Pilotless parastatals teeter

The absence of substantive chief executives for Zimbabwe's key service parastatals, the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA), the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) and Air Zimbabwe, is largely responsible for the present chaos they are in rather than the lack of managerial skills. Their problems can, therefore, not be solved by hiring expatriates as this only postpones the problem until that expatriate leaves, analysts argue.

They claim that while the parastatals may have acting chief executives these executives are hampered by the fact that they are just there in an acting capacity. This does not necessarily mean the will get the job at the end of the day. Because of this, they cannot therefore afford to make decisions that might jeopardise their prospects of getting the job substantively as they too will be vying for the top post.

These analysts argue that this has clearly been proved in other parastatals or institutions which had no substantive heads. They point out the chaos that was at the University of Zimbabwe when it had two acting vice-chancellors. No one really wanted to shoulder the responsibility, but once Professor Gordon Chavunduka, was officially appointed vice-chancellor he quickly brought the situation under control and could afford to take some measures which, though unpopular with the students, brought the situation under control.

Professor Chavunduka could even afford to expel student leaders without losing his credibility as this was one of the decisions he had to implement to show who was in authority.

The same thing happened to the National Railways of Zimbabwe when Alvord Mabhena was appointed. Mabhena has managed to reduce the NRZ deficit by more than 300 percent in just under two years. He even went to the extent of firing 400 workers just to show who was in authority although this decision was later reversed by Labour Minister John Nkomo.

Analysts say the appointment of Mabhena should have proved to the government that what is needed is incentive and trust in a chief executive. They also say that the government should offer chief executives of all parastatals the same terms as those given to Mabhena which they claim stipulate that he has to revitalise the railway to make it viable or face the sack.

Mabhena's appointment also clearly proves that it is not the lack of management skills that is killing our parastatals but the lack of real power - the right to make decisions without interference from the politicians.

Mabhena took the NRZ's top job without much experience to talk about as he rose from assistant chief mechanical engineer to general manager within 18 months.

ZESA has been without a general manger since the resignation of Sidney Gata last year. The appointment of Simbarashe Mangwengwende to the top post was nullified by the then Energy Minster, Herbert Ushewokunze, on the flimsy excuse that he was too young. The parastatal has been in chaos since that time.

Canaan Chikwanha, though a capable engineer and probably the right person to take over because of his technical background, was never given room to operate because of the constant reminders that he was not the boss. He could not therefore do anything positive as he did not have full authority.

The lack of a substantive head also allowed a lot of mismanagement to go on especially at the power station where top mangers were reported to be stealing power station equipment left, right and centre.

One report said three of the top managers at the power station: Emmanuel Tirivavi Dube (Resource and Development Manager), Itayi Mababa Bopoto (Senior Principal Supply Officer), and station buyer (Philip Blessing Tonderai Nyamukapa), had been arrested and charged under the Prevention of Corruption Act. They are alleged to have swindled the power station of supplies worth more $80 000.

The report also said three other top ZESA employees in Harare and Bulawayo were allegedly involved and might be charged.

There have also been reports that ZESA officials opened secret accounts in London and funnelled donor funds into these accounts to accrue interest before releasing them.

With no one really in charge morale in ZESA fell so low that even public confidence in the parastatal plummeted. This was clearly reflected by the response to its efforts to float a loan where it only received $47.2 million when the parastatal was looking for $150 million.

The situation was so critical that no one knew what to do when Union Carbide offered the parastatal US$66 000 ($330 000) to bail it out and buy the spares it needed. Even the World Bank which provided another US$1 million must have been dumbfounded at this level of incompetence which could, of course, not be blamed on anyone.

Right now, it appears things are beginning to improve but this is largely because of the stand taken by Transport and Energy Minister, Dennis Norman, who says that the country will be importing 120 megawatts from Zaire by January up from the present 60. It will also increase its power import from South Africa from the present 5 megawatts to 25 in November.

The intervention by Norman, however, can only be short-term. Critics point out that Norman's argument that it takes 15 to 17 years experience before anyone can totally be proficient and have the necessary skills to operate a thermal power station, therefore the country has to import expatriates, is rather short-sighted.

The critics argue that expatriates just come to make money and rarely impart their skills as they would like to ensure that there is always demand for them. These critics also argue that if the expatriates who built the power station had imparted their skills and those who acquired those skills had been allowed to use them instead of being frustrated into leaving their jobs by politically appointed administrators, things would not be the way they are today.

They argue therefore that locals should be hired and given full authority to make decisions, which is exactly what is accorded the expatriates. If their management contracts include performance targets they will always be on alert. This will also ensure that authorities hire professionals instead of poorly qualified relatives or friends.

The same seems to be happening at the ZBC where the parastatal is fast sinking because of the absence of a chief executive. Reports say the ZBC board of directors is now almost operating as a management board as they are meeting so often to solve the parastatal's problems. That the ZBC is in deep trouble is indicated by its failure to raise a mere $200 000 it owes to the Zimbabwe Football Association.

At one time the parastatal even had to borrow from the workers cooperative to pay salaries and wages. Lack of proper direction has also resulted in an exodus of staff.

While things look cool at Air Zimbabwe there are reports that the airline's debts at several foreign airports have been accumulating because of lack of foreign exchange. This has led to fears that creditors may ground one of the airline's Boeing 767s.

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