Getting a passport can be vital for making a living but mounting hidden costs are making it tougher to access one, despite the government recently slashing passport fees.
Fees have been reduced from US$140 to $50, but the document can cost up to $120 or even $300, as Theresa Makone, the joint minister of home affairs, discovered on an impromptu visit to the Harare office which issues passports.
Makone, whose visit to the office had been prompted by allegations of corruption, acknowledged that police and officials at the Registrar General’s office were asking for bribes from those seeking passports, birth certificates or other ID documents.
"After what I have seen here today, it seems serious investigations have to be carried out… Passports are supposed to be a birthright, not a privilege. People should not have hassles in accessing passports," she said.
Passports are critical for the many Zimbabweans who have been forced to seek jobs outside their own country.
Tazvita Siziba, 35, from Harare, was laid off by a textile firm. She needs a passport to buy goods in Botswana for sale in Zimbabwe to support her two school-going children. Unable to bribe, she had been queuing for two weeks without success.
IRIN spoke to civil servants who confessed to taking bribes but pleaded poverty and a genuine concern to speed up services as their excuse.
"I am an overworked and poorly paid civil servant and I do not have any problems making use of my position at work to earn the extra dollar," said Ivy Moyo*, a senior employee at the Registrar General's office in Harare. "Since the government reduced the price for a passport, demand has shot up, but the applicants are finding it difficult even to submit their applications."
She said she could pocket up to $500 a day to speed up the process of acquiring a passport. "This is manna to me, considering that I am paid [a salary of] $210 a month."
Innocent Makwiramiti, a Harare-based economist, reckoned corruption was a reflection of the weak economy and it might not have been a good idea to lower the passport application fees. "The officials are poorly paid and they would seize the slightest opportunity to get the money that they so desperately need... Lowering the fees for passports created a huge demand that the officials are cashing in on."
Delays in processing ID and travel documents were also being caused by the use, since early 2009, of multiple currencies, according to a parliamentary committee scrutinizing the work of the Home Affairs Ministry.
After a tour of the passport office in Harare recently, Paul Madzore, the committee chairperson, said ensuring currency notes were authentic was time-consuming.
Remote areas worst off
People in remote rural areas are finding it even harder to access registration documents. Government cutbacks led to the closure of the Registrar’s mobile units, and offices in remote areas were often unable to function because of stationary or equipment shortages.
Cynthia Mapondera, 19, from Mukumbura District near Zimbabwe's eastern border with Mozambique, failed to do her school-leaving exams for the second year running because she did not have a birth certificate.
Mapondera, whose mother is serving time in prison, travelled to the nearest town, Mount Darwin, about 170km northeast of Harare, several times to try to meet the demands of officials at the registrar's office.
"At first, they [the officials] said I should bring my mother's national identity card, but when I did, they said there should be an adult witness who is a relative," said Mapondera. "When I brought my uncle, they said he should have the [same] surname as my mother."
On her last visit, she managed to bring along her mother's younger sister and even though they arrived in the morning after the long trip, they had not been served by late afternoon.
"If Cynthia fails to get a birth certificate this time, she might just as well forget about school and start seriously thinking about getting married. We don't have the money to keep on coming back, and buses are avoiding our roads because the bridges are damaged," Mapondera's aunt, Jane, told IRIN.
Another rural resident, Tazviona Chidziva, a village headman, said officials also ask for bribes in the form of livestock to help speed up the process.
"They never explain to us what documents we should bring along and a lot of people have given up because of the manner in which the officers do their work. Where I come from, it is common to see a person of my age without a birth certificate and life goes on," Chidziva told IRIN.
Zimbabwe has ratified the Convention of the African Child which stipulates that children have a right to a name and nationality, and makes it mandatory for governments to register children immediately after birth.
However, the government is falling short of the requirement, according to a recent Zimbabwe Multiple Indicator Monitoring Survey for the year 2009 jointly conducted by the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).
The survey indicated that only 30 percent of children in rural areas managed to obtain birth certificates, while 55 percent were registered in urban areas.
However, the registrar general, Tobaiwa Mudede, was quoted in the state-run Herald newspaper as dismissing the report "unreservedly", pointing out that the government had not taken part in the survey.
*Not her real name
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