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Passport offices: A good case of how to serve

23 Jul 2017 at 11:39hrs | Views
In 2005 government razed down informal structures throughout the country. A denuded Joburg Lines in Mbare, for example, gave you a sense of shock after the Murambatsvina blitz. The shabby laager of shacks gave way to the actual houses, a relatively neat landscape that you would never imagine existed before.

Of course, the blitz was cruel and insensitive to the plight of thousands of the homeless poor who were left with bare options for accommodation. There is a good moral in there, nonetheless. It only takes a day's thinking and action to bring out good things in bad Zimbabwe. Murambatsvina, admittedly, is a crude reference considering the suffering it brought on the homeless.

There is a better example, though - the Registrar-General's passport offices. This is where people go for vital documentation ranging from birth and citizenship registration through passports. Many people lost the satire when Harare municipality felled down the trees that bordered the passport offices premises last year. They complained that it ran contrary to the modern philosophy to green cities.

But the truth is that the premises now look neater and better without the trees. Driving along Herbert Chitepo Avenue in the capital, you can even see through into the offices through the windows. You get a feeling of positive bareness and orderliness. The new and refreshing look is, in fact, a splendid reflection of how the offices now operate.

This contrasts sharply with what used to obtain four or five years ago. Besides the shabby trees, uncut grass and dirt, the passport offices were a cauldron of bustling untidiness. There were noisy and endless queues, rowdy crowds of long-faced people coming from all corners of the country and beyond mostly to obtain passports. And passports were gold because almost everyone wanted to get out of Zimbabwe and away from the biting economic crisis. Gun-toting police and rude security manned the queues. They could just have spared themselves the trouble because their presence didn't serve any good purpose.

Grannies and teenagers alike slept in the queues for days - sometimes weeks - to get passports and other registration documents. And it sometimes took a whole year, if at all, for one to get the documents. Come to think about it, sleeping in the queues was an exercise in futility because it didn't matter how early you were or how near you were in the line. Bedraggled touts ruled the roost. These were the errand boys for the officials at the passport offices. They allocated queue numbers to the document seekers and demanded bribes. Steep bribes if you asked. They were the gatekeepers, so you couldn't get through if you didn't go through them. The security personnel, police details and sometimes military officers formed the band of touts too.

The untidiness at the passport offices frustrated many who were being forced to pay three or four times more for a travel document. Harare was particularly bad, so some tried their luck in smaller towns like Bindura and Chinhoyi. But the situation was also bad there because touts and nepotistic officers ruled the day. Those that failed completely opted to risk life and limb and travelled as illegal and undocumented migrants.

A high demand for passports, coupled with a skewed governance culture within the RG's Office, had created a fat opportunity for corruption. Passport officials were the biggest beneficiaries. I know of many, both men and women, who turned into demi-gods only because they could give you access to the much sought-after documents. They took home as much as $4 000 a day.

Public service security personnel jostled to be deployed to the passport offices pretty much the same way police officers are rushing to man the roadblocks these days. My neighbour then, a middle-aged woman who worked at the offices, hosted fairly long queues at her house in the evenings and at weekends as people hustled for her attention. She bought five houses in upmarket areas in under a year. Her fleet of cars made her the "heroine" of the neighbourhood.

All her glitz is gone now, thanks to changes at the RG's offices. There are no more winding queues. Friendly officers greet clients and smile at them these days. They are just falling short of serving you coffee. People walk in and get served within an hour. And you get your ordinary passport within four to six weeks. This was unimaginable at the height of the madness at the offices. It only took the Home Affairs ministry, cabinet, the RG and his senior personnel a moment to realise that, after dollarisation, the office could make good money by driving corruption out. The RG's Offices now realises substantial revenue by just doing the right things, and no-one is asking questions.

The point is, the RG's Office is a shining case of how the civil service can stop being corrupt and reap big benefits after all. It provides a good guideline on how government must stop the rot in the rest of the civil service. Nobody ever thought that the corruption at the office would end one day, but look where it is now. Perception surveys used to cite the RG's office as one of the most corrupt institutions, but that is no longer the case.

Clearly, all that is needed is political will and dedication to good governance. The sea shift at the office demonstrates that corruption festers only when the high offices don't see a good reason to change things. Almost all the other high-profile civil departments are theatres of mass corruption. The pension office, police, Zimbabwe Revenue Authority, parastatals, you name it. Currently, there is an angry public debate around police roadblocks. Key authorities in government have spoken against them, yet they persist. All because none of them has the motivation and sincere will to stop the road nuisance.

In essence, there are no excuses whatsoever for corruption to prevail. The RG's Offices has given us a good narrative on that. Government ought to sit up, think and act and, presto, we will have a clean society once again.

Tawanda Majoni is the national coordinator at Information for Development Trust (IDT), a non-profit organisation promoting access to information on issues relating to public and private sector good governance, transparency and accountability and can be contacted on majonitt@gmail.com.

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