By Nhau Mangirazi
Karoi– A number of Zimbabweans owe substantial sums of money for electricity they don’t receive, while others get free electricity thanks to corruption at Zimbabwe’s electricity utility company.
Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (Zesa), the southern African country’s electricity utility company is owed over $700 million, with domestic users accounting for nearly $261 million of the debt.
Some defaulters enjoy free service due to deals organised by corrupt junior workers, asking for bribes to bury active accounts, and officers, demanding sex as payment in kind to desperate defaulting women.
Since the dollarisation of the economy in 2009, Zesa has been battling to pay its outstanding international bills.
In Karoi town, about 200 kilometers north-west of Harare, several households said the amounts owed to Zesa are “not real.”
Some officials are buying cars and houses where huge debts are buried in a sophisticated way. The country is losing out financially
Tellmore Mukarakate, a local resident, is saddled by an escalating debt that Zesa officials are reluctant to stop, besides the fact that he is… not connected.
“I tried to engage Zesa officials over the mounting bill they are charging monthly when there is no service delivery. Our house was disconnected in 2008 over cable failure.
“Due to high inflation then, I never bothered to have it reconnected. I owe them $1073 and it is balance brought forward monthly. Why should they charge me? And for what purpose?” fumed Mukarakate.
The 44 year old father of two children is unemployed, but said the three roomed house is his source of income after it was left in his custody by his brother who currently lives in Harare. The mounting debt, he said, is scaring away tenants.
Mukarakate added that his crime is that his electricity bill is under the fixed charge category, where they must pay regardless of using power or not.
“The officials cannot cancel this debt, but they cannot justify why they are charging us every month without any services at all” he added.
Mukarakate is not alone in this predicament. Skumbuzo Sibanda is also suffering the same fate over “misfired debts”.
Sibanda, who hails from Kadoma, 290 kilometers north-east of Harare, said: “Zesa’s monthly audits look as if we are utilising power but debt is falsified.”
A teacher at a resettlement school near Tengwe business centre within Mashonaland West province said they were failing to settle a debt of over $2000, incurred when Zesa took away the school’s transformer in 2009.
“The school was using a transformer the officials claim was for commercial use and took it away. They claim it is now company property, although it was bought by the previous white farmer, before land reform, when he established the school here” said the teacher.
A 68 year old widow Janet Panasi in Karoi town said her six roomed house is in the dark.
“The Zesa officers removed the breaker, claiming we were not paying fixed charges on time in May 2010. As you know that the US dollar is elusive, I could not pay anything then of the $1200 we owed them. When they removed the breaker I thought we could have a break on monthly charges” said the widow, who has four tenants.
However, there were mixed responses from junior meter readers with some claiming the monthly charge is fixed and there is no reverse.
“The customers must pay up as they owe Zesa the amount and will be charged monthly” said a junior officer at Kadoma depot.
In Karoi, some junior officers blamed their counterparts of forging the arrears as a cover-up for their criminal activities.
However some sources within the loss and control department of the company said the mounting debts, cover-ups and burying of active accounts is only the tip of the iceberg.
“Anyone with such queries must approach the depot manager so that he can write a report to have the account reversed. When there are no services being offered, the monthly charges must be terminated.”
“This is massive fraud. Many people come with such complains, but no action is being taken” admitted a junior officer in Kadoma, who refused to be named. Karoi depot manager Engineer Chikwanda refused to comment.
Harare Residents Trust coordinator Precious Shumba said “Zesa is getting money from unrealistic electricity charges on fixed charges for customers. The billing system is in mess. They are raising money but nothing is being done to transform it into a transparent organisation.”
He added that the fixed meter billing system was disorganised and baffling. “It is creating inconsistencies that affect services delivery.”
An internal Zesa investigation carried in June last year unearthed massive corrupt tendencies by some workers in Mashonaland West region who were tampering with some accounts.
The investigation, codenamed Operation Dandemutande (Cobweb), started in April and exposed how some workers were deleting accounts with huge amounts and replacing them with new accounts at clean sheet.
A report, secured by the Forum for African Investigative Reporters, says the officers colluded with defaulting account holders who paid them in cash or kind.
The probing team covered Karoi, Kariba, and Mhangura; farming and rural business centers areas within the province.
The results addressed to Field Commander of the area give a glimpse into massive scam common in all parts of the country involving the importation of electricity from neighbouring countries.
Dandemutande audit, commissioned by Energy Minister Elton Mangoma, targeted unauthorised rural and urban reconnections that prejudiced the loss-making parastatal.
Sexual demands over debt
The document’s findings exposed how some workers abused their authority by demanding bribes.
A number of officials accepted kickbacks of as little as $4 for reconnections from defaulting customers.
Some officials got bribes running into several thousands of dollars while others were paid in kind after demanding sexual favours from desperate defaulting women account holders, said the probing team.
Karoi town was described as a “haven of corrupt ZEDTC workers” where investigators say customers implicated a worker for demanding at least $10 or $20 every month to bury the accounts.
The same senior official received several thousands of dollars from clients with huge bills.
The document cited how an account that owed Zesa $2261.11 was “buried” and a new account reopened in the same name.
There is also an alleged case where an official demanded a beast from a client who owed the power utility company $984.90.
Inside sources revealed that no one was suspended over the irregularities.
“Some officials are buying cars and houses where huge debts are buried in a sophisticated way. The country is losing out financially.
“They claim customers owe it several millions but individuals are pocketing the monies for their own benefit” said a senior worker in the loss and control department in Harare, speaking on condition of anonymity for professional reasons.
A ballooned debt
Zesa chief executive Josh Chifamba said coperate companies are big debtors, accounting to nearly a third of $730 million.
”The money we are owed is over $730 million and, of this total amount, domestic consumers owe us $261 million.” he said.
He called it a ”ballooned debt”.
The Competition and Tariff Commission gave an order in July 2010 that Zesa must exclude fixed charges.
From 1 December 2009 onwards, the charge for such customers must be based “on power availed, taking into account load shedding … All outstanding charges arising from electricity consumed prior to this date should be written off.”
The government resolved that Zesa must not disconnect defaulting customers.
Zimbabwe is currently generating 1 400 megawatts against a demand of 2 200 megawatts at its peak. It is importing the rest from regional neighbours, including Mozambique, South Africa, Namibia among others.
The author, Nhau Mangirazi, is a Zimbabwean journalist who has published in Al Jazeera among other publications. He is a member of Forum for African Investigative Reporters, a pan-African organisation of investigative journalists.
Original article published Theafricareport.com