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Zim finance minister's plan to save cash - but will Mugabe agree?

12 September 2016, 10:48News24 Correspondent

Harare - Cash-strapped Zimbabwe is increasingly looking like a sinking ship - but one man is desperately trying to bail water.

Thing is, will President Robert Mugabe let him?

Presenting a mid-term fiscal policy review on Thursday in which he acknowledged that Zimbabwe may not be able to pay its civil servants by the end of the year, hard-pressed finance minister Patrick Chinamasa proposed a raft of measures to conserve the country's fast-dwindling resources.

They included freezing public sector bonuses, reducing expenditure in foreign missions, getting rid of 25 000 government jobs and cutting ministers' salaries by up to 20 percent. Good on paper, perhaps, but will they work? And more importantly, does the tired and ageing Mugabe and his government really have the will to carry them out?

- First, those bonuses. Chinamasa wants them suspended - not cancelled - for 2016 and 2017. He has already tried this before and was overruled by Mugabe who foresaw the howls of protest that move would provoke. Teachers finally got their 2015 bonus payments this May: soldiers, naturally, got theirs earlier. Would Mugabe really want to fuel more discontent by cancelling Christmas payouts, especially with elections in 2018? "There will be no bonus this year - a position that will last until the next rally," tweeted @RangaMberi. "We'll see how long that lasts," said another sceptical Twitter user.

- As for Chinamasa's proposal to cut 25 000 jobs in the civil service by December 2017 to take the total headcount in the civil service down to 273 000, some Zimbabweans thought that might be a good idea. Especially if it involved reducing the number of police demanding fines for obscure transgressions at the many roadblocks that dot roads around the country. 

Zimbabwe certainly needs to weed out its "ghost workers". The authorities carried out an unpopular audit of teachers in 2015, reportedly stopping salary payments for around 3,000 who were absent on the day of the head-count even if they were on maternity leave. 

Thing is, analysts say the number of ghost workers in the civil service could be as high as 75 000, so a loss of 25 000 will only be scratching at the surface. And any move to cut "real" jobs will result in a spike in the rate of formal unemployment already estimated to hover around 80% - and more anger for Mugabe to deal with.

- Cutting down expenditure at foreign embassies is less controversial. Chinamasa spoke of a review of benefits for diplomatic staff "including support for educational expenses, rental ceilings and travel support for children of diplomats”. Many of Zimbabwe's 47 diplomatic missions have been underfunded for years, with embarrassing reports of unpaid rent and unfixed cars.

- As for the proposal to trim ministers' (and other officials') salaries: it's not clear exactly how much a minister in Mugabe's fairly-bloated cabinet earns these days. In 2014 it was reported to be around $3 000 per month. Most ministers these days appear to have significant "other" sources of funding. They'd have to, to be able to send their kids to university in the UK (Saviour Kasukuwere, the local government minister) or South Africa (higher education minister Jonathan Moyo).

The paycut Chinamasa is proposing is between 5% and 20%. On a salary of (let's say) $4 000 that would take a minister's state earnings down to a minimum of 3 200. The cap on allowances might save more: the head of the civil service commission, Mariyawanda Nzuwah, was reported in last week's Sunday Mail to have run up a phone bill of $200 000 in one month.

The big question is: would Mugabe take a cut on the $12 000 per month he admitted to earning last year, or - as Twitter users bravely suggested - curb his own appetite for foreign travel? 

"First Mugabe must reduce unnecessary foreign trips," demanded @Mawire100.

But given the longtime leader's dependence on medical check-ups outside the country, that's doubtful. 

An editorial in the state-run Herald lauded the minister's review statement as "quite truthfully one of the bravest mid-term reviews in history".

Brave it was, depending on how you define bravery.

Workable? That remains to be seen.

- News24


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