The Plight of Zimbabwe’s Pensioners

When an elderly pensioner in Harare came home with his pension cheque and realised that it would not even cover their most basic needs, he walked into his bedroom and shot himself. He left behind a widow who was now even worse off than before. To survive she will have to sell the house and their small car and try to subsist in 500 per cent inflation on interest on her capital at 100 per cent. It does not add up and in no time at all she will again be up against an unforgiving wall of penury and hardship.

This is only one story amongst many - I understand that pensioners who are living outside the country have not had their pensions paid externally for many months. These are not people who have lived all their lives on the dole or wasted their earnings while they were able to work. These are men and women who have worked hard all their lives in anticipation that the contributory pension scheme to which they belonged would enable them to retire with dignity in a location of their choice. Mr. Mugabe's economics have destroyed this prospect for all of us who live in Zimbabwe. It's one of the worst examples of blatant disregard for the needs of others in this once prosperous country.

The pension funds and their managers are strangely silent on this calamity. They have sold us a vision of long-term security and persuaded us to take out insurance and pension contracts of one kind or another with the claim that this would secure our long-term future. The Registrar of Pension Funds is also silent, as is the Reserve Bank who has a statutory obligation to remit pensions to retired persons who are living outside the country in the currency of their choice. They have the foreign exchange but are instructed to use this for other purposes rather than face up to their obligations to our retired community.

In my own case, I have contributed to various schemes ever since I left school - for 45 years I have faithfully paid each month into these funds by means of a stop order on my bank account. I have also worked for the State for over 20 years and at one time held very senior posts in this country.

During the whole of that time my employers took a large slice of my income and paid it into a pension fund on my behalf. They also contributed an equal share to the fund to ensure an adequate retirement package. All of these schemes mature at the same time - when I turn 65. When that happens the combined value of these hopeless investments will not buy my wife and I one months living expense at today's prices.

It's not just a question of devaluation - for most of the years that I worked the value of the Zimbabwe dollar was well above that of the US dollar or the pound. If I had simply purchased foreign exchange with that money and held that in a bank account abroad I would be better off than I will be when I "retire".

The reasons are many and they affect all of us who live under this regime. Remember it used to be that it was compulsory for employers to have pension funds for their employees and to ensure that these were maintained in such a state that they could meet their obligations to their staff after retirement. By these means huge savings were built up and invested - you can see the evidence of this all over our country in the skylines of our cities.

The managers of these funds were courted and wined and dined to persuade them to invest in this project or that - deals were struck. The State legislated that a certain portion had to be invested in government securities at low interest rates and by these means was able to fund its own extravagant lifestyle at the expense of the working population. Accounts were never made available and only in exceptional cases were the actual owners of these funds ever given access to the details of what was going on. Often the only statement would be a once a year note in the post to say they were going to pay out a 10 or 15 per cent bonus.

The end result - when my father died, he had worked for the railways for 32 years, retiring from a senior position in the administration. His pension was half the monthly salary of one of our domestic workers. He lived with us for 17 years - had he not been able to do so he would never have survived.

This is just not good enough. People who have worked hard and saved all their lives should not have to worry about their security in retirement. Society has an obligation to see to this. Mugabe and his henchmen have failed in their responsibilities towards this important sector of our population and there are no safety nets.

So what do we do - well we keep our eyes open for the people who find themselves in dire straits - you can see them picking their way through the supermarket. We have set up funds to provide some assistance where it is required as a stopgap until we get a decent government into place. The main problem is people are too proud to ask for help, they have always been self-sufficient and cannot understand what has gone wrong. If they have children abroad a small sum each month (as little as US$25) will make all the difference - but it must go through the informal sector or the State steals that as well!

What these folk need most of all is recognition and understanding. Helping someone at a crash site is an obligation we all hold - Zimbabwe is a crash site and we all need to help the injured and casualties. It is certainly not their fault in any way.

When the MDC comes to power (and it will inevitably) then we will sort out this mess and put pensions onto a sound basis again. We will meet our obligations to our pensioners outside the country and help them to live with dignity and independence again. That is a pledge we will fulfill when the power is in our hands. We will also go after those who have been responsible for pillaging the pension funds on a criminal basis. We owe this to all who have made this country what it once was and can be again.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo October 27 2003