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HARARE, Zimbabwe – It is the talk of the town. Directors across Zimbabwe's public sector are allegedly on the take, receiving huge salaries while most Zimbabweans struggle to get by. Each week brings scandalous revelations in the government-owned newspaper.
Exhibit A is the case of Cuthbert Dube, the former chief executive of Premier Service Medical Aid Society, an insurance company that covers nearly 1 million civil servants and their families. According to the state-owned Herald newspaper, Dube — dubbed "Cashbert" by detractors — was getting a monthly salary of $230,000 along with another $220,000 in allowances, even as the company failed to pay its bills.
How high up the chain will President Robert Mugabe, who turns 90 this month, clean house? Skeptics think he seeks to blame scapegoats like Dube for the dire state of the Zimbabwean economy. Any attempt at wholesale scrutiny, they say, would undermine a shrewd leader who has been in power since independence in 1980, often cracking down on dissent and surviving economic chaos that led Zimbabwe to replace its currency with the U.S. dollar in 2009.
But Jonathan Moyo, Zimbabwe's minister of information, media and broadcasting services, said the campaign against corruption is for real. He recently suspended Happison Muchechetere, the CEO of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corp. who reportedly led an opulent lifestyle and has been implicated in scams while rank-and-file employees faced layoffs because of funding shortages.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Friday, Moyo said politicians would face a backlash if they do not dismantle a "rampant" culture of corruption in which managers connived with board chairmen, as well as suppliers and other private partners.
"The public is demanding very swift, strong action, including prosecutions," Moyo said.
Last year, Transparency International ranked Zimbabwe at 157 out of 175 countries and territories on a scale rating perceptions of public sector corruption. The government itself is leading calls for reform. Top aides to Mugabe promise audits and, if necessary, prosecutions of greedy managers, many of whom got where they are because of political connections.
State media published reports that even municipal directors in the capital, Harare, received monthly salaries of up to $40,000 in a city with potholed roads, poor street lighting, water shortages and uncollected garbage. Top managers at the troubled national carrier, Air Zimbabwe, are alleged to have swindled close to $11 million in an insurance scam, raising concerns that planes were flying without valid insurance. The airline's acting managing director, Grace Pfumbidzayi, is a niece of the transport secretary in Mugabe's government.
"It is simply more than selfish," Tapfuma K. Manzira wrote in a letter published in The Herald, referring to bosses' high salaries at government-linked firms. "It borders on socio-economic sabotage."
On Tuesday, The Herald, citing unidentified "insider" sources, reported that top managers at the state-owned diamond mining company, Marange Resources, had looted millions of dollars by inflating prices on receipts for purchased equipment.
Last year, Mugabe accused a top mining official and ruling party loyalist, Goodwills Masimirembwa, of accepting a $6 million bribe from Ghanaian investors to obtain diamond mining rights in Marange diamond field. Investigations stalled because authorities said no formal complaint was lodged against Masimirembwa, who denied wrongdoing.
In the AP interview, Moyo said diamond-mining entities had sought to hide malfeasance by claiming they had to operate discreetly in order to avoid Western sanctions that were imposed on government figures in Zimbabwe because of human rights concerns.
"They have the perfect excuse not to be under the spotlight," he said.
Moyo said an uneasy power-sharing deal that preceded last year's election contributed to wrongdoing because boards of state firms became "arenas for political balancing" in which Mugabe's ZANU-PF party and its partner, the rival Movement for Democratic Change party, divvied up spots, regardless of a candidate's skills.
However, Douglas Mwonzora, spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change, which has reverted to its role as the main opposition group, said most corrupt officials were appointed with Mugabe's approval. He described the anti-corruption campaign as a public relations exercise.
"Why are they not targeting the big fish? The ministers, the military and police chiefs involved with diamonds?" Mwonzora said.
Dube, the chief target of public ire, has not commented publicly since his forced retirement. The Herald quoted Zimbabwe's chief tax official, Gershom Pasi, as saying it was difficult to collect taxes from high earners such as Dube because their companies were running parallel payrolls, including one for official scrutiny that showed reasonable salaries and perks.
Moyo said the problem originated partly in the era of hyperinflation. With the switch from the Zimbabwean dollar to the U.S. dollar, he said, state CEOs cooked the books.
"It was a creative replacement of dollar signs," Moyo said. "While the majority (of civil servants) was getting $100 a month, regardless of your rank ... these CEOs were paying themselves $3,000 and $5,000. Nobody did anything to check on them."