Saturday, April 19, 2014

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Zimbabwe’s Teachers Strike for their Fair Share

The government claims it lacks the resources to pay public sector workers above poverty line while hundreds of millions in diamond revenues remain unaccounted for.
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A classroom in Zimbabwe. Photograph by Lizzy Biggs.

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.

Where has all the money gone?

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.

If the government cannot pay, who will?

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?

Transparency

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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Comments

 I am surprised that in the whole article not once has the word child been mentioned. Education is a partnership between teacher and child. Both sides have to be highly motivated, from the teacher’s side a regularly paid salary and working conditions that are acceptable; from the child’s side to have basic equipment, ie. Weather-proofed buildings, an exercise book and pen, seating and work table and hopefully the availability of one meal a day during the school working hours. One has to accept that a teacher who is motivated and comes to work is quickly demotivated when the children do not attend regularly their classes. A form of organisation of ensuring for the children of the rural areas who are widely spread need accessibility to transport points to get to the school. It has to be accepted in rural communities it is not possible to provide transport to stop at each living accommodation or groups of living accommodations. A reasonably accessible transport pick-up point has to be established and this pick-up point must be within a reasonable walking distance of where the children are living. There are many rural communities reasonably close to larger settlements that have established schools, it is therefore establishing and funding the transport from the pick-up point to the schools.In Zimbabwe it has been established that school children must wear a uniform. However the cost of these uniforms is often beyond the reach of many parents and this is used as an excuse by the authorities that children are excluded from attending school. A systemized and organized supply of school uniforms should be put in place and paid for by the Ministry of Education. It is totally unacceptable that a child is excluded because his parents cannot afford a uniform.Of course the funding and organization for the transport has to be conducted centrally and must fall back on to the Ministry of Education.From personal experience in a rural area about 20 km from Harare all the above outlined conditions apply.  In discussing these problems which were brought to me by the mothers in question, it is clear that both the parents and the children want their children to attend school and learn.  One of Zimbabwean very positive matters is that parents and children understand that education is the key to advancement and will provide a living for their families.With this positive outlook it is absolutely essential that a firm grip on this problem is taken by central Government and this means action not words.Therefore returning to the subject article , yes teachers have to be paid a living wage, but it is the establishment of regularly attended school that are properly equipped and properly managed that will be the key to the solution of the problem.I hope that other readers of your publication can appreciate the point of view that I am raising. This point of view has been formed by actual hands on experience and not just gained from third party interviews.