Zimbabwe’s education was once the envy of Africa. Not anymore
Educators during the country’s post-independence golden age wanted for nothing. Today’s teachers say they barely scrape by.
It wasn’t just his well-fitted suit, the crisp shirt, and the neatly paired tie that caught everyone’s attention. When Amos Mawoyo walked through the rural areas of Imbeza, a timber estate in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe, almost everyone looked at him in awe. Some offered to carry his bag, others stopped just to greet him.
The villagers referred to him as Teacher Mawoyo, just like “the British confer an honorary title of Sir to highly esteemed people”, he recalls. Back then, with his salary as a teacher, he could afford a car, a house, all the necessities of a comfortable life and even to send his children to boarding schools – the equivalent of today’s rather expensive private schools.
That was Zimbabwe in the 1980s and ’90s. Today, the retired teacher says, “I see young teachers milling around during working hours far from their schools”. Instead, they work part-time jobs that have nothing to do with teaching. When he asks why, “they say that this pays them better than going to work”.
Frustrations over pay and workload have resulted in a standoff between teachers and the government. Teachers went on strike for more than two weeks in early February, demanding salaries two to three times more than what they earn. They returned to work after the government offered a 20% salary increase and other incentives, including payment of school fees for up to three biological children per teacher.
But months later, even as schools opened for the third and final term of the school year on 5 Sept, the government’s promises are yet to be fulfilled, teachers say.
For a country that held education as one of its topmost priorities after becoming independent in 1980 and has since been among the most literate nations in Africa, Zimbabwe today is in the middle of a crisis with the torchbearers of this sector feeling disillusioned and undervalued.
“People are back at work fearing victimisation and salary cuts,” teacher Leonard Mabasa says. “The ugly difference [of salaries compared] with other fellow civil servants is further dampening the spirit of poor teachers. The morale is at its lowest ebb.”
Teacher Danny Malingeni says that he and his colleagues do go to work, but they are not really teaching children. “They show up at schools, but not much teaching is done in the classes…due to frustration over remuneration and other welfare packages.”
The pay dispute began in late-2018 when teacher salaries were drastically reduced following the country’s switch back to local currency after almost a decade of using the US dollar. In 2009, the government – in an attempt to salvage an economy experiencing extreme hyperinflation – abandoned the old Zimbabwean dollar and adopted a multicurrency system that included the US dollar. The return to a single-currency system with a rebooted Zimbabwean dollar sparked another rise in inflation, effectively reducing the teachers’ wages. And inflation has only skyrocketed further since then.
“As long as inflation is rising, your real purchasing power keeps eroding,” says economist Prosper Chitambara, of the Labour and Economic Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe, a nonprofit research think tank. “This has been happening in Zimbabwe over the past couple of decades — which is how the real incomes of teachers have eroded.”
Frustrations over pay and workload have resulted in a standoff between teachers and the government.
In Zimbabwe, a teacher earns less than $100 per month based on an unofficial exchange rate that is widely used for goods and services in the country. Teachers are demanding they be paid in US dollars and not Zimbabwean dollars, where the official exchange rate fluctuates daily.
Currently, Zimbabwe uses two main currencies, the US dollar and the Zimbabwean dollar. Teachers are paid in Zimbabwean dollars, except for coronavirus-related allowances that are paid in U. dollars.
It is important to put pressure on the government to return the teaching profession’s historic pride, Chitambara says, which can only happen if teachers get paid as well as they did in the past. “Zimbabwe has nurtured many astute academics globally, and it is the education sector from the 1980s that we owe the production of such brains to,” he says. “To have quality education just like in the old days, remuneration issues must be addressed.”
The literacy rate in Zimbabwe is about 91%, according to a 2019 household survey conducted by the national statistics office and UNICEF. That’s far above the average rate of 66% for the sub-Saharan Africa region.
The achievement dates to Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, when the newly elected government promised free and compulsory primary and secondary education to all children to redress the imbalances of the colonial educational system that excluded black pupils. To achieve this goal of universal education, teachers were immediately in high demand.
Since then, education has become less of a priority. Even in 2015, education still accounted for 22% of the country’s total budget; but by 2021, it was 13%, according to a 2021 UNICEF report. The recommended level is 20%.
Even so, education expenses far exceed budget. In fact, budget overruns have widened since 2018, according to the report. In 2020, there was a 99% budget overrun. High inflation and the dwindling value of the local dollar were cited as the main reasons.
Beyond the numbers, the impasse also threatens the future of the children of Zimbabwe. Final exams that determine university and class placements are given during the third term. And a year of learning was already lost due to school closures during the coronavirus pandemic. Some parents have paid for private tutors but not everyone can afford the hired help on top of regular school fees.
Sinikiwe Masola says she had to have her child repeat a grade after he scored badly. “Government needs to realise every person’s career goes through the hands of a teacher, and if they are unhappy, an entire generation’s future suffers,” she says.
Education officials insist the government is working for the welfare of the children and has already offered several incentives to the teachers. “The ministry is there to provide quality, relevant and inclusive education for all Zimbabweans, and has provided a vast array of incentives [for teachers] such as allowances for pandemic, housing, transport and duty-free importation of motor vehicles,” says Taungana Ndoro, director of Communications and Advocacy for the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education. “There’s no strike,” he says. “It’s just wishful thinking by teachers’ union leadership.”
Even though the teachers are back to work, Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe president Takavafira Zhou says “their patience has been overstretched, and anything can happen as teachers do not have money to report for work daily”.
Mawoyo, the retired teacher, was among those who enjoyed the golden period for educators in the country. But in 2019, when he realized how everything was changing, he decided to seek an early retirement – a decision he doesn’t regret.
“The pension is not much, but it is money that is coming while I am sitting at home,” he says. “The amount is almost like what those going to work today are getting. They need to pay for the transport to work, lunch and other things from their salary’s money. I realised I was better off at home.”
This story was originally published by Global Press Journal. Global Press is an award-winning international news publication with more than 40 independent news bureaus across Africa, Asia and Latin America.