By Judith Sibanda
Zimbabweans are allegedly paying as much as US$400 to obtain passports, as officials at the Registrar General’s office cash in on a crisis that has seen production of the travel document coming to a virtual standstill.
Only five applications are being processed a day per province, it has emerged. Priority, it seems, is being given to those that are able to bribe officials at the passport office.
A two-week long investigation by CITE at the Lupane registry revealed that officials were demanding US$400 in bribes for emergency passports and US$100 for an ordinary passport, that is normally issued within six months, but can now take up to two years.
An acute shortage of a special paper and ink used to make passports has seen the backlog for travel documents ballooning to astronomical figures in recent months.
Johannes Ncube*, one of those who tried to apply for an emergency passport on July 1 in the Matabeleland North capital, said he was told to come back next year.
Ncube said he wanted to visit his son, who is gravely ill in South Africa but has had to put the trip on hold.
“My only son has been bed ridden for almost a month now in Johannesburg and his friends say he has no one to take care of him,” he said.
“I was told that I have to come back in 2020 to make an application for an emergency passport as there is a backlog.”
Ncube said he was told that he could get a passport if he paid a US$400 bribe, but could not afford, as he is unemployed.
At current official rates, that could be as much as ZW$4 000, in a country where the average wage is less than $300 a month.
An ordinary passport costs ZW$53, while ZW$250 is required for an emergency passport, issued within three days.
For one to get a passport that is processed within 24 hours, they have to shell out ZW$318, but this is only accessible to government officials and diplomats.
Nelisiwe Mbambo from Jotsholo said she had been trying to apply for an emergency passport in Lupane since April without success.
Mbambo, a member of the Lupane Business Association, is desperate to get a travel document so she can travel to Botswana and South Africa to sell her handicraft.
“A group of tourists saw my vases, which I make using palm leaves, and they made a bulk order in March that I must deliver in Gaborone,” she said.
“We have been making weekly visits to the registry together with other members of the association who also do not have passports and it’s very frustrating.”
Mbambo said what irked them most was that the majority of the five people picked up daily by the authorities to submit applications for passports were from outside the province.
The strong belief among locals is that those selected pay bribes.
“At any given time, there are 50 people that come to queue for passports, but you see five people being escorted from office to office to get their applications processed,” Mbambo added. “These will be people from outside Matabeleland North.”
Givemore Dube from Umguza, who suffers from diabetes and a kidney ailment, said authorities in Lupane had given a deaf ear to his pleas for assistance so he could travel to get treatment in Zambia.
“I was told the provincial registry was no longer issuing passports when I told them I wanted to travel to Zambia to get medication where it is cheaper,” he said.
Dube said he sold a cow to raise money for a bribe but was still turned away because the money was too little.
Some officials at the registry said corruption had reached alarming levels, but they were afraid to speak out after one of their colleagues was fired for voicing concern over the ill-treatment of passport seekers.
Investigations by CITE revealed that Tawanda Mazango was fired by the Home Affairs ministry on June 14 after he accused one of the officials at the Lupane registry of abetting corruption and nepotism.
According to a letter signed by Home Affairs permanent secretary, Melusi Matshiya gleaned by CITE, Mazango was fired for trying to act as a whistle blower.
However, the ministry said he could not substantiate the allegations he raised through a letter to his superiors, which included alleged nepotism and corruption.
Mazango raised concern that locals were being overlooked for promotions at the registry, but the ministry said his claims were baseless hence the decision to fire him.
“You failed to substantiate the very grave allegations of regionalism, nepotism and favouritism and your concession that you had misinterpreted processes amount to raising false allegations against another member, which regrettably leave a dent on any such member as those false allegations will remain on one’s record of service,” part of Matshiya’s letter read.
“Your vitriolic attacks on the establishment are totally inconsistent with the discharge of official duties since the attacks have the effect of shredding the organisation’s fabric into tatters.”
A registry employee said it was heart-breaking witnessing villagers in desperate need of passports being turned away every day.
“This place is very chaotic and, as things stand, this office is not serving its purpose,” she said. “The log book, where recipients of new passports are recorded would show that most of the people we serve here are not from Matabeleland North.”
She said most people who failed to get service would have travelled from as far as Binga and Nkayi, while those from urban areas such as Harare and Masvingo were given first priority after paying bribes.
“People from Harare, Bulawayo and Masvingo do not face any problems at all because they just give our bosses US$100 and their applications are processed,” the employee said.
“We also see a lot of people coming from Victoria Falls because foreign currency is easily available there since it’s a tourist hub.”
Anger against corrupt officials at the Lupane registry boiled over recently with the radical Mthwakazi Republic Party issuing a strongly worded statement raising allegations of corruption.
“This act of corruption makes the lives of our people more difficult and the locals had thought that the introduction of the passport office [at their doorstep] was meant to lessen the burden of travelling to Bulawayo,” the party said.
The Lupane registry was set up to serve people from Umguza, Tsholotsho, Hwange, Bubi, Umguza and Nkayi district, who previously had to travel to Bulawayo to apply for national identity documents and passports.
Registrar General Clemence Masango could not be reached for comment on the alleged corruption, which is said to be prevalent across the country.
The government says the passport backlog will soon be cleared after it acquired modern equipment for printing to resume.
In 2008, Zimbabweans slept at the RG’s office in Harare as they sought to be first in line to apply for passports amid a mass exodus to neighbouring countries.
At the time, the country faced serious economic problems characterised by record hyperinflation.
The ouster of long time ruler Robert Mugabe in a military coup in 2017and the ascension of President Emerson Mnangagwa raised hope of an economic revival.
However, the economic turnaround has not materialised with Zimbabweans enduring shortages of foreign currency, fuel, medicines, bread and electricity.
Besides a shortage of passports, the government has run out of material to produce national IDs and vehicle number registration plates.
*Not his real name