Beaven Dhliwayo Features Writer
Until the 19th century in China, an official method of torture and execution was called ling chi or “death by a thousand cuts”.
To put it bluntly, small pieces of skin or flesh were cut from a prisoner over a period of days until the victim died.
Today the term is used to describe any gradual destruction by seemingly non-lethal attacks.
In business circles, it describes the way an opportunity or organisation is destroyed by continual small changes.
It also happens to be an ideal description of the First Republic’s spending with the State covering the travel costs of ministers’ spouses and relatives on official trips.
Finance and Economic Development Minister Professor Mthuli Ncube made a bold decision when he barred expenses related to Government officials travelling with spouses, family and concubines while on official duty.
Thank you Professor, funding foreign trips for spouses and sometimes small houses was killing the country and it’s a noble idea to put it to an end.
Sober Zimbabweans are happy and will be glad to see their hard-earned money financing productive activities in the country.
SI 144 of 2019, also known as the Public Finance Management (Treasury Instructions) 2019, is a positive development as the country moves towards reviving an economy ravaged by liquidity constraints, company closures and job losses.
On costs incurred by Government officials’ families, the new regulations read: “Government shall not be responsible for costs incurred when officers on official duty travel with spouses, children or dependants.”
In the First Republic ministers travelling overseas for short work trips were allowed to bring their spouses and a full entourage including young kids who have nothing to do with Government business.
The ruling by Prof Ncube shows Government’s determination to reduce expenditure.
The 2019 National Budget, which he themed “Austerity for Prosperity”, and has been critiqued by many is now laying the necessary groundwork for cutting the fiscal deficit and containing recurrent expenditure.
Under the Robert Mugabe era, ministers racked up billions of dollars on luxury travel when they were accompanied by their wives, husbands, children and other relatives to international destinations on taxpayer-funded official trips.
For a long time, this was putting pressure on the economic revival agenda — the Second Republic’s mission — and the money should now be channelled to vital social objectives for the survival of the generality of Zimbabweans such as improving the supply of hospital drugs and infrastructure development in the education sector, among others.
Figures from the 2016 Budget Statement show that foreign trips by former president Mugabe and his Cabinet gobbled more than US$33 million between January and September 2015, which is more than what has been spent in the same period by key ministries which are crucial for economic growth of the country.
Ministries such as Women Affairs, Community Development, Small and Medium Enterprises; Industry and Commerce; Lands, Wter, Climate, Agriculture and Rural Resettlement; and Mines and Mining Development among others are vital in moving the country’s economic development.
Former president Mugabe and his ministers were spending much more on foreign trips compared to allocations on economic ministries which are the backbone of development in the country.
Actual figures of expenditure up to September 2015 outlined in the estimates of expenditure, referred to as the “Blue Book”, show that Mugabe’s office spent US$33 270 491 on foreign trips, going beyond the budgeted US$27 446 000.
This excludes the former present’s frequent trips to India, Turkey, Malaysia, Singapore and France.
In simple mathematical terms, the figure exceeds by almost three times the US$11 817 053 spent by the ministry of Industry and Commerce during the period, a ministry that is expected to spearhead the revival of the manufacturing sector hard hit by low capacity utilisation, which now stands at 34.3 percent coupled by company collapses and massive power cuts.
The money spent on trips abroad also exceeded that spent by the ministries of Small to Medium Enterprises; Tourism and Transport combined.
During that period, the President’s Office spent a total of US$156 621 766 for the first nine months of the year, of which US$10 563 414 was splurged on rentals and hire expenses.
What former president Mugabe spent on foreign trips is nearly 10 times higher than the ministry of Mines’ expenditure of US$3 487 584 up to September that year.
Moreover, a whopping US$47 281 627 was spent on goods and services with US$1 811 303 spent on maintenance.
Former president Mugabe and his club were globe-trotting even when the country was burning.
In 2015 alone, Cde Mugabe and his travelling buddies made several trips to the Far East and within Africa, wolfing millions at a time Treasury was hard-up.
The former president had among his jaunts been to Ethiopia, Algeria, Tanzania, Japan, South Africa and Russia that year.
Going forward, Prof Ncube, higher Government spending should be directed on productive sectors and not sponsoring extravagant trips for concubines and the likes.
Try by all means, in your capacity as Finance Minister to plug all possible revenue leakages in government and its associated departments and devise mechanisms that will improve transparency in the handling of public funds.
Money should also be channelled to welfare benefits, pensions, education and training.
Targeted Government spending can increase labour productivity and enable higher long-term economic growth.
In the TSP’s preface, President Mnangagwa notes the importance of transparency and accountability when conducting Government business.
“Most importantly, the need for transparency and accountability by all stakeholders and citizens will be key for the transformation of the economy and realising the aspirations of Vision 2030,” notes the President.
In 2011, the president Mugabe and the late Morgan Tsvangirai during the Government of National Unity spent US$14,8 million on its 3 000 schools, excluding salaries, yet along with their officials racked up US$45 million in travel expenses
Lessons can be learned from Tanzania.
In his first week in office in November 2015, President John Magufuli halted all foreign trips for public servants.
He said in cases of emergency, approval could be granted by himself or the head of civil service.
The move was welcomed with open hands by the public as civil servants were often seen as wasting taxpayers’ money by making frequent foreign trips, some of which were not beneficial for the country, and doing so by flying in first or business class.
To date, overseas trips for public officials in Tanzania are still limited, and although President Magufuli no longer issues approvals, officials must seek permission from authorities closely monitored by his office.
A report by the Bank of Tanzania in early 2017 revealed that the government had saved US$430 million by limiting foreign travel between November 2015 to November 2016.
The president himself has not travelled outside East Africa since becoming president. He has only toured to neighbouring Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda.
He visited Zimbabwe recently and his longest journey so far was to Ethiopia to attend an African Union meeting in January 2017.
He is also on record as saying that he is skipping foreign travel to save money and direct it towards improving social service delivery.