CHIEF Government Spokesperson Honourable Dora Siliya has announced that government is considering an initiative where landlords can relieve tenants of rental obligations in light of the Coronavirus outbreak. Madam Siliya, who is also Minister of Information and Broadcasting Services, said this when she featured on a Power FM special programme, Monday, adding that there were discussions going on between the ministries of Commerce and Finance to encourage landlords and landladies to consider forgoing their rent income during this economic crisis.

“I, as Government Spokesperson, can only tell you what all of us in Cabinet, all the Ministers in Cabinet are saying and I know there is a discussion going on between the Minister of Commerce and Trade, Honourable [Christopher] Yaluma, the Minister of Labour [Joyce Nonde-Simukoko], the Minister of Finance [Dr Bwalya Ng’andu], on what relief government can try to encourage in terms of the private sector so that the private sector and the landlords can probably give some relief to tenants. This is a live discussion and I think we should wait for them. I think we all know that businesses are suffering and for those businesses that have closed and have to pay rent, again it is an issue that we must look at,” said Honourable Siliya.

We wish to commend the Honourable Minister and her government for showing concern to the majority poor Zambians who are renting accommodation and businesses that are renting office space. Indeed, businesses are suffocating all across the world and it is worse for countries like Zambia where the economy was already in a hearse on its way to the grave. “Stay home” means no income. If companies have sent workers away, it means they can’t be expected to pay salaries and the employees cannot also be expected to have money for rent. So it is thoughtful for the government to consider ways and means in which these private sector obligations can be negotiated.

But while we welcome this initiative from the Honourable Minister, we are concerned that we have not heard any pronouncement on how her government will mitigate the impact of the crisis by forgoing some taxes. In our view, this should have been the first step from government if they are really concerned about the survival of citizens. ZRA, NAPSA and Workers Compensation have not made any pronouncements on how they will consider the month of March. This mean they are eagerly waiting for deductions to be remitted as soon as the deadline clocks. Why should landlords be expected to mitigate the impact of our current crisis when ZRA is demanding its dues?

What about ministers’ salaries and other high ranking public servants. We remember that the President gave a directive that all senior government officials would forgo 15-20 per cent of their salaries as part of the austerity measures in a financial crisis. We are reliably informed that not a penny has been deducted from these government officials. In fact, all the allowances and incentives that ministers were entitled to at the time when the President gave the directive have remained intact to this very day. There has been no effort to implement that directive. When we ask the Secretary to the Cabinet and his deputy, they are biting their tongues. No explanation!

What will motivate landlords to show kindness to their tenants if our government leaders are not willing to lead by example? It appears to us that these ministers serving in this government are not willing to donate part of their salaries to the poor and vulnerable. They love their income so much that they can’t allow any deductions. This is why they have refused to pay back the illegal salaries that they got when they illegally stayed in office after the dissolution of Parliament. The court said pay back, but they have refused to do so.

Therefore, on that basis, we would consider it a selfish call for government to ask for mercy from landlords if they are not willing to do the same. It’s not everyone who stole from government to build a house. Some property owners got mortgages and they need rental income to service their bank loans. We don’t think they can cooperate with this proposal from government, unless government takes the first step to demand no taxes from the landlords’ income.

It must also be made very clear to government that not all landlords are capable of surviving without rental income. Some landlords are widows, some are very old senior citizens who are barely surviving. We also have single parents who are educating their children and dependants from rental income. These poor landlords cannot be happy to forgo their income even for a month.

Government should instead be telling citizens how much money has been saved during this COVID-19 lock down. We know that Cabinet Office gave a directive for all non-essential staff to stay home while the key workers operate on rotational basis. Ministers are no longer travelling anyhow and meetings have been suspended. That’s a huge cost saving measure. When he was Works and Supply minister, Felix Mutati told us that government spends K2 billion on vehicle maintenance and related transport costs. That translates into about K166 million per month. Can you imagine how much, just half of that amount, can do in the fight against the coronavirus? How many families can be fed from that amount? But we are not hearing any pledges from government in that regard.

Our appeal to government is that first, they must show compassion to the people of Zambia; especially the working class by forgoing income tax and giving tax rebates to selected businesses that are in the frontline battling the pandemic. After that, they can then ask landlords to show sympathy. And this should not be made as a directive, it must rather be a plea to those landlords who can afford to forgo their income for a few months.