Emmanuel Kafe and Tendai Chara
FORGET the low-level graft often reported at some Government departments, something far more sinister — which is a threat to the country’s security — is taking place at the Department of the Registrar-General.
Besides the fact that only those willing to engage in corrupt activities like bribing officials or abusing the authority of certain high offices get served — identity documents are being parcelled out with reckless abandon to anyone with money.
Refugees with access to the greenback, criminals trying to evade justice and foreigners seeking use of Zimbabwean documents can easily get their hands on this country’s identity particulars.
One can even change their identity in a matter of hours and no one would be the wiser.
All this happens on the back of well-documented struggles being encountered by hundreds of thousands of ordinary folks seeking travel and identity documents that enable them to earn a living or get medical help abroad.
Before production of passports was reported to have increased to 1 000 in August 2019, the country had sunk to a meagre 60 or less travel documents per day.
Production was expected to increase further to at least 3 000 daily as two new personalisation machines were procured. The then Minister of Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage, Cain Mathema, said plans were afoot to introduce day and night shifts to clear a 340 000 passport backlog that had accumulated since 2018.
But five months later, the situation remains dire.
Without hard currency, friends in high places or money to bribe officials, one has to endure long and frustrating queues, with some applicants literally having to live on the streets while sleeping on pavements to increase their prospects of being attended to.
For the “lucky” ones, it takes a few hours to acquire such important travel and identity documents.
But who are these privileged few and what does one need to do to enjoy this advantage? What really goes on at the Registrar-General’s Office that sees thousands of people spend months and even years struggling to get something as simple as a passport?
To further complicate things, late last year, the Home Affairs Ministry announced that Zimbabwe’s Diaspora community would pay their application fees for the documents in foreign currency. This has added to the confusion and fuelled corruption as anyone with foreign currency, be they based outside the country or not, can now get preferential treatment by paying foreign currency.
Last week, The Sunday Mail Society team joined the queues at the Passport Office, becoming part and parcel of those that went through the gruelling and extremely frustrating exercise.
For two days, the team was literally camped at the Registrar-General’s (RG) Makombe Government Complex and the birth registration office, witnessing first-hand how those that seek travel documents face a litany of hurdles.
Chief among the obstacles that passport applicants face are the long queues that move at a snail’s pace as well as the clearly unprofessional and inefficient issuing officers who are often rude.
Visibly irritated applicants could be seen shuttling from one office to the other without success.
In the two days the team spent at the offices, it became clear that the issuance of travel and identity documents is fraught with fraudulent activities, corruption and nepotism.
At the birth registration offices, the team witnessed some people paying bribes and having their documents processed in the shortest possible time.
Whilst the majority of the applicants anxiously awaited their turn to be served in the slow-moving queues, others had the luxury of being served while seated in the comfort of their air-conditioned cars. Those that could not afford the bribes spent hours on end in the most uncomfortable of conditions.
Based on the interactions the team had with those that are involved in the corrupt activities, it is clear that there are a lot of rogue elements at the RG’s Office.
As early as 3am, queues form outside the Passport Office. Some enterprising individuals, mostly street urchins, cash in on the dire situation by sleeping outside the offices and then offering the positions they would have occupied in the queue for a fee.
The “enterprising” street urchins enjoy the company of well-meaning citizens, mostly desperate young men and women in need of identity and travel documents. The guards that help control the queues are also in on the corrupt activities where a few notes ranging from $10 to $50 exchange hands for one’s position in the queue to be upgraded.
Enter the big guns
Having witnessed the struggles many were going through just to get a birth certificate, and as part of our investigation into the allegations of corruption at the birth registry office, one reporter posed as one of the many applicants in desperate need of replacing a birth certificate.
The information that we had gathered before-hand indicated that some rogue officials work with middlemen who are the link between those willing to pay bribes and the officials. Also, it appears the syndicates create the confusion necessary for them to then cash in. They deliberately slow down processes to frustrate applicants so as to force them to pay bribes for quick and easy facilitation of the same.
A male “vendor”, who sells laminating sheets just outside the registry gates noticed our apparent “confusion” and decided to help. He asked us if we needed help fast-tracking the issuance of birth certificates, to which we said yes.
“I know someone who can help you, as long as you are prepared to pay him,” said the vendor, throwing all caution to the wind.
The vendor’s confidence was a clear demonstration that he has been in this “business” for a long time. The vendor made a call and within moments, a man wearing a blue overcoat emerged from the registry’s offices and was handed a piece of paper on which the name and birth entry number of one of the reporters had been scribbled.
We were told to remain in the vicinity since the process would not take long. As we waited, we struck a conversation with one of the elderly women who had briefly abandoned the queue and was wandering around the vicinity of the offices, seemingly in desperation.
“I slept on the pavement so that I could be in a position to be served but, as you can see, I’m still around. I was among those that were supposed to have been served first, but the officials are taking ages to attend to us,” the clearly distraught woman said. Before we were even settled, the vendor who was acting as our go-between emerged from the offices and handed us the brand new birth certificate. But this was after we paid the required bribe.
We also learnt that if one does not have a birth certificate at all, they can get it quite easily as long as they have the cash. All that is required are the details, which can be fake or genuine, for the document to be processed from scratch. The price is a bit steep though. Since these are street deals — there is no verification of anything, all that is important is the money.
After giving the vendor-cum-middleman extra money for “lunch”, we asked him if he had contacts at the passport offices since we wanted to acquire one. Another phone call was made, more money exchanged hands and we headed for the Passport Pffice, where we met another rogue official who would fast-track the process of acquiring the passport.
Royal treatment at Passport Office
As soon as we arrived at the Passport Office, we met our contact, who went on to give us first- class service befitting royalty. Amid the chaos that is synonymous with the passport offices, we were led from one office to the other by our newly engaged chaperon.
As clearly irritated applicants watched in disgust, we were led from one counter to the other and we never joined a queue. The process was unbelievably smooth. We breezed through the entire process without any hassles.
After submitting our forms, our cheerful assistant told us to return on Monday (tomorrow) to collect the fast-tracked passports.
Our chaperon even had the guts to see us off the office premises. There was every reason for him to smile, he had, within an hour, earned himself some good money.
But as our middleman was smiling all the way to collecting his ill-gotten money, Canisio Mambure, a cross-border vendor, was singing the blues.
“Without a passport, I do not have a livelihood. I am stuck here and the queue is not moving at all. This will force me to skip the border, which is a great risk,” a clearly distressed Mambure said.
Quizzing the officials
Confronted with proof of what is going on right under his nose, Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage Minister Kazembe Kazembe admitted to having suspected that “something fishy was going on at the passport offices”.
He promised to deal with the culprits once and for all.
“My sixth sense was telling me that all was not well at the Passport Office. During my tour of the Bindura Passport Office, I noted that almost 90 percent of the people that were being assisted had come from Harare.
“The queue was also moving very slowly and I couldn’t understand what was going on,” Minister Kazembe said.
“We are going to conduct our own investigations and I’m confident that we are going to apprehend those that are engaging in these nefarious activities,” he said.
The Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission spokesperson, Commissioner John Makamure, said Zacc will only conduct investigations if they received complaints from the public.
“As of now, we are yet to get formal complaints regarding the alleged corrupt activities at the RG’s offices,” Commissioner Makamure said.
Efforts to get a comment from the Registrar General, Mr Clemence Masango, were fruitless as he was not picking up his phone.
A visit to his office also failed to yield results as he was said to be out of office.