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Schools Hit by Teacher Exodus

Woefully underpaid and threatened with violence, teachers are leaving their jobs in droves.
By Maxmillion Mhanyi
Schoolteachers in Zimbabwe, adversely affected by the country's deepening political, economic and social problems, are quitting the profession en masse.

The main teaching union, the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe, PTUZ, reported that 5,000 teachers left their jobs in 2005 and that resignations have accelerated in the first months of 2006.

The major push factors have been poor pay and political violence.

In the current hyperinflationary environment, with the International Monetary Fund describing the inflation rate as 900 per cent, the highest in the world, teachers’ salaries have become so meaningless that the deputy finance minister recently said that a junior teacher’s monthly income can hardly buy four bottles of cooking oil.

In an unprecedented show of independence, delegates at last December’s annual congress of the ruling ZANU PF party openly called for teachers’ salaries to be reviewed as a matter of urgency.

The salary review published in February was seen by most teachers as an insult. A senior teacher with a degree now earns 13 million Zimbabwean dollars (71 US dollars) a month, less than half of the official government poverty survival level.

Teachers have resorted to other means of surviving. Classroom tuckshops - where teachers sell confectionery and other goods to students - have sprung up. Others have resorted to more enterprising methods, such as cross border trading, which, provided differential exchange rates are skillfully manipulated, can be very profitable. The Manica Post, a weekly newspaper in the east of Zimbabwe, carried the headline, “Parents cry foul as teachers turn to cross border trading.”

But others are either quitting or seeking ways of earning a better living.

Fanwell Dube, a teacher who has resigned his post to join thousands of others who have sought employment overseas, said, "People like teachers and nurses have resorted to such coping mechanisms as substituting meat with mbeva [field mice] and cabbage with nyevhe [a wild vegetable]."

With grim irony, the mass education programme embarked upon in the early years after independence in 1980 means that success in getting young people into schools has greatly worsened the teacher-pupil ratio. This has put huge strain on teachers and effectively means that in 2006 they do more work for less pay than in the 1980s.

The teachers’ plight has been made worse by the fact that their genuine demands over conditions of employment have become entirely politicised. Their two representative organisations, the PTUZ and the Zimbabwe Teachers’ Association, Zimta, are divided on quasi-political lines.

Zimta, the smaller organisation, is sympathetic to the government, with some of the top officials holding district, provincial or national posts in ZANU PF. Leaders of the PTUZ have been sympathetic to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC. Consequently, the two organisations send conflicting signals to hapless teachers.

The government treats the PTUZ with hostility and suspicion. When the PTUZ organised a marathon race to promote the national HIV/AIDS awareness campaign, it was banned by a police force that has become merely an extension of the ruling party because the race was perceived to be a gimmick to promote opposition interests.

Zimbabwe’s teachers have also been targets of ruling party political violence. The violence intensified after ZANU PF was defeated in a referendum in February 2000 that was designed to increase the powers of President Robert Mugabe. During the campaign, Mugabe accused teachers of trying to brainwash rural children.

Teachers, especially in rural areas, were targeted because traditionally they exercised huge influence as an “educated elite”, a vital source of guidance to illiterate villagers, and because they were perceived to be agents of the MDC.

Teachers were displaced, killed, maimed and raped. The assailants committed brutal acts with impunity because they were protected by the ruling party. Political violence against teachers was systematically institutionalised by ZANU PF, underpinned by public statements from senior party officials.

Ahead of a presidential election in 2002, hundreds of teachers fled from rampaging ZANU PF militants who attacked them and burned down their properties for supporting the MDC. Teachers in rural areas are never safe. Their fate is now determined by simple, uneducated peasants under the control of ruling party officials.

Apart from political and economic factors, the image of the teaching profession has been damaged beyond repair in other ways. The dominant state media continually publishes negative images about the profession. And, unlike their counterparts in the nursing profession, whose minister is sensitive to the health sector’s needs, teachers have to tolerate the wrath of their minister, Aneas Chigwedere, who attacks them in public, increasing teachers' bitterness. Chigwedere, commenting on reports that teachers suspected of supporting the MDC would be fired, once said, "Any teacher caught in the political web will pay for it."

When Raymond Majongwe, the leader of PTUZ, called a strike for higher pay in 2002, Chigwedere had him arrested. Majongwe was allegedly assaulted and tortured in prison before being released without charge. Majongwe claimed that secret policemen from Zimbabwe's much-feared Central Intelligence Organisation had been deployed as teachers in most high schools. "You have to be careful what you say in the staffroom," he said.

Compared with professions in the private sector, teaching in Zimbabwe does not offer career growth. Young, educated, ambitious teachers want to move up the professional ladder, but teaching no longer offers social status or meaningful benefits. Consequently,

the teacher exodus can only worsen. Moreover, a recently drafted labour law works against them. It bars civil servants - teachers included - from forming or joining unions, meaning they will no longer be able to attempt collective bargaining.

A further problem arises from negative industrial growth and the closure of factories which has led to an unemployment rate of some 80 per cent. It means many young men and women are joining the teaching profession as a last resort, contributing to a lowering of standards as fewer and fewer teachers are truly dedicated to their profession.

The majority of Zimbabwe's schools have no textbooks, stationery or chalk, never mind computers. The parlous state of these schools has developed in a country that at independence boasted the best education system in Africa. As recently as 2000 primary school enrolment was 93 per cent, but the figure had since dropped to well below 50 per cent. Magdelene Ngwenyama, a teacher in the Bulawayo working class suburb of Luveve, whose classes have to share two textbooks for each subject, said, "Our job as teachers is like bricklayers expected to construct a house without being given the bricks."

Maxmillion Mhanyi is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.