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Am I a ghost worker?

When I applied for my pension from the National Social Security Authority last year, I was shocked when the officer told me that I had omitted two employers on my application form. She said their records showed that I had worked for the government and for TelOne. I never worked for TelOne but I worked for the government, briefly, before independence. I therefore asked myself, was I one of the 75 000 ghost workers in the government?  

I was working full-time in South Africa, when I turned 60. I did not know then that within months I would be out of a job. I was shocked when I was told on my return to work in January 2013 that the organisation that I had worked for, for three-and-a-half years, was not renewing my contract which had expired in December.

There was no notice. No severance package. Nothing.

I had three children going to university in South Africa at the time, two expecting fees for the first semester and one only needing rent for a month before starting her articles as a chartered accountant.

I was literally flabbergasted. My immediate thoughts were to take my employer to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). It had helped me two years earlier after a salary dispute. But my spiritual leader told me that I should not take the case to court because when God closes one door, he opens another.  I should, therefore, look for the door that God had opened.

“God has realised that you are getting too comfortable in that job, yet he has better plans for you,” my spiritual leader told me. “If I were you I would not go to court. When God closes one door, he opens another one. But normally when something like this happens we are too angry to look for it, so calm down, take your time and look for the door that God has opened.”

This was a good spiritual pep up but it did not solve my immediate problem. I still needed about R25 000 to get my children back to school and to pay my own rent.

A lawyer, who had helped me, for free, in my CCMA case, agreed with my spiritual leader. My case seemed very solid. But taking it to court would be a lengthy process and by the time I won, it would not be worth the long wait.

“What do you really want from your employer?” he asked.

“I cannot definitely go back because our relations are now sour. I just need a severance package so that I can look for something else,” I replied.

My lawyer said he was going to write my employer arguing that I had been dismissed because all along, for the past three-and-a-half years, I had worked without renegotiating my contract before the start of another year. So, my employer had to negotiate with me or the matter would go to court.

The organisation relented and agreed to pay me a month’s notice salary. This was not an ideal arrangement, but it solved my immediate problem- getting my children back to school without going to court. It also gave me time to look for the door that God had opened.

I had no job in February, but in March I got a week’s consultancy in Tanzania. It paid me more than my month’s salary with my previous employer. Two months later I was on a three-month contract again in Tanzania. This was later extended to four months.

I was recalled in October and worked until first week of December. So, it was only in January 2014 that someone reminded me that I should apply for my retirement pension from the National Social Security Authority.

When I left Zimbabwe in October 2009, a United States dollar was worthless. One did not even pick it up if one saw it on the ground. People were still thinking in trillions and quadrillions, eight months after dollarisation.  But now things had changed. I had seen vendors fighting for clients to buy harurwa for just one dollar at Nyika Growth Point in Bikita.

Now my aunt was telling me, when she came to my home in Bulawayo, how she and another aunt struggled every month to raise one dollar to travel to Mutora in Gokwe to collect their village-head monthly allowance of $25. She said this was quite a lot of money for a rural person because she could buy groceries and other niceties.

I had been told that my pension would be anything from $25 to $60 a month. It was not much, but I decided to apply. It was better to get my pension, no matter how small the amount, than to leave it with NSSA because someone was likely to take that money.

I hate queues but I had to line up to get the application form. Some sections had to be filled in by my last employer so I had to submit the form to the Financial Gazette head office in Harare. I had been the weekly paper’s Bulawayo bureau chief- a chief without any Indians- five years ago.

While waiting for their response I went back to South Africa so as not to overstay in Zimbabwe because I was still considered as someone working in South Africa since my work permit expired in 2015.

I returned to Zimbabwe when my wife advised me that my form was back and I went to submit it. I had to queue once again but time moved quickly as I was enjoying William Gumede’s book Thabo Mbeki and the battle for the soul of the ANC.

It was interesting to read how Nelson Mandela, who had died a few months earlier, had traded economic power for political freedom. Some people argued that he had little choice because the aim was to free South Africa.

He had done a noble job by just reintroducing democracy and stepping down to let a younger man take over. But, some felt, he had sold out.  I remember one South African youth arguing: “To be considered a saint in Western eyes is a curse black leaders should avoid like the plague.”

When my turn came, I got a shock when the officer asked me why I had indicated only two employers when her record showed that I had worked for two other employers since the NSSA scheme was started in 1994.

On my form I had only indicated two employers, Africa Information Afrique and the Financial Gazette.  The officer told me that her record, which she was reading from her computer right in front of me, showed that I had worked for the government and for TelOne.

I had never worked for the two during that period. I asked her what ministry or department I had worked for in the government but she said the record did not show departments for government employees.

I told her that the only time that I had worked for the government was before independence, from 1973 to 1975. At the time I was doing an apprenticeship in water supply and purification. I quit immediately after completing my programme because there was no contributory pension for blacks at the time, at least those in my grade.

I had to work until I reached 60 and be offered maybe a bicycle, or a watch, or a wheelbarrow, or a plough. I was too young to work for the government for 40 years to qualify for a bicycle, which I would be too old to ride anyway.

I also told her that I had never worked for TelOne. But out of curiosity I asked her when I had joined TelOne. She said in 2002. Indeed, I was back in Bulawayo, from Harare, in 2002 but I was still working for AI on a consultancy basis.

I asked her which address was on the TelOne record. It was my own apartment, though I had stopped living there almost 10 years earlier. I was living there in 2002 though and still had a phone in that apartment.

I asked the officer when I had left the government or TelOne and she said the records were still open which meant that I was, according to their records, still employed by them.

I was shocked but at the same time I could see that the officer was beginning to feel uneasy because of my questions.  Fortunately, she was being assisted by a National University of Science and Technology student on attachment. The student asked me whether I knew someone called Charles Rukuni who had been at Milton Primary School and I told him that it was my son. He said he was his classmate.

The officer relaxed a little and advised me that for her to process my application I must write a letter declaring that I had never worked for the government or for TelOne during the period in question. I did that and submitted my form the following day.

I had read stories about ghost workers in the government and that they were costing the government millions. The figure varied depending on the source but ranged from $15 million to $50 million a month. The inclusive government, formed in 2009, after an agreement between the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front and the two factions of the Movement for Democratic Change, had agreed to carry out an audit of the civil service.

The MDC wanted the audit because it believed that most of the ghost workers were ZANU-PF youths illegally employed by the government and used to perpetrate violence against the party during elections.

An audit was indeed carried out in 2010 by Ernst and Young of India but its results were never officially released.

Movement for Democratic Change Mutare West Member of Parliament Shuah Mudiwa, in a motion calling for the audit report to be formally tabled in Parliament, said the audit showed that there were about 75 000 ghost workers out of a total of 188 000.

A local newspaper said there were actually 75 273 ghost workers out of a workforce of 188 019.

Mudiwa said some 75 273 civil servants did not have minimum qualification required by the Public Service Commission.

Another 3 593 civil servants, appointed on or after 1 January 2007, did not have verifiable documentation relating to police clearance, medical clearance, appointment letters and appointment forms.

Some 10 753 civil servants did not have either police or medical clearance and 6 345 civil servants obtained both their police and medical clearance after their dates of appointment.

A staggering 10 135 civil servants were appointed in various ministries in excess of their authorised establishment and were appointed without the necessary Treasury concurrence.

Nothing was done. The Herald reported in February 2012 that the Public Service Commission had discovered that the alleged ghost workers cited in the Ernst and Young report did not exist.

“According to the PSC report, the alleged ghost workers was an accumulative figure of individuals found to have no qualification, police and medical clearance,” the paper reported.

“The PSC contends that one person could be counted under more than six categories, a development which inflated the figures. Furthermore, employees in foreign missions were not enumerated and they also fell under the category of ghost workers. Serving Permanent Secretaries and Principal Directors also fell under the category of ghost workers because they were not enumerated.”

Nothing more was said about the audit  though Lucia Matibenga of the MDC was Minister of  the Pubic Service at the time, with Tendai Biti as Minister of Finance.

The issue, however, continued to make headlines because civil servants’ salaries were now gobbling 80 percent of the government budget, leaving almost nothing to develop the country.

I, therefore, felt that this was something worth looking into.  Was I another ghost worker? Who was getting my salary?  How could I get this information?

The most logical thing was to report to the police because this was obviously a case of fraud.

I had been out of the country for nearly five years now but throughout I had never out of the country for more than two months at a time. So I had a fair picture of what was happening. Corruption had gotten worse under the inclusive government.

A study published by Afrobarometer in November 2013 rated Zimbabwe as the third most corrupt country in Africa out of the 34 it had studied. Only two countries, Nigeria and Egypt were worse.

Zimbabwean police were the fourth most corrupt after those in Nigeria, Kenya and Sierra Leone. Government officials, in general, were just a notch lower with South Africa taking fourth place after Nigeria, Kenya, Sierra Leone.

I therefore felt that it might be better to make this a civil case so that my lawyers could subpoena NSSA for information. I did not have money to hire a private lawyer. A friend suggested that I see the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.

I felt that this was indeed a human rights issue, because ghost workers were costing the average Zimbabwean dearly because the government was failing to provide basic services by paying non-existent workers.

I went to their office but they advised me that this was a criminal case. I must go to the police. I was shattered. I wondered how we set our priorities because I was not seeking any financial gain but to stop a rot in our society.

I did not have time to pursue the case further because I recalled to Tanzania for another assignment in May. I wrote to NSSA several times, first to the general email address, then to the public relations office, then to the general manager’s email address, trying to find out how it was possible for a person to be employed by three organisations at the same time. But I never got any response.

I needed an explanation because my name is not common. It is not a totem which allows scores of Jonathan Moyos, or Enos Nkalas, or Ephraim Shokos, or Robert Mhlangas. As far as I know only two people share this name and one of them is still a student.

Completely disappointed because I was thousands of kilometers away, I continued to do desktop research and found an explanation in what Mudiwa told parliament.

Mudiwa said that the Ernst and Young audit showed that there were 90 cases of civil servants with different employment contract numbers with the same national identity numbers. Some 335 civil servants had a duplicate NSSA ID number.

One NSSA number 477555559 was found 91 times in the data file.

“Mr. Speaker Sir, the results of the report reveal that at that time, there was an invisible hand other than the Public Service doing human resources management in government.

“Mr. Speaker Sir, all the Members of Parliament here, are aware that in their constituencies, there are some people who are earning government salaries without actually doing the job because they are part of the ghosts.

“In my constituency for instance, just to mention a few, I have got names by Tawanda Muunguri, John Mapuka, Simba Mazikana, Mary Zhawari, Desire Mapuka and Jennifer Anesu Marimanzi. All these are earning money from the government without doing anything. These are known to be getting money from government every pay date but they are not doing any work,” Mudiwa said.

With government salaries likely to consume 92 percent of this year’s budget, is it not time for us to expose these ghost workers if we know them – people on the government payroll whom we know to be doing nothing- workers who have are now dubbed ZRP for Zuva Rose Pamba?

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