IT is a Tuesday afternoon and 60-year-old Rebecca Gwanzura endures the scotching sun as she waits in a long-winding and slow-moving queue to collect her pension at the POSB branch along Leopold Takawira Street in Harare.
On any other day she would have been busy collecting plastics to sell to recyclers, so that she makes ends meet. That has been her job for the past five years.
Having been retrenched at the age of 49 from a manufacturing firm in Harare, she had no choice but to find other means of survival. She had worked at the company for 30 years, staring off as a fresh-faced 19-year-old.
In a country with over 90% formal unemployment rate, her chances of getting a new job have been getting slimmer with each passing year.
Eleven years after retrenchment, Gwanzura is still waiting for her retrenchment package from the ailing company which is also on verge of collapse.
Her paltry ZW$18 000 pension from the National Social Security Authority was her only source of income before she decided to complement it by venturing into waste collection.
Gwanzura stays in Mt Darwin in Mashonaland Central but travels to Harare to collect her pension because her chances of getting money in Bindura, the provincial capital, are slim.
“I travel a long distance to come here to get the money which is not enough to meet my monthly needs. I don’t know how they think we survive on this little money. The queues are long and its hot but what can we do? I really need this money as cash because I stay in rural areas back in Mt Darwin and using Ecocash is very expensive too. Usually, they give preference to the senior citizens here but as you can see, we are all old. Our plea is that they increase the money, we are struggling. I have not known any peace since I left work, it has been always poverty,” Gwanzura said.
“However, five years ago my neighbour introduced me to the waste collection business. There are people who come to buy it in our area, but as you know, the waste is hard to come by in the rural areas so we travel long distances for us to make the required weight to make a sale. At this age it’s not easy but at least we make something out of it. I’m now old and my legs are failing me. I can’t believe all the years I have worked are going down into this little amount and I had to turn to waste collection to survive. The money keeps losing value every day.”
Gwanzura’s story mirrors that of many retired Zimbabweans who are reeling in poverty as the economic struggles to stay afloat. The exchange rate volatility and the loss of value of the local currency has also taken toll on their livelihoods.
Over the years, the financial services sector, which include the banking, insurance and pensions industry, has been hard-hit by the economic turbulence.
As a result of the economic problems bedeviling the country most pensions have been eroded with pensioners getting amounts which are not enough for them to make a living.
While NSSA has been frequently reviewing payouts, payouts have failed to match the ever-increasing cost of living.
The situation has been worse for other sectors such as mining, with pensioners getting as low as ZW$3 000 per month, enough to buy two loaves of bread per month.
The burden has been more severe women pensioners and widows, as they have to make a living out of little amounts.
“I ventured into waste collection because I had no money to start any other business. What matters for me now is that I have a meal on the table but the truth is that this life is painful and unbearable. For someone who has worked for over 30-years, I was hoping to retire comfortably enjoying my pension like our grandfathers did,” Gwanzura said.
Another woman, Lucy Chidawo (42), said she is surviving by doing menial jobs at farms on the outskirts of Harare.
Chidawo’s situation has been worsened by the fact that she is living with a disability, after sustaining a leg injury that saw her leg being amputated.
“I could still be working but because of this injury, I can’t work anymore. They dismissed me on medical grounds. What pains me is that I got into the accident while on duty and on the company’s premises. I have no knowledge how the compensation and pension things work, but I got a lump sum payment for my injury. It wasn’t enough to last a life time,” she said.
“I now rely on the Nssa monthly payout which is ZW$16 000 at the moment. It’s not enough to anything. It is not enough for me and the children. I go to farms to supplement my income but because of my condition things are difficult. NSSA should increase the money and also convert it to US dollars.”
There have been calls for increased efforts to educate workers on retirement planning with the hope that it will aid them to have decent lives after retirement. However, the notion keeps being challenged by the economic challenges such as the plummeting locks currency.
Signs of Hope Trust director, Samantha Sibanda told this publication there is an urgent need to look into the plight of women in pension related matters, especially people with disabilities.
“According to the 2013 National Survey on Living Conditions among Persons with Disabilities in Zimbabwe by the Ministry of Health and Child Care and UNICEF, women with disabilities have less opportunities of getting educated or employed… The vending work or petty trades that they may be involved in cannot sustain them to a point of having savings. Some older persons get support from their children, sadly women with disabilities have no opportunity to decide what they want when it comes to Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights, they are vulnerable and forced sterilization is rampant, so they can neither bear children or raise their children,” she said.
Sibanda said there was an ongoing discussion with the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe on on-the job disabilities and how they should live past pension age.
“The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe launched the Financial Inclusion Strategy 2 and have also come up with Thematic Working Groups which also take into consideration the need for older persons to be included in formal financial services in Zimbabwe. Our organization is part of the Thematic Working Group on Financial Inclusion of People with Disabilities and we noted with concern the prevalence of acquired disability which according to the National Disability Policy is the greater population (more than 70% of disabilities are acquired.) These people spend a lot of money trying to get rehabilitation, lost savings and property. It’s clear that as a country we have a huge role to play in cushioning people with disabilities in their old age. Presenting them with opportunities for income through loans, revolving funds or other means in the national budget,” she said.
Sibanda added that the convention on older persons is an international treaty that the United Nations is drafting and this treaty will definitely be instrumental in improving our own legislation on older people if it’s ratified.
NSSA communications deputy director Marketing and PR, Tendayi Mutseyekwa agreed that pension money is not enough to sustain the livelihoods of the pensioners.
“It is universally accepted that monetary benefits are never sufficient and NSSA has taken strides to alleviate the plight of our beneficiaries to close this gap. A number of initiatives have been implemented to lessen this burden particularly with women in mind. There is a revolving loan facility where pensioners can start income generating projects and currently some of our pensioners are running successful poultry projects for their upkeep. We also have a pilot goat farming out-grower project underway in Bindura and Gwanda. This scheme is meant to augment income of participating pensioners by providing them with breeding stock to boost their herds and they will also be able to export goat meat through NSSA’s main goat raring project at Woodlands Farm in Kwekwe,” he said.
In addition to breeding stock, Mutseyekwa said NSSA will also provide technical assistance to participants in the project that shall be decentralised to all provinces after the pilot phase.
“Our pensioners can access free medical provision through our mobile clinic that moves around the country to ensure that the elderly, women and the children regularly receive medical check- ups and medication for basic ailments. We also provide literature in both English and vernacular to educate and inform our customers on their obligations to NSSA as well as the entitlements thereof,” he said.
NSSA administers two schemes namely Pensions and Other Benefits Scheme and the Accident Prevention and Workers Compensation Insurance Fund. The schemes are designed to provide a safety net to the contributors and their dependents in the event of an injury/illness, retirement or death.
Experts argue relooking the pension model in Zimbabwe would lessen the burden for most pensioners.
In an economy where the economic meltdown has seen a lot of women doing unpaid work, this will go a long way in ensuring a better life for women in their old age.