Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Election Staff Undeterred by Run-Off Threats

Head of teaching union says threat of violence won’t dissuade members from serving as polling officers.
By Joseph Nhlanhla
A teachers' union has vowed to play an active role in the upcoming presidential run-off, despite continued assaults on its members by ZANU-PF supporters.

Enock Paradzai, an official with the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe, PTUZ, representing about 13,000 teachers, said that members would not be deterred from acting as polling officers in the second round, in spite of the crackdown against them since the March 29 elections.

The union representative – who is currently fighting for a salary increase for teachers – also said it is important that the organisation’s members vote in the June 27 election if democracy is to triumph.

PTUZ has long been a thorn in the side of government, with the authorities accusing union leaders of being political activists.

In the harmonised parliamentary and presidential polls two months ago, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, made massive gains in rural constituencies – previously seen as ruling party strongholds – for the first time since its emergence in 2000.

ZANU-PF accused teachers – who were the main polling officers during the elections – of having fiddled the results and of encouraging villagers to vote for the MDC.

In the past, President Robert Mugabe’s loyalists have also accused teachers of informing rural people that the hardships they are suffering are a direct result of ZANU-PF’s flawed economic policies.

As a result, members of the profession appear to have been high on the hit list of ruling party activists in rural areas.

The union says that countrywide political violence has claimed the lives of a number of its members and thousands across the country have failed to report for work, fearing attacks.

While the country’s acting attorney general Bharat Patel claims violence has receded across the country, PTUZ says nothing has changed.

However, Paradzai said the union’s members were in defiant mood.

“We are still hunted down, but even if the harassment continues, this will not stop us from participating as polling officers,” he told IWPR.

But, he said, if the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, ZEC, sends those teachers who volunteer to be polling officers to serve in faraway districts where they are not registered to vote, they should not go.

“We are telling our members that if they are deployed [to serve as polling officers] outside the constituencies where they are registered, they must opt out and remain where they will be able to vote [in the run-off],” he said.

Exercising the right to vote, he said, is worth more than the allowance paid to volunteer polling officers by ZEC.

“Every vote counts. We cannot allow this to continue unabated. Voting is more important than the allowances teachers will get from the voting exercise,” continued Paradzai.

PTUZ has just made fresh demands for a massive salary increase, as independent economic analysts said the country’s hyperinflation this month crossed the one million per cent mark.

Currently, teachers are paid less than five billion Zimbabwe dollars a week, just enough to buy two litres of cooking oil. They are asking for 76 billion dollars a month.

“We will not disclose the course of action we will take if these demands are not met, as our leaders have in the past been kidnapped for mobilising members,” said Paradzai.

Previously, the government has simply ignored PTUZ’s demands, while the rival Zimbabwe Teachers’ Association, long accused of siding with ZANU-PF, has failed to lobby for better salaries and working conditions.

While Zimbabwe’s education sector was once celebrated for the high standards that gave the country one of the best literacy rates in the world, in recent years it has been hit by a massive skills flight, as teachers leave in droves to seek work in neighbouring countries.

Previous increases in teachers’ salaries have been followed by massive price hikes, rendering them useless.

Poverty in the profession has led to some teachers trying to augment their salaries by selling items, such as sweets to their pupils, drawing complaints from parents, who accuse the teachers of neglecting their core duty to provide education.

PTUZ says the country’s volatile political landscape has also affected the traditional mid-year public examinations, which offer candidates the opportunity to sit for their papers early rather than wait until the end of the year.

Although the education authorities are yet to announce the dates for the June examinations, Paradzai said that if teachers in rural areas continued to be hunted down by government supporters, the exams were unlikely to be held this year.

“It is totally unbearable. Even if the dates are set, where will the teachers come from, as they are fleeing the rural areas?” he said.

This week, one secondary-school headmaster – who is one of many professionals turned into a pauper by the economic meltdown – joined hordes of people who walk to work in the face of prohibitive transport costs.

He related how teachers at his school were “coming to work whenever they feel like it”.

The headmaster, who declined to be named, went on, “It is terrible, but understandable. But it is worse for schoolchildren. What kind of education are they getting?”

Joseph Nhlanhla is the pseudonym of an IWPR-trained journalist in Zimbabwe.

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