Zimbabwe: Where pensions can mean poverty

world | Dec 24, 2011 | By IRIN 

After working for 42 years at a private company as an office messenger, Kamunjoma Dikani, 73, retired in 2000, just as Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation began to take root.

The company offered him a one-off lump sum of Z$35,000 (US$350), which was quickly eroded by Zimbabwe’s inflation which peaked at billions of percent, before the government abolished the local currency in 2009 and replaced it with a basket of foreign currencies - the Botswana pula, the South African rand and the US dollar. Hyperinflation was cured practically overnight.

While waiting in a pension queue in the capital Harare this month, he told IRIN “I am now solely dependent on my NSSA [National Social Security Authority] monthly pension of US$40 [the minimum for retirees]. This is nothing,” he said, adding that he actually gets less as a $2 “administration fee” is deducted.

The dollarization hit pensioners the hardest, as years of savings simply evaporated under hyperinflation and what was left was killed off in the currency switch. With unemployment estimated at about 90 percent at the time, pensioners had little or no opportunity to return to any form of work.

Pensions systems in Zimbabwe include private contributions made to pension funds and the state contributory system (since 1994) administered by NSSA to which all employees are obliged to contribute.

“Government introduced the NSSA because some workers ended up being destitute after many years of service,” NSSA spokesperson Philemon Chereni told IRIN. “Some workers were given a bicycle or a wheelbarrow in recognition of their long service.”

Those people who retired before 1994 do not benefit from the state pension fund, but many of those who receive benefits still struggle.

Costly travel to collect pensions

Dikani, who lives in Honde Valley in rural eastern Zimbabwe, said that while it should be possible to collect his pension at any post office, he is forced to travel more than 300km to Harare to collect his money, as the local post office does not have sufficient funds to pay pensioners. The round trip costs about US$16.

However, he also receives an additional $80 rental from a house he owns in Harare. “It costs me a lot to come to Harare so I have decided to come every three months,” he said.

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William Takawira, 71, travels monthly to Harare to pick up his pension. He lives in Mrewa a rural area about 50km from the city and pays $4 for the return journey

Forced to retire as a filing clerk after 15 years for health reasons, he collects a disability pension of $20 from the NSSA. “After paying for transport and maybe a meal which I need as a diabetic I’ll be lucky to get home with $10.”

His pension is also boosted by a monthly rent of $60 from a house in a low-income residential area of the capital, which is used for his five school-going grandchildren, of which he is their legal guardian.

“Both parents died and I have to look after the children with my wife.” There is no luxury of a Christmas for them. ”The children will need school fees next term and I have been forced to sell cows before to enable me to pay that.”

Although medical treatment at government health institutions is provided free for all Zimbabweans aged 60 and over, most of the time there are no drugs available. “I get a prescription and have to go to a private pharmacy to buy what I need. Most of the time I just don’t bother.”

The estimated monthly cost of living for a family of four is $540 and the lowest paid public servant earns about $250 per month, with workers in sectors such as agriculture receiving a minimum monthly wage of $44.

Costina Moyo, a 66 year-old widow who lives in Zimbabwe’s second city Bulawayo, retired in 2008 after teaching for 25 years. She receives a monthly government pension of $150 and is also entitled to an NSSA pension of $25, but “was sent from pillar to post” trying to get the NSSA pension but has still not received it, she said.

Ignorance of entitlements

Some supermarkets on certain days provide pensioners with 10 percent discounts on goods and pensioners are only liable to pay 50 percent of municipal rates and refuse collection fees, but the vast majority of pensioners IRIN spoke with were unaware of this.

''The government knows what it costs to live in this country so they must pay us enough''
Pensioners get preference at queues and are allowed to go to the front, but as Dikeni said “It’s OK but you do not eat that.”

Faki Wamambo, 88, receives a UK pension of 12 pounds sterling (US$18), as most of his working life as a nurse was during the time of white-ruled Southern Rhodesia. Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980.

Ignorance of the entitlement to state pensions is also depriving people of old-age benefits.

Gift Muti, spokesperson for the General Agriculture and Plantation Workers’ Union of Zimbabwe (GAPWUZ), said many farm workers become needy on retirement because they did not know about the pension or where to go to claim it. “We are engaged in an education campaign to make them aware of the existence of the pension.”

NSSA general manager James Matiza told local daily The Herald that monthly pension payments range between $40 and $1,447, depending on the pensioner's insurable earnings at retirement and the pension contribution period.

The government’s recent announcement that the minimum pension was to increase by 50 percent on 1 January 2012 was described as “derisory” by both Dikani and Takawira. “The government knows what it costs to live in this country so they must pay us enough,” Dikani said.

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