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

Zimbabwe's Teachers Head for South Africa

A relaxation of the rules in South Africa offers teachers who fled Zimbabwe a chance to use their skills at last.
By Zakeus Chibaya
Stella Chikava, a 41-year-old graduate with more than ten years experience as a physics and chemistry teacher behind her, stands in the busy streets of central Johannesburg, distributing advertising pamphlets to earn a living.

Stella's travails began when she was teaching at a secondary school in Mberengwa, a rural area in central Zimbabwe. During the violent 2000 and 2002 parliamentary and presidential elections, which saw Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party returned to power amid widespread allegations of fraud, Stella was abducted after being accused of supporting the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC.

She ended up as a captive on a farm known as the Texas Ranch which was used as a base by Mugabe supporters, and was the site of numerous abuses against detainees which have been reported by Amnesty International and other human rights groups.

Stella recounted how while held at the camp, she was tortured and sexually abused by those in charge.

She was eventually released from the Texas Ranch facility, and immediately fled into exile in South Africa to escape further persecution.

She hoped to find a teaching post there, but as a Zimbabwean, she found such work impossible to secure, and ended up doing odd jobs on the streets

South Africa has more Zimbabwean refugees – two or three million of them - than any other country. Some have fled the repressive political environment, while others come in search of work. Unemployment in Zimbabwe is put at more than eighty per cent, and even those who have an income find it is devalued by spiralling inflation.

The education system is collapsing, largely because of poverty-line wages and the expulsion of teachers who support the opposition. Teaching staff are under constant surveillance by state security agents who work with ZANU PF officials to rid the system of perceived opponents of the regime.

"Teachers in Zimbabwe have come to the conclusion that education is not a priority on the Mugabe government agenda,” said Mlamuli Nkomo, a trained teacher and director of the Mthwakazi Forum, which coordinates exiled Zimbabwean organisations in South Africa.

“They are a target of government hate speech, especially from Education Minister Aeneas Chigwedere, who has endorsed military structures in schools to suppress teachers complaining about working conditions and salaries."

The Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe, PTUZ, in South Africa, which represents the many hundreds of education staff who have fled their country, reports that many enter the country illegally, and even those who have the right paperwork still have difficulty registering as teachers in South Africa.

PTUZ is contacted by an average of ten teachers each day who have just arrived from Zimbabwe, although the numbers have increased significantly since January as the rate of decline of economic and political conditions accelerates. The association has more than 1,500 Zimbabwean teachers on its database, but estimates that there are at least 10,000 now in South Africa.

PTUZ-South Africa chairman Doctor Ncube told IWPR, "The few who are teaching endure the terrible working conditions in private schools, earning 1,000 to 1,500 rands [136 to 205 US dollars] a month. If they don't have the right legal papers, they often have no work contracts and are exploited as vulnerable cheap labour."

Fearing a diplomatic row with Robert Mugabe's government, South Africa's African National Congress government has been unwilling to engage highly-qualified Zimbabweans in the state schools, despite manpower shortages in science subjects.

The State of the Nation 2006 report, published by the South African government's Human Sciences Research Council, points to a major contradiction in government policy - the lack of trained professionals is recognised as a major economic constraint, yet Zimbabweans are routinely excluded from the labour market.

Zimbabwean teachers who file applications for political asylum have been turned down on the grounds that "there is no political crisis in Zimbabwe" - President Thabo Mbeki's standard response when asked why his government does nothing about the grave crisis across the border.

In February, however, the country’s education ministry signalled a change of heart, issuing a statement that it was now preparing to employ Zimbabwean teachers to train local teaching staff in science subjects.

The move was announced by Duncan Hindle, the top civil servant in the ministry, who said, "Many Zimbabwean teachers are already in South Africa doing informal jobs. They will not take over jobs from South Africans, but ease shortages in the education department."

Education minister Naledi Pandor has bemoaned the shortage of skilled maths and science teachers, saying, “I have visited many schools across the country and there are no maths teachers. We have decided to import these teachers while we train our own teachers in this field.”

Pandor’s ministry is expected to begin recruiting among the estimated 4,000 maths and science teachers from Zimbabwe.

Francine de Clerq, a lecturer in the School of Education at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, told IWPR that Zimbabwean teachers have excellent qualifications. This, she said, is partly because the school system of the Eighties and Nineties was still modelled on that of Britain.

Tedious Moyo has no proper immigration papers, but he has found a job teaching maths at a private school in central Johannesburg.

"We might be living behind curtains and paid peanuts by principals who have never gone through [a] teacher-training institution, but our work is noticeable to the community," he told IWPR. "If Pandor asks, we are even prepared to work in the rural and remote areas, as most of our teachers were teaching in Zimbabwe's rural areas where there was no electricity or water and the accommodation was bad."

Stella Chikava now hopes she will be among the many Zimbabwean teachers recruited by South African education officials.

"I had been producing good results under extremely difficult conditions in Zimbabwe. With [good] facilities in South Africa, I will be able to do tremendous work," she said.

Another science teacher, Veronica Chauke, will never benefit from the scheme. With her sister Talent, also a teacher, she made the hazardous and illegal trip over the border in late February. Many of the emigrants drown in the Limpopo river which forms the frontier; others are killed by crocodiles or trampled by elephants.

The sisters made it across the river, but ran into a pride of lions, which killed and devoured Veronica. Talent survived to tell the story - and perhaps to fulfil the dream on her sister's behalf.

Zakeus Chibaya, a Zimbabwean journalist living in exile in South Africa, is a regular contributor to the IWPR Africa Report.

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