November 15, 2020
HARARE, ZIMBABWE — The line forms early outside a local bank in Harare. As the sun rises over Zimbabwe’s capital city, the crowd begins to sweat. Men with knobkerries, a kind of walking stick, and women adorned with headscarves lean on the bank’s walls. Some collapse on the stairs, tired and waiting. Always waiting.
Every month, these pensioners stand in an hours-long line to collect the payments they were promised years ago. The money won’t even cover daily expenses.
Zimbabwe requires workers to contribute toward their retirement while they are employed. But two decades of political and economic crisis led to some of the world’s most dramatic currency shifts. Many who counted on these benefits have found that unprecedented long-term inflation has eaten their pensions, destroying plans for the future and catapulting them into poverty.
Olivia Murungweni, 69, and her husband, Zebediah Murungweni, 76, had civil service careers – she as a teacher and he as a civil engineer. They had planned to retire comfortably at 65, the mandated age for public-sector workers.
Olivia Murungweni, who began her career three decades ago, contributed to her pension in multiple currencies as the government tried to stay ahead of rising inflation and preserve the money’s worth. Zimbabwe’s economy darted from the Zimbabwean dollar to bearer checks, to the United States dollar, to local bond notes, and back to the revived Zimbabwean dollar.
This devalued Olivia Murungweni’s savings. Her pension is now worthless.
She gave up a car and canceled planned home improvements. She and her husband raise chickens to make extra money.
It’s not what Olivia Murungweni expected when she took a teaching job to influence young people. Her family was proud of her career, and she was too. “It was a respectable profession back then,” she says.
Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe
The trouble with Zimbabwean pensions dates back to 2009, when the country abandoned the Zimbabwean dollar and adopted a multicurrency system after years of uncontrollable inflation.
That system meant pension companies could make contributions to funds in U.S. dollars. But there were no guidelines to convert accumulated contributions and benefits. Instead, some retirement-age beneficiaries received one-off payments intended to compensate them for past contributions.
This wasn’t an option for people still working, like the Murungwenis, who continued to contribute even as the value of their pensions eroded. Olivia Murungweni says the benefits they draw do not compare to the amount she and her husband invested.
Pensions dried up further in 2019, when the country tried to salvage the economy by introducing a new currency – a revived form of the old Zimbabwean dollar.
The government did provide a three-month coronavirus cushion for retired civil servants in June, which granted them $30 a month and a 50% increase in the amount they were receiving from their pensions.
It didn’t help much. Pensioners needed to convert the money at the bank into Zimbabwean dollars, which made it virtually worthless, Olivia Murungweni says.
“It can hardly buy half of the basic commodities one needs for a month,” she says.
She receives 2,170 Zimbabwean dollars (ZWL) (around $26) a month for her pension, which doesn’t cover the cost of caring for her two grandchildren, whose parents are unemployed.
Lloyd Gumbo, public relations manager at the Insurance and Pensions Commission, which regulates the industry, said in a statement that the agency set up a commission in 2015 to investigate pensioners’ losses due to currency conversions.
“The commission established that pensioners had been prejudiced and recommended that they should be compensated from the assets that survived inflation,” Gumbo says.
The commission is still “engaging the government and other stakeholders in order to implement this recommendation,” he says.
Officials are also creating guidelines to reevaluate the value of pensions following last year’s change from U.S. dollars to Zimbabwean dollars, Gumbo says.
Some retirees worry they will never recover those lost funds.
Paul Chifamba, a tall, easygoing talker, worked as an administrator for more than three decades. He joined public and private plans, which aren’t necessarily tied to an employer. But when the 66-year-old man retired, he was told that he would not receive a pension, despite making contributions throughout his career.
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“l feel shortchanged,” he says, as he bends over the photocopier he uses to make copies for additional income. “I thought I was covered for my old age, but I still have to work to survive.”
Chifamba turned to selling chickens but stopped because it cost too much to feed them. He started making photocopies at home with a small machine – though he doesn’t always have electricity due to Zimbabwe’s rolling blackouts.
“It does not make sense to me,” he says. “The money that has been deducted from my salary over the years could buy many trolleys of groceries. How can all that just vanish into thin air?”
Some blame the pension funds for failing to realize the impact of currency changes.
Martin Tarusenga, managing director of Zimbabwe Pensions and Insurance Rights Trust, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for pensioners, says both public and private pension funds have unfairly treated their clients. They failed to consider the implications of the currency’s changing worth, he says. “The benefits were valueless.”
Retirees don’t receive enough to survive in Zimbabwe’s difficult economy, he says.
Others defend the pension companies, which are trying to function in an unreliable economy.
“Policy shifts by the government affect the insurance and pension sector,” says insurance consultant Jackson Banda. “This is a stumbling block as policies change each and every day.”
The currency change has not only affected retirees – it has cast doubt on the entire system.
Current benefits paid to retirees come from new pension contributions and not saved funds, says Richard Gundane, president of the Zimbabwe Teachers Association.
“The current scheme is a hand-to-mouth arrangement where government [collects] from members in active service and passes this money to pensioners,” he says. “It’s not sustainable.”
Linda Mujuru is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Harare, Zimbabwe. She specializes in reporting on agriculture and the economy.
Linda Mujuru, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona. Click here to learn more about our translation policy.