HARARE – They sleep outside banks, skimp on meals and sell flowers in hospitals. After long years of work, Zimbabwe’s pensioners are struggling to survive old age as the country’s economy collapses.
With banks short of cash to pay out pensions, 80-year-old Gift Kaondera-Shava, a former truck driver, bus conductor and factory supervisor, now scrambles to feed himself and his son’s family, none of whom can find a job.
“Things are just not right,” Kaondera-Shava told AFP at his home in Chitungwiza, south of the capital Harare.
Though he should at least be able to rely on his state pension of $89 and private pension of $140 each month, recently he has been unable withdraw it from the bank.
Hyper-inflation had destroyed the life savings of many older people until Zimbabwe finally abandoned its own currency in 2009 in favour of the US dollar.
But Zimbabwe has been unable to stop its economic decline which has led to a severe shortage of dollar notes. Banks often have no cash for customers with ATMs empty for months.
The government has said it will soon start printing its own “bond notes” equivalent to the US dollar to ease the cash shortage.
Many however fear the policy will only revive hyperinflation, and will fail to tackle an economy hollowed out by land seizures, emigration, investor withdrawal, drought and endemic corruption.
At night in Harare, it’s a regular sight to find pensioners camping on pavements outside banks.
“We queue for days for our money and sometimes we’re told there’s no money so we go back home empty-handed,” said Kaondera-Shava.
“We are heading to a danger point,” he said. “Imagine! I can only manage to withdraw my pension if I join the queue at the bank at 1:00 am.”
To supplement his income, Kaondera-Shava has moved himself and his wife into two rooms so he can rent out the spare rooms in his house, but there are few takers. So he says he stays home and reads the Bible, which “gives me solace during difficult times.”
Another pensioner forced to scrape a living, 71-year-old John Charumbira, retired in 2011 after 36 years as a horticulturist in the Harare municipality parks department.
He has a state pension of just $60 a month, picking up extra cash selling flowers at schools and hospitals.
But this is still insufficient to afford the $80 a month he needs for his prostate drugs, which used to be paid by the city support services until last year.
“Doctors have warned that if I don’t take the drugs, I will develop complications which will require surgery too, and where will I get the money for that?” Charumbira said.
Despite his poor health, he raises a few pigs and chickens and grows vegetables at his rural house where he moved with his wife to cut back expenses, as the property has no piped in water or electricity.
Three of his six children have left the country to look for jobs abroad.
“I can’t rely on them because they have not been spared by the difficulties,” Charumbira said.
“I survive on earnings from my flower nursery and other projects like piggery. I could not have survived only on my pension.”
‘Last to be paid’
President Robert Mugabe might be 92 himself, and in increasingly frail health, but he has vowed to retain his more than three-decades-long grip on power as Zimbabwe’s economic troubles multiply.
His government spends 97 percent of the budget on salaries for its workers, and has been forced to delay payment to civil servants and soldiers as money runs short.
Unemployment is at about 90 percent, and the country owes lenders including the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and African Development Bank about $9 billion.
Last month Zimbabwe slashed its projected growth forecast from 2.7 percent to 1.2 percent, blaming the decline on a regional drought, investment shortfalls and the cash crunch.
That’s created a situation where pensioners end up “the last to be paid,” Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions secretary general Japhet Moyo told AFP.
“Life is very difficult for pensioners and some have died from stress-related health complications,” he said.
“The government has forgotten the contributions these people made during their active years. It gives priority to soldiers and the police.”
Philemon Tsvinyai, 63, who retired in 2014 after working for 20 years for a thread and yarn-making company, is forced to work in the fields to survive.
But he insists he actually feels more sorry for Zimbabwe’s young.
“I have seven children and they are also struggling. I feel pity for them,” he said.