Public Anger at Officials' Lucrative Perks

While millions of Zimbabweans are jobless and hungry their leaders are living it up.

Public Anger at Officials' Lucrative Perks

While millions of Zimbabweans are jobless and hungry their leaders are living it up.

A series of lucrative perks dished out by President Robert Mugabe to the members of Zimbabwe’s new government is enraging the country’s impoverished population.

At a time when most Zimbabweans are struggling to afford basic commodities, cabinet ministers have taken delivery of their official three-litre Mercedes Benz E280 vehicles, which retail at 50,000 US dollars each.

More recently, government officials went on a three-day retreat at a five-star luxury hotel in the resort of Victoria Falls from April 3 to 5. The retreat was attended by Mugabe, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and the entire new administration – ministers, their deputies and permanent secretaries.

IWPR understands that 150 delegates were booked into the Elephant Hills Intercontinental Hotel, a five-star palace located next to a golf course just four kilometres from the Zambezi River. The hotel is a paradise, loved by tourists and located in the middle of the bush.

The retreat has hit a raw nerve in a country where 180,000 civil servants are subsisting on an allowance of 100 US dollars a month. Though the government is broke and has extended a begging bowl to the Southern African Development Community, SADC, seeking help to bankroll expenditure, many here believe it has demonstrated a distasteful lust for luxury since it came to office six weeks ago.

Among the questions being asked is why the retreat could not have been held in Harare, saving the government the cost of 150 airfares.

Even the pro-government Herald newspaper has come out with guns blazing, asking why politicians needed to spend "untold sums" of precious foreign currency to wine, dine and talk in a luxury resort when they could do so just as well in Harare.

"It would be interesting to find out how high the bar tab will be considering the penchant for Chivas Regal and other exotically named whiskies and cognacs that people acquire when someone starts addressing them as Shefu [chief]," wrote the newpaper’s political editor, Mabasa Sasa.

Questioning the need for such extravagance Professor Jonathan Moyo, a former spokesman for Mugabe's administration, asked who was footing the bill.

"This question has become both urgent and important against the background of growing public interest in a number of high-profile and high-budget so-called summits that some government ministers have been hosting under murky circumstances at five-star hotels across the country," he said.

The retreat is not the only example of seemingly unwarranted extravagance on the part of the country’s leaders. Prior to that junket, almost all the ministers had hosted dinner meetings with people who are influential in the areas covered by their portfolios, ostensibly to draft a programme of action. All the ministerial dinners have been held at the five-star Meikles or the equally luxurious Rainbow Towers hotels.

Defending themselves against criticism, the ministers maintain that the extravagant entertainment budget is justified because it’s linked to the re-branding of the government.

“We are introducing a stakeholder model of governance,” said Nelson Chamisa, minister of information and communication technology and spokesman for the prime minister’s Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, who hosted one of the dinner meetings at Meikles.

News of these indulgences comes as teachers and nurses are threatening strike action if the government does not immediately review their salaries. “How do they want us to understand that they don’t have money to increase our [wages] when they can afford to go to the Elephant Hills for a retreat?” asked a furious Moses Gwara, a Harare teacher.

The Victoria Falls retreat was the brainchild of the prime minister's office. Tsvangirai said it was a bonding exercise intended to help the former rivals in the inclusive government trust each other and work together after years of division.

"We cannot hope to work together if we do not learn to understand each other and if we do not create common goals that we can strive towards," he said.

According to the Tsvangirai’s spokesman, James Maridadi, the retreat was called to brainstorm the Short Term Emergency Recovery Programme, STERP, launched three weeks ago, to make it dovetail with existing economic policies.

But Moyo said this claim was as unconvincing as the suggestion that the participants would make use of the retreat to come up with a roadmap for the government's 100-day action plan.

It did not make sense, he said, “to strategise about a [programme] that has already been launched.

"By the same token, the notion that the cabinet [wanted to] use the Victoria Falls retreat to draw up a roadmap for its first 100 days in office when it is already half-way through its journey is delinquent. Those behind this delinquency must understand that the public can see through their charade."

The establishment of the inclusive government has raised hopes that Zimbabwe may finally emerge from its ten-year economic crisis. There are signs of recovery in response to the liberalisation of the economy and the “dollarisation” of the country’s currency.

However, while teachers, doctors and nurses are reporting for duty in increasing numbers since the agreement to pay them a “socialist allowance” instead of salaries in worthless Zimbabwe dollars, about seven million Zimbabweans are still in need of food relief.

According to Moyo, the coalition government has very little to show for its seven or so weeks in office. There is, he maintains, a need for "real leadership”.

Chipo Sithole is the pseudonym of an IWPR-trained reporter in Zimbabwe.

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