Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa last week dramatised the government’s desperation to find new sources of revenue in the face of an imploding economy when he announced a set of steep new fines for various traffic offences.
Chinamasa on Thursday announced a virtually static $4 billion budget for 2016, which showed the government has little room to manoeuvre from this year’s fiscal plan.
He revealed that revenues continued to decline, with a shortfall of $527 million up to September 2015 having been recorded.
The government can hardly raise enough money to fund its operations because of job losses and company closures, hence some of the desperate measures proposed by Chinamasa.
His excuse to raise the traffic fines to as high as $100 was that the current scale of financial penalties does not “promote safety and discipline on the roads”.
Chinamasa claimed fines for traffic offences in Zimbabwe were generally lower than those obtaining in the region.
However, Zimbabweans who know better had a field day on social media as they vented their frustrations that the increase would only benefit traffic police officers, now notorious for taking bribes.
The indifferent reaction is informed by the fact that despite the disproportionately high number of roadblocks in the country, the number of accidents continues to rise and unroadworthy vehicles still litter the roads.
Chinamasa said motorists who went through red traffic lights, overtook on solid white lines, drove without licences and did not have working foot brakes would now have to pay a $100 fine, up from $20.
The Finance minister also doubled fines for going through amber traffic lights or engaging in abusive behaviour towards police officers to $20.
On face value, the review of the traffic fines is a welcome development in as far as bringing sanity to the country’s roads where most traffic accidents are blamed on human error is concerned, but it is the lack of transparency in the way the money raised from fines is handled that unsettles many people.
For years, the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) has complained that the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) does not remit the money it raises from fines to the consolidated revenue fund.
Zimra Commissioner-General Gershem Pasi once suggested that police raised up to $7 million a month in fines, triggering a bitter exchange with ZRP who say the money is much lower.
There is palpable fear that the money collected by the ZRP is not properly accounted for, hence the increase in fines is not likely to endear Chinamasa with ordinary motorists.
The trepidation is also fuelled by the corruption that has permeated ZRP’s traffic section and has been repeatedly acknowledged by the force’s commanders.
ZRP has discharged a number of its officers for taking bribes, but this has done very little to eradicate the scourge.
The new fines are likely to worsen the corruption because very few people can afford to pay a $100 spot fine.
Corrupt traffic police normally negotiate for payment from offenders, which would usually be much lower than the prescribed fines.
Chinamasa’s budget intervention is only likely to encourage corruption in the force instead of dealing with lawlessness on the roads.
The government should have considered addressing the contentious issue of spot fines before the review.
Corrupt traffic cops have been taking advantage of ZRP’s reluctance to respect pronouncements by the High Court that spot fines are illegal.
High Court judge Justice Francis Bere said the collection of spot fines from motorists by the police and the impounding of their vehicles if they failed to pay up was illegal.
The loophole encourages rogue police officers to solicit for bribes knowing that motorists would not risk having their vehicles impounded.
Chinamasa clearly went for the proverbial low-hanging fruit to shore up government finances, but this is likely to have unintended consequences that are too ghastly to contemplate.