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

Initial Mugabe Successes Turn Sour

Early achievements in fields such as education and health are rapidly unravelling.
By IWPR Srdan

Although the government of President Robert Mugabe, in power since Zimbabwe attained independence from Britain in 1980, has been roundly accused of repression, lack of democracy and running down the once booming economy, it initially achieved significant successes.


These were in health and education fields and in economically empowering a small number of the majority black population.


The major success was in the field of education, where Mugabe and his ruling ZANU PF party introduced a policy of education for all in 1980. There were 2,411 primary schools in the country at independence, but within four years the figure rose to 4,161. By last year, the figure had reached 5,007. The number of secondary schools, of which there were fewer than 900 in 1980, rose to 1,548 by 1999 and to 1,680 by the year 2004.


Enrolment in primary schools stood at 800,000 in 1980 and rose to 2.4 million inside four years. Secondary school enrolment rose from 66,000 students in 1980 to 313,000 by 1984 and to 1,502,000 by the year 2004, a major achievement by any standards.


This increase in the number of schools also meant that the number of teacher training colleges had to be increased by a similar margin to provide the necessary teaching strength. There were four teacher training colleges at independence - now there are 15.


Whereas secondary education before independence was reserved for only 12 per cent of primary school leavers, mainly white. By 2004, the former was open to all the latter.


The number of technical colleges rose from two, one each in Harare and Bulawayo, in 1980 with an enrolment of only 2,000 to ten in 2005 with an enrolment of 15,000. The government also paid grants to mission and private schools to make sure these continued operating viably.


University education, which was confined to one University of Zimbabwe campus in Harare in 1980, was spread to twelve others, including three run by various churches. Enrolment has risen from 1,000 in 1980 to more than 54,000 this year.


Mugabe, who began his working life as a school teacher and later became a lecturer at a teacher training college in Ghana, has boasted that Zimbabwe's education is the best within the southern African region.


He supports this by pointing to the fact that university graduates from Zimbabwe are highly sought in neighbouring countries like Zambia, South Africa, Botswana, Malawi and Namibia, where some have been given high posts both in government and the private sector.


However, despite all these early achievements, the past five years of economic collapse, political oppression and rampant lawlessness, compounded by the scourge of AIDS, is rapidly unravelling all the good work.


In 2000, when the upheavals began, primary school enrolment was 93 per cent, the highest in Africa. But the figure has slumped now to less than 60 per cent, according to the United Nations childrens’ agency UNICEF.


Literacy among schoolchildren, once 86 per cent, is plummeting and drop-out rates are soaring.


Additionally, after seven successive years in which the gross national product has been reduced, the government can barely pay its 109,000 teachers and has abandoned the maintenance and development of urban state schools, let alone those in the bush. The impact of AIDS is increasingly felt in the classroom.


UNICEF says that more than 25 per cent of teachers are HIV-positive and predicts that in five years’ time 38,000 will have died. Teachers have been blamed for infecting pupils as young as 11 and 12 with HIV, while heavy drinking and serial absenteeism have become widespread in the profession.


Mugabe and his team initially chalked up considerable successes in the field of health. But it has become a story of two steps forward, three steps backward.


At independence, there were very few hospitals for the black majority. This was quickly addressed as Mugabe sought assistance from the international donor community, mainly the UN, and built health centres right across the country, which made medical services available to the majority of people.


Within ten years of independence, the government had built 246 rural health centres and upgraded 450 while building seventeen entirely new hospitals. Success could be measured by a fall in the infant mortality rate from 83 per 1,000 live births in 1980 to 60 per 1,000 live births in 1990.


Life expectancy rose from 55 years in 1980 to 61 in 1988. However, this has fallen drastically to less than 37 now because of AIDS, the resurgence of malaria and growing hunger. More than a quarter of the adult population is HIV-positive. Gains made in the health sector have also been severely eroded in the past decade by the government's mismanagement of the economy.


Lack of foreign currency has increasingly seen the government dependent on foreign aid handouts to provide a minimum of essential drugs to hospitals and clinics.


Mugabe can claim some success in transferring wealth from the minority whites to the majority blacks – a success more recognised in Africa than the world beyond. The government has extended soft loans from its national budget to black entrepreneurs and some of them have achieved real success in the fields of transport, fuel, mining and chemicals and plastic manufacture.


Mugabe’s controversial land redistribution programme is undoubtedly an area where blacks have benefited, albeit unevenly. However, in recent years the redistribution has been poorly planned. Many people given fertile land do not have the necessary skills to utilise the resource properly. Agricultural production has consequently dropped drastically.


In the early years of independence, white commercial farmers had begun referring to “Good old Bob (Mugabe)” after he urged them to persevere with their profession. “No one doubts that the fortunes of seven and a half million people [the Zimbabwe population size at independence] rest in your hands,” he said.


As the nation gears up for the March 31 ballot, the land issue is a tool that is certain to be used by Mugabe for political purposes again.


Ben Takawira is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.