A story breaks in the press that the government of South Africa cannot account for 80% of its expenditure for a single fiscal year. There might well be an immediate political storm, with the President (and head of the government) being summoned to parliament to explain this, calls for the resignation of the government, new elections, and, knowing South Africa, some very rough street protests. I cannot imagine the EFF ignoring this. In almost every country in the world such a public admission, that the government of the day cannot account for where 80% of its budget went, would cause a huge public uproar.
However, in Zimbabwe, the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor-General, entrusted with checking that the government’s expenditure has all been legal and above board, releases a report that states that the audit for 2012 shows that the government cannot account for nearly $3.5 billion.
“Financial records for Treasury order transfers from the main exchequer account to the Paymaster General Account totaling $3 499 320 653 were not availed for audit examination.”
This amounts to nearly 80% of the entire budget, and yet there is scarcely any comment: from the media, from Parliament, from the opposition political parties, and most citizens I have spoken to are not even aware of the issue.
Yet it should be a topic of conversation everywhere – kombis, sports bars, coffee shops, the gym, car parks, queues, golf clubs, discussion forums, workplaces ... the list goes on.
Now why should this be a matter for concern?
Firstly, consider that the overwhelming proportion of the money that we citizens pay in tax goes to pay salaries. In 2012, 235,000 civil servants, who were 2% of the population of Zimbabwe, received 60% of the budgetary resources of the country: the remaining 98% of us citizens accepted that the state would spend the balance of 37% on us. The number of civil servants has ballooned to almost 550,000 in 2015, according to some estimates, but, without an audit of the actual numbers employed (which the Minister of Finance promises). This might be lower, or even higher. But whatever the number, even the government admits that the civil service now takes 80% of the budget.
So when there is no power, or water, or any of the many public goods and services that government should provide its citizens, it matters immensely how the money is being spent, and when the money apparently disappears, then it should be a scandal of severe proportions. But it apparently is not such a scandal?
Why? Because we are all so inured to corruption by those that govern us that we are no longer surprised? Or that, when the former Minister of Finance, Hon. Tendai Biti, says that $3.5 billion was used to rig the 2013 elections, we are so used to rigging elections and corruption, that we are no longer surprised? After all, the Afrobarometer surveys since 2000 show an increasing proportion of Zimbabwean citizens believe that parliamentarians, ministers and officials of all kinds are corrupt, so we are not surprised, but neither, it seems, are we pissed off.
This is not a trifling $20 million odd stolen from ZTV. This is not a trivial sum: it is about 30% more than the entire suggested budget for 2011 and the equivalent of the budget for 2012. Vanished without a trace, after being allocated to salaries: again those darned civil servants, who are generally most uncivil in most citizens’ experiences. Or were they “ghost” workers?
Why is this serious? Well, a government that, at the least, is so incompetent that it shows how it spends our money is little different from the rest of us who cannot show the bank from whom we borrowed the money in the first place, how we spent it. In the latter case, for sure we are declared insolvent, and, if more than incompetent, but criminal, will go to gaol.
But what price does the government pay? The President summoned to parliament to explain why his government is so incompetent? An investigation by the Attorney-General, at the behest of parliament, to find out whether there has been any wrongdoing and where the money went? Protests by citizens, screaming, shouting and marching, about what happened to the money, and demanding the resignation of the President, and his government? Opposition parties demanding the resignation of the President and the government?
What are the consequences? Well, consider that Zimbabwe currently owes external debtors about $7.225 billion, and, of course, because we have not been paying off this external debt, it has grown since 2012. We managed somehow, we ordinary citizens without that $3.5 billion, but it did no go to pay off the external debt, which obviously would now be much lower, and the country might look a more interesting prospect for investors. Rather than this desirable outcome, we now don’t know what happened to $3.5 billion, the government looks totally incompetent, and possibly criminal, and there is even less reason for investors to come here, no matter how glossy ZIMASSET looks on paper.
Well, why worry?
After all it’s only money, what money?
There are much more exciting things to get our attention. Extra-marital affairs, vermin and gamatox, politicians from the same side slagging each other off, all much more interesting and diverting than the mere problem that $3.5 billion of our hard-earned taxes disappeared without a trace!
27th May 2015