By Eddie Cross
25 years ago, we launched the National Social Security Authority (NSSA) with fanfare and hope. Its Board was made up of Government and Employers and Employee representatives and we hoped it would help us provide security for those who retired from active employment.
It joined the many private sector Retirement Funds which existed and was meant to augment, if not eventually, replace this system.
When I was just 17 years old and was starting my first real job, my father took me to his insurance broker and made me take out a retirement annuity with the Old Mutual. Every person needed this, he said, to ensure that they had something to live on when finally, they left active employment.
Over the next 50 years I faithfully maintained a stop order on my Bank account in favour of the Old Mutual – with another 4 policies taken out as I got older on the advice of my personal broker.
As my career developed, I was appointed to a position with a major corporate entity and when I signed up, the Company Secretary informed me that they had a pension scheme for their staff and whatever I contributed they would match. In addition, they informed me that my contributions were tax deductible. As I rose through the ranks until I became CEO, my contributions grew, taken off at source, we never took it into account – it was just my pension.
Over my entire working life, I paid into the Old Mutual about US$1,4 million dollars – today my pension from the Old Mutual is worth about US$20 a month. In the past 20 years’ hyperinflation has wiped out the entire savings of my generation.
Back to NSSA. I have calculated that over the past 25 years’ workers and their employers have paid perhaps US$12 billion into this organisation. Of this sum only US$2 billion remains as assets and it is not because they have paid out pensions in one form or another.
The country is littered with NSSA funded projects that are not performing and in many cases, are totally unproductive. It is a testimony to failed investments and corruption with massive overheads. The welfare of its subscribers is the last thing on their mind.
We have got the whole issue wrong, both in the private and public sector. The question is what to do. We are a poor developing country and cannot afford the luxury now taken for granted in the wealthier countries, of social security for life, unemployment benefits and other forms of assistance. Whatever we do has to be paid for from our meagre national resources and we have to make sure that every dollar counts. So where do we go from here?
First let’s all agree that the status quo is simply unacceptable. Most employees regard NSSA contributions as just another tax. To employers it is a pain in the butt involving more complex payroll computations and yet another unproductive expense.
If it was made voluntary, no-one would subscribe. Had I invested my pension contributions on the stock market or bought property with my savings, I would be quite well off, instead we cannot even pay for a basket of groceries with my entire Old Mutual pension.
Looking around the world I see a thousand permutations of arrangements to try and give working people a decent pension and dignity in their old age. We cannot emulate the great majority because we simply do not have the resources.
The fact is that one workable solution is right under our noses – the way in which the State pays out pensions to the Civil Service. We have over 300 000 pensioners retired from the Civil Service – more than I think are actually there because our life expectancy is so low, but that is another issue. We should be carrying out proof of life tests on a regular basis.
I think that for the private sector we should be looking at the German model. In Germany pensions for private sector workers and management are paid by sinking funds established for each sector of the economy. These funds are financed by joint contributions by both workers and employers. The funds are not allowed to invest any surpluses but instead maintain three months cover for all expenses in the form of social support.
Zimbabwe, with its established system of National Employment Councils for each sector of the economy, could use these to administer similar arrangements but also by working the NEC system into NSSA. Each industrial sector would have an Employment Council to negotiate working conditions with their employees.
These Councils would be financed (as at present) by a small levy on salaries but in addition each NEC would create a fund to be lodged and administered by NSSA. Each NEC would negotiate social support in the form of medical assistance, pension rights and unemployment or retraining grants.
These payments would be paid out by NSSA using the funds collected by each NEC. All NEC’s would be members of NSSA and would have elected representatives sitting on employers and employee councils with a summit body representing the two subsidiary bodies.
NSSA would not be allowed to invest surplus funds in anything except short term financial assets that are interest bearing. The funds held by each NEC being purely for the purpose of social support. Target pension rights should be about 60 percent of the salary of the last post the person had held prior to retirement. Should any NEC move either into deficit or surplus – the NEC Council would adjust the levy.
To help support such a system, the assets accumulated by NSSA in the past 25 years should be managed to support the new system of social support.
In addition, all Pension Funds presently run by individual sectors such as the Mining Industry Pension Fund for example, would also be managed by the NEC Council and revenues used to support the new system. Some form of accommodation for workers who do not have NEC cover, would have to be organised and managed by NSSA.
I am aware that the Ministry of Finance wants to move ultimately to a system supported by savings. South Africa has such a system and the PIC there is the largest wealth fund in the country. Singapore is generally regarded as the best example of such a fund and it has played a key role in financing the development of the local economy.
However, such a system (as we have learned) requires low inflation and long term stability and I am not sure we can offer either. Under such conditions I would stay with what we have got in the public sector. Certainly, if I was a Civil Servant I would not want any changes.
Eddie Cross is a former opposition MDC MP for Bulawayo South and a respected economist. You can follow his blog African Herd