
US$10 000. Another family does market gardening which uses lots of water and electricity. Obviously when pricing their products, they factor in the cost of water and power. But their bills will be scrapped like everyone else’s.
Compare these with families who have tried hard to cut down their power consumption by, for example switching off their geysers or by using gas or solar power and reverting to Zesa power only when it becomes absolutely unavoidable.
What this means is, we have two extremes; at one end, some families have been using their electricity and water responsibly and — paying for it — cognisant of the lack of capacity on the part of the power utility to generate enough to go round and the local authorities to manufacture enough water for domestic consumption.
On the other end we have electricity and water pirates who have illegally converted their residences into factories or micro-farms and don’t care about the implications. Now these two groups are going to be treated the same!
Reduced to absurdity, there is no difference between this sort of amnesty from the presidential pardons granted to criminals when a new government comes into power.
The major beneficiaries of the blanket scrapping of bills are the thieves who have been pilfering water and electricity for use in underhand businesses that have hugely benefitted them financially. Among this group of thieves are farmers — new or old — who have used power and water to irrigate their crop and owe hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid bills.
I am afraid to say among these are those who have taken it upon themselves to proclaim these amnesties.
When people talk of good governance, they are talking about a governmental system that enables institutions to work. Local authorities, as institutions, have to be able to deliver services to the citizens under them and the citizens are only too happy to pay for such services.
The major difference between our cities and modern metropoles across the globe is that our cities often go for long periods without the two most important commodities that define modern cities namely, water and electricity.
Our cities are still stuck in Roman times where people threw their waste matter through the window on the streets, for proof of this go to Hatcliffe or St Mary’s.
City dwellers know for a fact that water and electricity have never come free. They want to wake up in the morning to find water running in their taps, they want to switch on switches and see lights lighting up. Most importantly, they want to pay for such luxuries. Zimbabwe imports most of its electricity at a huge cost; it also imports water treatment chemicals at an equally great cost.
Someone has to pay for these. If our government is as magnanimous as to say its people should not pay for the power and the water they have used, it must immediately write cheques to local councils and to the power utility to offset the debts owed, otherwise soon we will be back to the dark ages where Hararians will fetch their water from the Mukuvisi riverbed and use the stars for lighting.
The repercussions of the populist pronouncements are going to be dire and long term. One result is that it’s not going to be easy to convince people to pay their bills as a matter of habit, especially those who feel they were not treated fairly by not getting a refund of the thousands of dollars they have surrendered to councils and to Zesa in the past four years.
They have lost confidence in a system of government that depends on whim rather than logic.
The beneficiaries of the amnesty will be even more difficult to convince they should pay their bills when they know it’s possible to get away with it.
The colleague who has paid his bills should not feel wretched about doing so; it surely must be the beneficiaries of the irrational edict who should feel wretched for accepting this largesse for, soon enough our cities will plunge back into the days of water-borne diseases and nocturnal crime.