Ncube: Citizens slipping through social safety net

MY late father-in-law never tired of seeking to persuade me that the true measure of the success or failure of any given nation is never the successes of its well-to-do citizens but how that nation makes provision for and treats what he used to call “omhlaba usehlule”. He always argued that heartless and failed nations are measured by the desperate faces of and plight of its under-privileged, vulnerable, the elderly, the unemployed and disabled. How right he was!
A country like Zimbabwe which is wholly unable to effect a social security system that allows those of its citizens who fall below the survival radar to live in dignity and decency cushioned from the pangs of daily hunger and homelessness passes for a heartless nation. Developed countries like Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom may pass off as ‘nanny states’ to anxious libertarians, but it is only fair that a small portion of profits accumulated from capitalist adventures be set aside for the welfare of especially those who spent their adult lives contributing to corporate growth.
I write this having encountered numerous complaints from Zimbabwean citizens subjected to the inadequacies of a perforated social safety system. In the early 1980s, the British music band UB40 received a lot of airplay. It turned out that their subculture resonated with millions of unemployed British citizens whose private lives were sustained with social security money. To an outsider, it is shocking that an unemployed British man is more comfortable than an underpaid Zimbabwean teacher!
Nordic countries are also notorious for high taxes; and those in the know insist the monies are used to cushion vulnerable citizens of the groups I mentioned above. Therefore, if, as Zanu PF claims, Zimbabwe is one of the richest countries in Africa, how is it that its pensioners, the unemployed, the sick, the elderly, the injured – have been reduced to paupers? More so, with such a ‘well-funded’ institution called National Social Security Authority (NSSA) administering the social safety net. Where are we going wrong?
On its website, NSSA boldly states that it is there “to protect an individual in life situations or conditions in which his/her livelihood and well being may be threatened, such as those engendered by sickness, workplace injuries, unemployment, invalidity, old age, retirement and death.” Noble indeed, only that the lives of most of the I meet have degenerated ten-fold downwards ever since they retired from work. I could not even venture and talk about the plight of the unemployed, all six million of them!Advertisement

The Minister of Labour and Social Services was mandated, by the National Social Security Authority (Chapter 17:04) of 1989, to establish a social security scheme. The NSSA scheme of things has no unemployment benefits, thus you do not qualify for benefits if you leave employment before retirement age. With the ‘new’ labour law, citizens will  suffer even more given that most businesses are failing and struggling to make NSSA contributions.
Despite the almost five million dollars paid monthly in pension benefits, there will always be those that grumble about the disproportionate payouts compared to the post-ZimDollar cost of living. When citizens consider the scandals that bedevil this institution, especially around its property portfolio, they question why there is no adequate ‘cost of living adjustments’ in the payouts.
I am not a pensions number cruncher, but I assume one’s payouts would be determined by one’s previous salary level. NSSA claims it receives no more than $12 at the most per employee but with monthly retirement pensions that range from $40 to more than $1,000. However, to say NSSA is immune to the patronage and the governance rot bedeviling other ‘Parastatals’ would be giving them undue credit.
The matter of unemployment benefits is one central to government policy, completely shredded by the governance incompetence we have been subjected to for thirty-five years by Zanu PF. I do not foresee a situation when the plight of the swelling ranks of the unemployed will ever change. It is only a government that is committed to innovation, resourcefulness, functional democracy and human rights that can take the pressure off distressed citizens.
South Africa gives it its best shot – shocking to libertarians, but a blessing to those whose ideology hovers around social responsibility. The social safety net covers low-income persons caring for children younger than age 18; family allowances paid to a foster parent who is a citizen, permanent resident, or refugee of South Africa at the time of the application; child support grant paid to the primary caregiver of a child or children aged 17 or younger. There is also social relief of distress paid to certain vulnerable individuals, households and victims of a disaster.
According to the ODI report entitled ‘South Africa’s social security system: Expanding coverage of grants and limiting increases in inequality ‘by Jessica Hagen-Zanker and Jenny Morgan with Char les Meth: “Provision of social grants has played an important role in limiting the growth of poverty, reducing the depth of poverty among the poorest and stemming increases in inequality in South Africa.”
Barack Obama has come under criticism for his Obamacare package that attempts to afford the poor citizens access to healthcare. Our government does exempt the elderly from certain medical costs, but had we not majored in revenge and populist politics, the unemployed, the vulnerable, students and pregnant young mothers would not be a burden to their already suffering families.
Millions of citizens have to resort to private funeral assurance because ‘government assistance’ is only for those with close ties to the ruling party. Occasionally, when the hand of philanthropy and benevolence shows itself from the ‘emperor’, it will be to console families that are victim to road carnage. Our social safety net weakness was cruelly exposed when thousands of citizens in Masvingo were displaced by floodwaters from a collapsed dam wall. Hundreds more were displaced by floods in Tsholotsho earlier last year. Up to now, most of them are still languishing in the doldrums of neglect. President Mugabe’s government has no capacity to handle such major national disasters.
Despite that the Pension and Provident Fund Act, the Insurance Act and the Insurance and Pensions Commissions Act of Zimbabwe requiring insurance companies to maintain adequate funds that can meet pension scheme and insurance policy benefits (much like the depositors protection in banking), Zimbabweans have not stopped mourning about pension abuse. A Zimbabwe Pension Petition report published by Sean MacNally in 2013 exposed anomalies in pension payouts by most Parastatals, some, like  Frans Meyer, a former railway man whose payouts were discontinued without explanation. With Zimbabweans facing large-scale retrenchments and company liquidation, I do not see social security sanity prevailing ever.
The outcry from parents who once relied on BEAM; war veterans who were used and promised cost of living cushions – these are symptoms of a decaying social safety net. Millions of dollars are owed to service providers bearing the full brunt of a dysfunctional social welfare system. In the late 1980s, researcher Edwin Kaseke observed how “The major problem surrounding public assistance in Zimbabwe today is that there is no statute governing it and, as a result, the public assistance scheme does not incorporate the rights and obligations of the applicants.”
He continued, “The principle of contribution inherent in occupational pensions needs to be extended to cover such areas as unemployment insurance and sickness insurance. Although workmen’s compensation has injury insurance, there is still need to extend coverage to all categories of employees including domestic and casual workers. Social insurance has a positive contribution to make towards national development. With the rising tide of informal workers, the demand for a more socially accountable government cannot be over emphasised.
As MDC, we agree with the ODI conclusion that “Social grants are affordable with an adequate tax base and an efficient tax-gathering system. Budgetary prioritisation of interventions to reduce poverty is of high importance, as governments have to choose in the context of limited budgets among competing policies, which all have an impact on poverty and inequality, directly or indirectly.”
Actually, I even argue around constitutional provisions in Section 30 on social welfare that compel the State to ‘take all practical measures, within the limits of the resources available to it, to provide social security and social care to those who are in need’.  However, this requires an accountable and efficient government with functional state institutions sadly lacking in the Zanu PF scheme of things.