Double wages may seem an ambitious demand for a public sector strike, but for the 236,000 workers earning well below that poverty line at an average of $250 a month from the Zimbabwean government, it is a question of survival.
Although this wage is higher than that of many Zimbabweans in other sectors, and although the majority of Zimbabweans in fact live far below the government's own defined poverty line of $538, the protesters demands are basic and fundamental: a salary that meets the poverty line, medical insurance, improved pensions, and a travel allowance from rural areas.
The recent four day strike at the end of January, the first since the unity government came to power three years ago, closed negotiations agreeing to give an extra $58 in transport and housing allowances. It was a weak offering by the government amid claims that it simply cannot afford to meet union demands of a $288 pay rise.
Finance Minister, Tendai Biti, claimed that government salaries already account for 60% of the national budget, to the detriment of the country’s healthcare and education expenditure. However with reports of ministers’ unashamedly extravagant and lavish lifestyles also filling the local press, it is not surprising that civil servants are voicing their frustration over merely reasonable wages. The recent rise in government minister and senior employee allowances to $105 a night, in addition their $3000 monthly salary, also brings into question the credibility of their defence.
Considering the government’s 51% stake in the Marange diamond fields, scepticism over government claims that they cannot afford to offer public sector workers a more considerable rise is unsurprising.
Diamond profits are the state’s third largest source of revenue and one company alone mined $1.4 billion worth of Marange diamonds last year, three times the amount actually reported by the mining ministry for the whole of the Marange area.
“It’s quite clear that there’s much more money floating around than is justified by the level of economic activity,” said Eddie Cross, an MP from the Movement of Democratic Change (MDC). Clearly not all this money is making it to the national treasury. Despite the Finance Ministry being under the control of the MDC’s Finance Minister, tens of millions of dollars in diamond profits are reportedly being diverted into ZANU-PF personal and political interests.
Questions are also being asked within ZANU-PF, with one former official stating that “when you look at the fields they are mining and how rich they are and what they later declare, you see that there must be a huge difference”. As well as outright greed at the expense of the civil sector, the political implications of these profits being used in preparation for the contested upcoming election are also a cause of concern. There are reports of large procurements of weapons, financing of a new military academy, and troops being deployed to rural areas in an operation conveniently financed by the ZANU-PF member managing the state interest in Marange.
With teachers making up the majority of government workers, it is the education sector which has been the hardest hit by the lack of accountability over government funds and the recent strikes are just the latest manifestation of a long standing dissatisfaction with the under-financed and under-resourced educational system.
Many children still have limited access to education, and for those that do get access, the teachers they encounter are often unmotivated and frustrated; hardly an optimum environment for effective learning. Undeniably, it is the government’s responsibility to provide education, but with the obvious dysfunction and failed attempts at accountability, what can be done to educate Zimbabwe’s children?
Action Aid Zimbabwe argues that increased corporate sector involvement is needed to innovate education through public-private partnerships. The Minister of Education, David Coltart, reiterated that, until Zimbabwe’s economy has been resuscitated through foreign direct investment, teachers will remain without a decent salary. According to Coltart, companies such as Apple, Intel and Epson recently expressed interest in investing in the education sector.
But is the private sector the answer, or should more be done to hold the government accountable for providing these services?
Although only securing marginally better working conditions for civil servants, the recent strikes have drawn attention to the need for transparency and accountability in Zimbabwe. Through the negotiations, it was agreed that a committee of workers and government representatives would be created to track revenue flowing into the national treasury, an especially critical move considering the hopes of economic recovery pinned on diamonds.
By highlighting the hurdles faced by those attempting to transform power relations, the strikes have created an opportunity to evaluate the recourse available for civil servants to exert pressure on a government when their basic needs are not being met. Whether the government is forced to pay, or alternative methods of financing education are sought, for the ordinary people who depend on public services to survive, we must hope that the government discovers its sense of obligation to develop its country and its people.
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