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Strike Paralyses Schools Ahead of Election

For low-paid teachers, being ignored while large salary awards went to the security services was the last straw.
By Hativagone Mushonga

As election day draws near, Zimbabwe is experiencing the most widespread strike by civil servants and teachers since independence in 1980, with almost all state-sector teaching staff staying at home despite intimidation by security agents and government officials.

No doubt sensing the danger of going into an election with his civil service on strike, President Robert Mugabe this week awarded hefty salary increases for civil servants, including teachers, in what can only be seen as a vote-buying move.

The size of the increases are not yet known although Mugabe described the new salaries as “very good” at a March 11 campaign rally in the southern district of Inyathi, where he urged teachers to go back to schools.

The industrial action by teachers paralysed the state education system as the strike by members of the government-aligned Zimbabwe Teachers Association, ZIMTA, entered its second week. They joined the militant Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe, PTUZ, now in its fifth week of industrial action.

Most government schools in Zimbabwe are deserted, with only a handful of children attending school.

Education Minister Aeneas Chigwedere has accused teachers of pursuing a political agenda to destabilise the education sector ahead of crucial presidential, parliamentary and local elections on March 29.

Officers from the central intelligence agency were deployed to schools three weeks ago to monitor teachers’ activities.

There has been a blackout on the strike in the state-run media, giving an impression that all is well. But with the election drawing ever closer, doctors and nurses on strike for the past three months, and other civil servants now threatening to stay away, government faces a major crisis.

The teachers stopped work in protest at Mugabe’s secret award of huge pay rises to the security forces ahead of the elections.

Soldiers, police and intelligence agents were pleasantly surprised this month when the government quietly awarded them hefty increments of between one billion and three billion Zimbabwean dollars, ZWD, a month. The increments were meant to cushion them against inflation that has reached a year-on-year rate of over 100,000 per cent.

The move was widely seen as an attempt to appease the security forces, which have been restive due to poor working conditions and low salaries. The security forces have in the past been a central cog in Mugabe’s election machine.

Primary and secondary school teachers have long complained of low salaries and harsh working conditions. The mounting discontent has driven the largest union, ZIMTA, which has generally avoided confrontation with the government in the past, to instruct its members to join their colleagues from the PTUZ.

ZIMTA head Peter Mabhande has ruled out any immediate engagement with the government to end the strike.

“The nation must know the truth. The strike is going to continue until our demands are met, as teachers are finding it difficult to go to work because of the poor salaries they are getting,” said Mabhande. “We are not negotiating with the government. They will have to consult among themselves as our employers and come up with a solution to this crisis.”

The ZIMTA boss said it was “unfortunate and regrettable” that pupils and parents were losing out as a result of the industrial action.

"Students and parents are suffering as a result of this strike, but as teachers we cannot continue to subsidise government. We can’t afford to send our [own] children to school," he said.

On average, teachers in Zimbabwe earn a basic salary of 500 million ZWD a month. To translate this sum into measurable terms, the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe says a food basket for an average family of five now costs 1.4 million ZWD a month – nearly one and a half times what a teacher earns.

In January, teachers called for a 1,200 per cent wage raise to keep pace with inflation. Government and ZIMTA negotiators settled for a 600 per cent increase, but teachers have so far received just half of that, paid in two installments of 250 and 50 per cent.

Teachers are now pressing for an increase of at least 1.7 billion ZWD a month and have vowed not to return to work until the government awards them the money.

“I hope you parents understand where we are coming from,” said one striking primary school teacher in Harare. “I am a single mother and my salary last month was 520 million [ZWD], and that is less than my bus fare to and from work. I also have kids to look after…. I also need to survive. I face the same problems everyone is facing.

“The government has to realise that we are very important professionals who need to be rewarded.”

IWPR visited Moffat, Sunningdale, Highlands, Queensdale and Hatfield primary schools in middle and high-income Harare suburbs and schools in the poor suburbs of Kambuzuma, Highfield and Glen View, and found that most children had stayed at home.

At some schools, mothers with children in lower grades had resorted to home schooling while year seven pupils were paying for extra tuition.

Sylvia Mapuranga, whose daughter is in this year, said she could not afford to pay more.

“That is a lot of money for me. Like the teachers, I also earn very little and if I am to pay 20 million ZWD a day [for tutoring], what will we eat and where will I get the money for rent and other necessities? It will just wipe away all my monthly salary,” she said.

“Why is government keeping quiet? I would have expected it to have acted since we are approaching the elections…. Please, government, do something – they really deserve that money.”

Industrial action by teachers has never really taken off in the past because schools were visited by security agents demanding a register of attendance. Absentees and strikers were fired and then asked to reapply for their jobs in some cases, losing all benefits due for the period they were not employed.

Civil servants have been used as election agents in previous polls, working with ZANU-PF to ensure victory. But this time round, observers say, they will be working on empty stomachs and may be a liability rather than an asset to the ruling party.

Hativagone Mushonga is the pseudonym of an journalist in Zimbabwe.

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