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Teachers Vote With Their Feet

As qualified teaching staff leave their jobs and flood out of the country, the schools are filling up with untrained teachers.
By Yamikani Mwando
Zimbabwe’s schoolteachers once belonged to the elite who could afford houses and cars, but increasing numbers are now joining the exodus of economic migrants, leaving pupils in the hands of untrained replacements.

In the Eighties, when the country was still in euphoric mood after achieving independence, teachers looked forward to a life of plenty. Today, however, they say they have been turned into paupers by the deepening economic crisis. Like most Zimbabweans – especially others working in the large public sector - teachers have found their salaries eroded almost to nothing by spiralling inflation, currently estimated at over 6,600 per cent year on year.

Teaching staff in state schools earn a little over three million Zimbabwe dollars (ZWD) a month, which works out at about 100 US dollars at the official exchange rate and but only six dollars on the parallel market, which is a better reflection of consumer prices.

Such is the level of anger at low wages in the education sector that when the militant Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe, PTUZ, went on strike in September to press for higher pay, it was joined by the Zimbabwe Teachers’ Association, ZIMTA, which is seen as more closely aligned with the authorities.

PTUZ general secretary Raymond Majongwe said it was the third industrial action this year, which was prompted by the government’s continuing failure to address teachers’ concerns.

Three weeks after the strike began, however, the ZIMT – which conducted its strike action separately from the PTUZ - announced on October 4 that it had reached a settlement with a pay offer of 14 million ZWD a month. This was still below the official poverty line - set at 16.7 million ZWD as of August – which had been used as a negotiating measure, and also fell short of the 18 million ZWD which the PTUZ was seeking.

On October 10, the PTUZ leadership passed a resolution that its members should return to work while the union decided what to do next. This did not amount to an acceptance of the pay offer.

Whatever the outcome of the PTUZ’s deliberations, the government is unlikely to offer teachers a significant better deal in the near future. That means the mass outflow of teachers to neighbouring states is likely to continue.

Zimbabwean teachers are held in high regard in the region, and there is high demand for them in South Africa’s expanding education system, as well as in Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, and also in Mozambique, where there is rising demand for English-speaking educationists. Further afield, many have found teaching work in Britain and even Australia.

The PTUZ says more than 5,000 teachers resign every month in frustration over the poor pay.

According to Majongwe, many accept manual jobs if they cannot find teaching placements. “They find themselves as farm labourers in neighbouring Botswana and South Africa,” he said.

To fill the gap created by this exodus, the education authorities have hired untrained relief staff, despite complaints by both parents and qualified teachers that this is compromising children’s education.

Unqualified staff have always been used to plug gaps in school timetables, but until economic crisis set in at the end of the Nineties, young people looked on these temporary stints as a transitional phase while they looked for proper jobs.

In Zimbabwe’s second city Bulawayo, the education department is now full of school-leavers desperate to find work as relief teachers.

Majongwe believes the government is happy to take on more malleable workers who, because they are on temporary contracts, are barred from taking industrial action.

“Because the unqualified teachers are desperate for jobs, they take up these posts,” he said. “And they cannot complain about conditions because there are no jobs in the country. They are happy.”

One student in Bulawayo preparing for his Advanced Level exams, the final school qualification, said, “We are being taught by people with mere Advanced Levels, when we were told previously that we needed someone with a university degree to teach us. But people with university degrees no longer want to work here any more, because of poor salaries.”

An unqualified teacher in a Bulawayo secondary school admitted he had little option but to take this low-paid job, even though he sympathised with the striking teachers.

“Give me any job and I will take it, but because there aren’t any, this is what I will do in the mean time,” he said.

Majongwe says his union plans to work with parents and pupils to lobby the education ministry to stop recruiting untrained teachers. However, he fears it will be a futile exercise, because having this cheap and undemanding labour force on hand allows the government to resist pay demands from the trade unions.

Yamikani Mwando is the pseudonym of a reporter in Zimbabwe.

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