Once hailed as the pride of Africa, Zimbabwe's education system has been engulfed from top to bottom by the country's deepening political and economic crisis, reports ANDREW MELDRUM.
THE University of Zimbabwe, once the prestigious pinnacle of the system bequeathed by colonial rule, is now finding it almost impossible to keep functioning. Meanwhile, in schools across Zimbabwe teachers are operating hand to mouth, worrying less about lesson plans than what their pupils have to eat.
At the university, in Harare's Mount Pleasant suburb, clouds of tear gas frequently smother the campus, classrooms and dormitories. In the past few years, police have sealed off the campus so many times that it is almost routine. Once last year riot police stormed into dormitories, dragged students from their rooms and beat them. One student died from his injuries and has become a cause celebre.
The pay of lecturers and professors is so low that almost all have had to find other jobs and consultancies to get by. So many university posts remain vacant after resignations that departments are decimated and knowledgeable academics say the university is at the point of collapse.
Classes have been suspended and students sent home several times in the past three years, making it difficult for students to finish their degrees in a reasonable period of time.
“I used to enjoy teaching at the university, but now the conditions have become untenable,” said a retiring professor. “Now it is a constant headache. There is political interference from political appointees, corruption, the continual battles of police on campus. Far from being an ivory tower removed from everything, the university has become an encapsulation of Zimbabwe's problems.”
Other tertiary institutions across the country have faced similar troubles, while in schools teachers have been beaten, forced to attend “re-education camps” and killed, according to union officials. Students of all ages are sent home if they cannot pay fees or don't have proper uniforms. Education budgets have been dropping for more than 10 years. Teachers' meagre salaries have lagged far behind the country's 269% inflation.
10 years of decline
This is a far cry from the days in the 1980s when President Robert Mugabe's government made education its first priority. Zimbabwe's teachers were respected and relatively well remunerated. Primary education was nearly free and secondary education was within the reach of almost everyone, in both urban and rural areas. The country achieved impressive literacy rates, first of 80% and then above 90%, making Zimbabwe's education system one of the most effective in Africa and one of the best in the developing world.
But the education system, from primary school up through university, has suffered 10 years of decline and since 2000 has been one of the main victims of the country's economic chaos and political repression.
“I worked hard to qualify as a teacher and I was honoured in my community,” said Tendai M, a veteran of Mugabe's liberation forces, who studied to become a teacher after independence in 1980. “I got a good education but I am not satisfied with the schooling my children are receiving.”
The hardworking Mathematics teacher, who does not want to be named for fear of retribution, was appointed head teacher of his government boarding school two years ago. “I thought things would get better, but being a headmaster has been a nightmare,” he said. “With food shortages and inflation we do not have enough money to get our children and teachers enough to eat. Everyone here is hungry. I am constantly searching for food and begging for charity. We try to keep our classes going, but it is very, very difficult.”
Zimbabwe's education system has been one of the many casualties of the country's multiplying troubles, according to Brian Raftopoulos, chairman of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, who spoke at the Canon Collins Memorial Lecture at London's School of Oriental and African Studies on May 28.
“After 2000, in the context of the more general political crisis, a whole series of highly politicised problems emerged in the educational sphere,” said Raftopoulos. “These problems have centred around: the 'disciplining' of teachers for their support for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change; the militarisation of youth centres; the struggle by teachers for better conditions of service in a rapidly declining economy; and struggles over the curriculum, in particular the teaching of history.”
In his lecture, Raftopoulos, who is an associate professor at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Zimbabwe, chronicled the stunning successes of education in the early days of Zimbabwe's independence.
Primary enrolment increased from 820,000 in 1979 to 1.2 million in 1980, rising to 2.2 million by 1989, according to government statistics. In the 1990s enrolment reached a peak of nearly 2.5 million in 1996 before falling to 2.4 million in 2000.
At the secondary level the expansion was even more impressive. Enrolment increased from 66,000 in 1979 to 150,000 in 1981, reaching 670,000 in 1989. Secondary enrolment rose to a peak of 844,000 by 2000.
Problem of drop-outs
“While this quantitative growth of education has been impressive,” said Raftopoulos “there are several problems which confront the future of educational development in Zimbabwe. These include: the absence of a comprehensive policy framework; access and gender equity; relevance of the curriculum; school dropouts and finance.” He said the education system was struggling with tensions because of the government's desire to use schooling “as an ideological arm of the state”.
Raftopoulos said that about 15% of Zimbabwean children remained out of school in 2000 and a disproportionately high number of those were girls.
The country's spiralling economic crisis in the past three years has caused many more children to stop going to school because their parents cannot afford the steeply rising fees and the cost of uniforms and books. Previously schools noted a decline in attendance when the country suffered serious drought, such as in 1992.
“This problem of dropouts is directly related to the general problem of poverty,” said Raftopoulos. “In a poverty assessment study survey carried out by the United Nations Development Programme, it was found that 61% of Zimbabweans were classified as poor in 1997, rising to 73% in 2003. With more specific references to dropouts, a study of social policy under structural adjustment conditions in Zimbabwe carried out in 1997/98 found that the major reason for children dropping out of school was unaffordability.”
The cost of maintaining Zimbabwe's education system is high. Relative to comparable countries in the southern African region, Zimbabwe spends an unusually high share of national income on education. “For example, in the mid-1980s Zimbabwe's budget allocation to the sector was more than twice the median of that spent by other low-income Anglophone countries and exceeded the median for medium income countries by about 22%,” said Raftopoulos.
Nevertheless in the 1990s real per capita expenditure on education fell significantly, with the total education budget allocation declining from 6% of GDP in 1986-1987 to 4% in 1993/1994. By 2000 real expenditure on primary education had declined to 2% of GDP.
“It is apparent that, while there has been a remarkable expansion of educational enrolment over the last 20 years, this expansion has intensified inequalities in Zimbabwe because of the different forms of educational provision and the problems of reduced financial expenditure that have placed an increasing burden on poorer families,” said Raftopoulos.
Violence against teachers
Ironically, Mugabe's success in educating large numbers of Zimbabweans has added to his troubles in recent years. The vast majority of young Zimbabweans are educated, but they cannot find jobs. This has created a huge well of discontent among the articulate youth.
Zimbabwe's drastic economic decline in the past three years has caused the GDP to lose more than 30% of its value. Inflation is expected to be well over 300% this year. The government responded by carrying out “an authoritarian restructuring of the state, in order to consolidate its beleaguered position,” said Raftopoulos, who said this affected the education system in several ways.
“Teachers have been targeted on a regular basis for their alleged support for the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change and because they were considered key informants and community leaders in the rural areas,” he added.
The Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe has documented the intimidation, harassment, detention, arrests, torture and the unprecedented unleashing of state security agents on the schools. As a result of the assaults by state agencies, the union reported that between the period 2000-2002 five teachers were killed, 119 raped and “many more were maimed, kidnapped, tortured and displaced”.
In addition, many teachers and students have been forced to attend “re- education camps” where lessons centre on a narrow party-oriented history of Zimbabwe, including the formation of the ruling party, Zanu-PF, its military struggle against white-minority Rhodesia and why the party deserves to remain in power.
“Certainly, state violence against teachers and the narrow nationalist approach to the teaching of 'patriotic history' are a long way from the tone of tolerance urged by the Education Commission before the political crisis began in 2000,” said Raftopoulos.
The violence and economic difficulties that have confronted Zimbabwe's education system in recent years illustrate how deeply the ongoing political and economic crisis has reached into all sectors of the country. Yet Raftopoulos and other education specialists believe that the country's schools can rebound and return to a positive position if Zimbabwe can pull out of the crisis through a peaceful, negotiated process of transition that will lead the country to a fresh round of thoroughly free and fair elections.
“The damage to education is severe, but it does not have to be permanent,” concluded Raftopoulos. “The restoration of democracy will see Zimbabwe enter a period of reconciliation in which education can once again return to a place of priority. Teachers can once again have the respect of the government and the community. Students will once again have the opportunity to learn.” – Guardian Newspapers Ltd.