via The Big Picture interview with Precious Shumba | SW Radio Africa by Nomalanga Moyo November 21, 2013
Hello Zimbabwe, and welcoming you to this edition of The Big Picture is Nomalanga Moyo. My guest this week is Precious Shumba, the Harare Residents Trust director. We all know that the Association has done a lot to lobby for transparency and accountability within the Harare City Council, an authority whose problems are well documented. The HRT recently published a report, Harare Water Exposure, detailing the gross corruption within that department of the Harare City Council and that is want we want to focus on. Shumba we welcome you to the programme.
SHUMBA: Good evening, how are your listeners?
MOYO: I hope they are all fine under the circumstances. Mr Shumba let me begin by saying when you think you’ve heard it all about the sheer scale of corruption in Harare something even more shocking comes up. What is the problem exactly in Harare?
SHUMBA: The major problem in Harare is the unaccountable behaviour of City management. If you were to disclose to the residents what was happening within the Council – there is no transparency when it comes to financial and human resources issues; there is lack of accountability when it comes to the utilisation of public resources, so combined with the issue of the billing system which has been heavily manipulated by senior managers, you will realise that there is always conflict between the residents and the senior managers – most of the senior managers are mainly focussed on achieving their own personal agendas rather than the collective agenda and the role of the city of Harare as an institution.
MOYO: What is striking with Harare particularly is that the problems seem to be in all sectors. You talk about refuse collection, you talk about the lighting system, you talk about the road network, you talk about water – it’s all round. Does it mean that none of the arms of Harare City Council are working? What is happening?
SHUMBA: I think one of the major weaknesses in the implementation of Council policy by Harare City Council is a kind of reluctance on the part of the management to listen and include, to listen to residents’ concerns and to include residents’ recommendations in policy formulation. The residents have made genuine residents complaints and residents are really disgruntled that the City has failed to listen and include these issues. So you find that most of the time residents are raising issues and councillors are echoing them in council meetings but the City managers are reluctant to take heed of residents and therefore there is the resultant stagnation and non-cooperation by residents. When the City managers say something, residents are considered to be something unnecessary because they are not listening to their own demands.
MOYO: Now turning to your recent report which was really an exposé of the crisis in Harare – I know you only focus on the water sector but what are the key issues that you raise in this report?
SHUMBA: One of the key issues that is emerging is the issue of the intended privatisation, commercialisation or whatever names you might want to call it, but there is a deliberate attempt by City managers to try to undermine the role of elected councillors by bringing through the back door a move that is meant to bring in pre-paid meters that is being introduced as a way of making water costly to the ordinary resident. So to us we are also highlighting the level of manipulation of the billing system to further weaken citizens’ participation in this discourse of local government. We are seeing that the privatisation agenda is being brought in, couched in nice words like creating a utility to enhance efficiency, to improve their services but in a sense if you read through it, you realise that this is just cosmetic, but the key aim of this move is to try to sideline elected councillors from issues concerning Harare water thereby bringing it under a board made up of management of Council without the elected councillors.
MOYO: These councillors – are they performing well? Judging by past administrations, are you happy with their level of performance?
SHUMBA: I think at this stage it would be unfair for us to say the councillors are failing to perform; they have just been in office officially for plus three weeks or let’s say two months but within this time there has been a lot of inductions, there has been a lot of training and this has not really given them enough time to be measured on the basis of what they said during the election campaign period because we are going to be talking to them about what they were telling residents what is contained in their party manifesto and what the council has set out to do because the council has been deliberating on key issues affecting service delivery, they have been doing the budget consultations which were very weak but we commend them that the chamber secretary has made the attempt to reach out to residents and we held a meeting with them last week but this is merely cosmetic in our view. The management is not fully utilising this window of opportunity for positive engagement. They are using it to try to control, the management is trying to use these engagements as a means to controlling and deceiving residents associations. What they do not want from us is criticism and exposure of the weaknesses of their system. They must content themselves with suspending the constitution, particularly Chapter 14 which talks about accountability to the citizens and being transparent in their dealings in public affairs.
MOYO: Reading through your report Precious, I’m staggered really by what you reveal as the manipulation of existing systems by the authorities – for example you’ve mentioned the way the tender system is handled. You also talk about the way the billing system is manipulated. Can you just walk us through some of these, how you uncovered these and how they do it?
SHUMBA: The Harare Residents Trust received several complaints from residents where they were raising issues around their inflated bills, the sudden change in the bills they receive from month to month and some of the things where a debt just disappears in an account and then reappears and then we started conducting our investigation. Our methodology was to firstly collect a sample of bills from residents – once we did that we then had to interview the low-ranking employees – the meter-readers – and we gathered more evidence as we went up the hierarchy and started interviewing the managers until we then interviewed senior officials from other departments to get an appreciation of the systems governing the Council. From this we discovered that there have been four main methods that the Council has been using. They use the billing system so one, they do what is called ‘receipt scanning’ where workers in the City Treasury department scan receipts, issue fake receipts to their unsuspecting consumer. They would have had passwords, access codes of some of the employees in the Treasury department to gain access into these passwords and server and subsequently scan them then they serve them on their machines where they will then go probably in their cupboards and in the CBD where they will simply say to a client – okay I have removed your debt, can you give me this. So these things in the resident’s account would not be collected, they would only get to realise that there has been the fraud probably three or four weeks later when the old balance is revived. Then there is what is called ‘auto-credit’ – workers would take information from the billing system and place it on their personal laptops again because the system has a loophole of auto credit or debit. The workers could then tender around with the information and credit potential consumers with approximately any figure that they have in mind and they would subsequently approach the targeted consumer to say – okay this is your bill. I have been able to remove your debt and most gullible consumers, the majority would then bribe the council employee in gratitude for the credit. Then the first method is journal voucher. This is a complete reversal of book entry. The workers say this could be manipulated through reversal of charges but are found out when a consumer has been overcharged as a result of human error like meter reading. Then authorities are then asked to do completely a reversal to rectify the challenges. There have been cases where this has been happening and the council has lost money and benefitted officials within the Treasury department. So the fourth measure we have been to try to deliberately write estimates as a bill. This is a result of most residents being accused of owing the City when in a sense they owe the City very little. So they would deliberately do this and then the City managers would facilitate loan facilities to senior managers using the inflated owings by residents and would always justify this by saying the residents are not paying, a lot of money is with residents and yet there would be sufficient income for the City which they would use to lend money to officials where they go and borrow and they try to avoid the scrutiny by councillors. So they would always lie to the councillors and say okay most of the residents are not paying and this has created serious problems.
MOYO: Now this sounds like something that is endemic and prevalent, and this is just criminality. Are there any avenues that residents for example can pursue for prosecution? Obviously someone has to be accountable, someone has to answer to this because how then can Council generate any revenue if all these things are happening?
SHUMBA: One of the weaknesses in the council system is the unaccountable nature of their system. They have created small kingdoms or fiefdoms within the council structure where certain employees are untouchable. You go to the Public Relations department – you realise that Mr Leslie Gwindi who happens to be the spokesperson of the City of Harare who must be regularly communicating council programmes and policies to the citizens does not turn up for work at 8 when the rest of the council workers are reporting for work, instead he comes later, most of the time he is committed to the football team but residents do not know about the refuse collection schedule, residents do not know about the on-going pre-paid meter system that’s being talked about. They are not explaining this to the ordinary residents, in fact what they do is to focus mainly on manipulating the media to convey their own personal agenda. So ultimately you don’t realise that they are not discussing service provision – what you get is a manipulated media. A media that has very few journalists are prepared to go against the grain so you find that these issues that you talk about are presented as very basic but in a sense they are exposing a complex network of thieves masquerading as senior council officials who have become unaccountable to the citizens and they are creating their own power centre where they don’t want the councillors to be involved in policy formulation but are willing to present to them half-baked policy proposals where they convince the councillors that we have done research and so the councillors, wanting to be progressive, would not question these things and allow them to pass.
MOYO: You mention somewhere in the report that there appears to be a parallel payroll for senior council officials. Just expand on that please.
SHUMBA: What we are saying is that Grade One up to Four of council is made up of very senior management including the Town Clerk but this payroll remains very secretive and salaries we can only speculate based on what we are being told by other senior employees. So the only payroll that is available is from Grade Five up to the lowest Grade Fifteen so there is no way that we can say that the payroll is consolidated when information about Grades One to Grade Four are secretive and you must know that the president’s salary is public information; the ministers’ salaries are public information. What is so special about the salary of a town clerk of a local authority when their superior at Cabinet level, their salaries are public knowledge? So to us, we say we use Section 52 of the constitution of Zimbabwe where we are saying information must be readily available to the citizens where issues of public interest must be fully revealed, not this kind of situation where we have like a parallel structure where we have a secret payroll that protects people who are not delivering yet these are the same people who are consuming 70% of money paid by the residents to the local authority every month and they only take about 30% of that money to service delivery initiative.
MOYO: So what is the way forward Shumba?
SHUMBA: The way forward in this matter is to ensure that the stakeholder approach where we undertake to do confidence building measures where we bring residents together, where we bring the local council officials together with business and industry policy makers and most importantly the senior council management and we can do pilot initiatives where we are simply targeting one or two communities. Where we have seen real positive transformation we must ensure that that initiative is taken to other suburbs for other towns but in the current set up there is too much suspicion with council officials protecting what they know to be unjustified huge salaries and allowances. So we would want the Council to revamp the billing system, to tackle the issue of staff by creating a very lean and efficient structure that is known by the public rather than to have a secretive payroll that even the people earning that money are feeling very guilty but are not prepared to relinquish those benefits in the interests of the public.
MOYO: And you have tried, as residents associations, to engage these officials at municipalities – recently there was that budget meeting where resident association representatives walked out. What is the position now? Did you resolve the issue?
SHUMBA: Like I mentioned, the attempt by senior council management to create an impression that they are willing to fully engage resident associations – it is not a sincere move. It is only a ruse. So from our perspective as the HRT we are guided by the residents’ council that we are continuing to engage and ensure that the councillors elected on 31st July become more visible and organise community meetings where we expect that council employees, particularly the heads of departments, attend and share the Council’s programme and explain various issues like dealing, like issues of priorities, issues of staff remuneration, issues of street lighting and service delivery but we need to do this in a much more progressive way than to continue to blame each other. We need to fully engage and find solution going forward.
MOYO: That was Precious Shumba the director of the Harare Residents Trust and we were discussing their very succinct report called Harare Water Exposure. Mr Shumba is this report available on your website for those who would like a copy?
SHUMBA: The report is available on our web site: www.hrt.org.zw and upon request we can actually send the same on people’s emails.