/ 15 November 2019

Zimbabwe’s civic services on the edge

Zimbabwe’s Civic Services On The Edge
Fair pay: Disgruntled Zimbabwean civil servants have demanded that their salaries be paid in United States dollars so that they can meet their basic cost of living. (Jekesai Njikizana/AFP)



Bulawayo’s Mpilo Central Hospital is the largest and best-resourced hospital in southern Zimbabwe, and the second-largest in Zimbabwe. Like the rest of the country’s public institutions, it is not in good shape.

The outpatient department has been closed for the past two months, so patients with chronic conditions are not receiving treatment. Only four out of 10 operating theatres are currently available for surgery. The paediatric theatre is not functional, and maternity recovery rooms have no monitors. The neurosurgery unit has almost shut down as the available equipment is outdated and is no longer recommended for use.

“Contrary to peddled reports, the situation at Mpilo is critical and any attempt to view it as normal would be tantamount to propagating a silent genocide. Lifesaving equipment is in a state of disrepair, essential drugs and sundries are unavailable, while hospital staff cannot afford to come to work,” the Senior Hospital Doctors Association said in a statement.

The situation at Mpilo and other hospitals has been exacerbated by the nationwide doctors’ strike, which began on September 3. Doctors have said that their salaries have been almost entirely eroded by runaway inflation, and that they will not return to work until they receive sizeable increases in pay and on-call allowances.

According to the International Monetary Fund, annual inflation is sitting at 300% whereas Bloomberg says that a de facto local currency, the RTGS dollar, has lost more than 80% of its value against the dollar since February.

The government has stopped publishing its own annual inflation data.

Nurses, meanwhile, are only reporting for work twice a week after the ministry of health implemented a new system. “The flexi-hours system was suggested by the ministry and allows nurses to work two days a week, a situation which has made working in the hospital impossible as few nurses will be looking after patients at each given time … This flexi-hours system has caused disruption in continuity of care and has led to avoidable deaths in the wards,” said the doctors’ statement.

Zimbabwe’s cash-strapped government has said the strike is illegal, and has so far fired more than 200 doctors for “absenteeism”. Disciplinary action against others is ongoing.

‘Education vandalism’

The situation in schools is no better. Across the country, schools are either closed or operating with a skeleton staff, with teachers reporting for duty just two days a week, as per a decision from the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) and other unions. Teachers’ salaries have also been decimated by the economic crisis.

“After consulting our members from all the country’s provinces, the decision that we reached is that the value of our salary is worth one -and-a-half days of work per week but we were elastic enough and put it at two days,” said PTUZ president Takavafira Zhou.

He criticised officials in the ministry of education whom he said were getting large salary increases whereas the plight of teachers was ignored.

“We have people who are implementing what I can say is cold, calculated education vandalism. They have continued with Mugabeism but they are worse,” said Zhou.

Earlier this month, PTUZ joined a broader civil service protest that sought to link salaries to the US dollar. Despite granting permission for the protest, police prevented it from going ahead, using batons to keep civil servants from marching to government offices.

This is not the first time that public sector protestors and union leaders have been met with force. In April, 10 representatives of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ) were arrested after they tried to petition the ministry over low pay. In June, ARTUZ leader Obert Masaraure was abducted and tortured by unidentified men who told him to stop leading a teachers’ strike. In September, the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association leader Dr Peter Mugombeyi was abducted, tortured and held incommunicado by his assailants. He was released a week later.

“The country is coming to a standstill. In all sectors workers are saying they do not have sufficient money to report for work. It’s also being reported in the private sector and soon it will be workers in the banking sector. It’s catastrophic,” said Peter Mutasa, president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions.

“People are enslaved, they are working for nothing, and there is a need to increase salaries to match the reality on the ground, and not freeze the salaries. Freezing salaries is insanity and will not recover the economy.

“The government needs to work on the fundamentals; they need to address the issue of currency, poor economic management and corruption.”

New notes, old problems

The government’s flagship response to the economic crisis has been the introduction of a new Zimbabwean dollar, which is ultimately designed to replace both the US dollar and the RTGS dollar as the primary currency in circulation.

New Zimbabwean dollar coins and bond notes were supposed to arrive in Harare this week, although not all banks had received the cash in time to distribute it on Tuesday.

Despite the new cash injection, banks are still limiting withdrawals to the equivalent of $20 per day and $300 a month.

Tony Hawkins, a professor of business studies at the University of Zimbabwe, told Reuters that the new notes would not solve the country’s economic problems.

“What it means is that we will probably have more cash around to feed the black market for currency,” he said. This, in turn, could lead to more inflation — and to a further erosion of public sector salaries.