Zimbabwe is being hit by a tidal wave of debt – defaulters are on the rise as the ailing economy continues to hit ordinary citizens hard.
Many are losing their properties to debt collectors or live in fear of having their homes given to creditors.
Thirty-two-year-old Hazel Mhembere, who lives in the dormitory city of Chitungwiza, 30km (18 miles) south of the capital, Harare, suffers this daily anguish.
She and her husband, Tafadzwa Chingandu, lost their jobs last year.
Both of them worked at a local bank, both lost their jobs and both had taken out loans.
“Due to the circumstances of us losing our jobs, we could not meet the requirements to pay off our existing salary-based loans – supposed to be paid off over a period of two years,” says Ms Mhembere.
Now the $1,500 (£1,160) debt is proving hard to settle and they endlessly receive letters of demand despite having pleaded with the bank.
Farai Katsande, president of the Zimbabwe Banks and Allied Workers Union, says the issue of debt among his members is a major cause of concern as the unemployment rate now stands at about 90%.
“In Zimbabwe, [once] you get out of employment, there is very slim chance, if any chance at all, that you will get alternative employment.”
The stress is also having affecting their health, with Mr Chingandu now needing hypertension medication.
Their ordeal is mirrored across the nation.
According to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), between 25,000 and 30,000 workers have lost their jobs since a July 2015 Supreme Court ruling which allowed employers to terminate contracts without giving any benefits or redundancy payments, as long as their workers were given three months’ notice.
”We have nasty incidences happening as a result of the Supreme Court ruling. Our members, that include those of banks, have been dispossessed of their properties,” says Japhet Moyo, ZCTU’s secretary-general.
“We have had incidences of high levels of stress among our membership and many are under medication. It’s a big crisis.”
Ten factors in Zimbabwe’s economic slump:
- 1. Foreign investment has shrunk since President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party won elections in 2013 partly on a mandate of “indigenisation”, which required all firms to cede economic control to black Zimbabweans
- 2. This had echoes of the country’s land reform programme, which saw the seizure of land from some 4,000 white farmers. The agricultural sector, once the backbone of the economy, is still in disarray
- 3. Since a Supreme Court ruling last year making it easier for companies to get rid of employees, it is estimated that up to 30,000 have lost their jobs.
- 4. Formal employment stands at about 10% – many make their living doing cross-border trading
- 5. But the government is trying to stop this as it has physically run out of cash because the country imports more than it exports
- 6. Zimbabwe abandoned its own currency in 2009 in order to stem runaway inflation – and now mainly uses the US dollar or South African rand
- 7. Plans to introduce local “bond notes”, pegged to the dollar, have sparked protests
- 8. Civil servants being paid late as the government cannot pay its bills
- 9. High levels of corruption
- 10. The government has not been able to agree new loans with the IMF and World Bank as it has not undertaken the economic reforms they demand.
Ms Mhembere’s fears about her husband’s health are shared by many Zimbabweans. Private hospitals fees are out of reach for her.
Public hospitals, where services have deteriorated but still need to be paid for, are reportedly also chasing patients who have defaulted on paying their debts.
Their job losses have had other ripple effects.
“We have got an extended family that has been benefitting from us being at work,” says Ms Mhembere.
“We were paying their rentals and were looking after their three children’s school and day-to-day needs.”
The couple are themselves now surviving on handouts and doing, for example, laundry, but the money is not enough to cover daily needs.
“My parents are very much worried. They always try to help even when you do not ask for help.
“My mother is a retired teacher; old and cannot do anything on her own. I have the responsibility to look after her.”
“Tafadzwa [a qualified reconciliation clerk] is now doing menial jobs at an industrial area. He has to off-load stuff for warehouses,” says Ms Mhembere.
“At times when he gets a job as a driver, he can take a couple of weeks driving people around so that we can pay our utility bills.”
Defaulting on utility bills has become common and Michael Chideme, Harare City Council’s spokesman, says the city is owed $500m by residents, the government and the business sector.
“This issue is not going to end; almost 50% of Harare residents owe some kind of debt to a service provider,” says Mfundo Mlilo, director of the Combined Harare Residents Association.
More on Zimbabwe’s crisis
Mr Mlilo says some Harare residents who have not had water for 15 years still get bills from the city council as there are fixed charges.
The city has no capacity to monitor all the water metres and check whether or not they are working – customers who refuse to pay their bills are considered debtors.
Schools threaten legal action
Ms Mhembere, a former customer service employee, cannot fathom why her life has taken a turn for the worse.
What breaks her heart the most is not being able to meet the needs of her 11-year-old daughter, Chido, who gets ridiculed in front of other students at her state-run school if her fees are not paid on time.
“We can only pay so much at a certain time. She’s made to stand up with the other children [whose parents have not paid] by the headmaster.
“Then they start asking the children why they haven’t paid their school fees.”
It is a common complaint – Stewart Mutanga, a hotel administrator who lives in Harare’s high density suburb of Kuwadzana, says he has received a last warning from his children’s school demanding payment.
“It looks like a very small amount [$40] but currently I cannot afford to pay.”
The letter, written by lawyers representing the council-run school, said he should pay the debt within seven days with interest – failure to do so would mean the case would go to court and he would have to pay the legal costs.
So even for those who are formally employed, the average wage is so low it cannot cover outgoings.
And company closures and retrenchments continue because of the economic problems.
“Some of our members have run away to their rural areas in fear of having their properties taken,” says Mr Moyo.
For Ms Mhembere, leaving Chitungwiza is not on the cards – yet. They are living in a house that belongs to her sister-in-law who lives abroad.
“We cannot settle the loan without any money.
“I am just thinking if they [the bank] do come and want repayment of their loan, I would just let them take some of my property [such as furniture and electronic goods] to cover for it.”