Pensioners left to stew in poverty

BY JAIROS SAUNYAMA

SEATED in front of his kitchen hut that doubles as a bedroom in rural Chikomba, 56-year-old Edson Chakwanda, popularly known as Jemba, is a disgruntled man.

His tale leaves the weak shedding tears as he narrates how life has become hard for him since he retired from his job at a retail supermarket in Manicaland, despite having made contributions towards his pension benefits with the National Social Security Authority (NSSA).

Jemba, who lives in abject poverty, was one of the first citizens to contribute to NSSA after its formation in 1994.
Little did he know that getting his pension benefits was going to be a daunting task. Now he stays alone at the family
homestead, in the heart of Chikomba East constituency. He still has to wait for nine more years for him to access his
pension benefits. His fears are genuine.

“I might die before enjoying the fruits of my labour. I loyally contributed to NSSA and today, they say we can only give
you your benefits when you turn 65. What if I die tomorrow? I retired and I must benefit from the pension scheme. I need
to earn a living now. Am I sure that I will live until I turn 65?” queried Jemba.

NewsDay Weekender recently visited Jemba at his homestead, in Chakwanda village. Despite years of working in top retail
supermarkets, Jemba has nothing to show for it.

Inside his kitchen hut-cum-bedroom was a beam with chunks of dried meat hanging. Some of the meat was now coated with
soot and requires thorough washing before consuming it.

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Also in the hut were a few clothes and a pile of maize cobs recently harvested from the nearby field, among other things.

“I plead with the government to disregard the current age requirement. If someone retires, he must be given his pension
benefits as soon as possible. It is inhuman to expect someone to wait until one reaches 65. One can die and what will be
the essence of contributing to NSSA? I need to enjoy my benefits while I still can, even if they are little,” he added.

Jemba, who is also now a heavy imbiber — perhaps to drown his sorrows — was also deserted by his wife, who failed to bear
with his poverty.

He claims to have a child who is in South Africa, though he showed no interest to talk about him.

“Do I have to look for employment again at this age? Currently, I am surviving on piece jobs and this is taking a toll on
my health. My pension, even if little, would be of great help as I conclude the last miles of life’s journey,” Jemba
said.

The soft-spoken pensioner joined NSSA on October 1, 1994 before retiring about 20 years later.

According to information at NSSA, those who find themselves unemployed before they have reached retirement age should
endeavour to find new employment and continue contributing in order to increase their contribution period.

However, current economic conditions have left many people jobless, with the pension scheme designed as an old age
pension scheme and not an unemployment benefit scheme.

This is not about Jemba’s predicament alone, but a number of pensioners have been living in poverty despite years of
loyalty in as far as contributing towards their pensions is concerned.

A number of them are still waiting to reach 65 to access their money.

With the country currently embroiled in an economic crisis characterised by hyper-inflation, pensioners have been reduced
to paupers, with some dying before even withdrawing their first pension benefit.

According to the latest World Health Organisation (WHO) data published in 2018, life expectancy in Zimbabwe stands at
59,6 for males and 63,1 for females. This means that total life expectancy is 61,4, which gives the country a world life
expectancy ranking of 162.

According to the Insurance and Pensions Commission (Ipec), about $30 million in pension contributions was yet to be
claimed and lying idle.

Ipec said there were other schemes that had an option for workers to retire at 55 and claim their benefits.

“Ipec regulates private occupational pension schemes and individual pension plans only. However, under the schemes we
regulate, there is an option for early retirement at 55 years and late retirement at 70 years as provided for in
Statutory Instrument 323 of 1991. When members opt for early retirement at 55 years, they are entitled to claim their
benefits immediately,” the regulator said.

“But for those who leave work before reaching the early retirement age of 55 years, for whatever reason, they are
entitled to their own contributions immediately while the employer’s contribution would be due when they reach the normal
retirement age, as per the rules of the fund.”

Labour and Social Welfare minister Sekai Nzenza said there was need for an overhaul of procedures at NSSA by crafting
favourable policies for the benefit of pensioners like Jemba.

“A lot needs to be done at NSSA. We need to reach out to the people who entrusted NSSA with their money. It is high time
pensioners enjoyed their money after years of labouring for it. This can only be done through establishing strategies
that are favourable to them. NSSA must reach out to the pensioners and make their life easy,” she said.

Today, Jemba is not aware of the recent NSSA forensic audit that revealed massive abuse of pension funds.

He is praying that government reduces the age by which one can start accessing their pensions, or else he will keep
praying to his Maker to grant him more days so that he will live for the next nine years before he becomes eligible to
access his money.

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