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As Zimbabwe's teacher's strike, children pay the price

March 24, 2022
topics: Economic Fairness
by: Cyril Zenda
located in: Zimbabwe
tags: Africa, COVID-19, education, Zimbabwe

For the past two years, COVID-19 has led to school closures across the world, with students seriously losing out. With the pandemic receding, learning has resumed, but not in Zimbabwe, where teachers have refused to return to classes, demanding to be paid a living wage.

Although Maxwell Gutu (31), a teacher in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, is supposed to be helping his pupils catch up on material they missed in the two years of successive COVID-19 lockdowns, he instead spends his working hours selling second-hand clothes at a stall in Mbare, the city’s oldest suburb. 

"Yes, schools opened on 7 February, but I will only return to the class to teach on $540," Gutu told FairPlanet in-between shouts to attract customers to the children’s clothes he was selling. "I have a family to feed and for now teaching cannot put food on the table for me," added the father of three.

Like other teachers in Zimbabwe, the $540 'date' on which Gutu says he will return to provide his services to his employer - the Government of Zimbabwe - is in fact a code that all teachers who have not returned to work use to highlight the grievance against their employer. 

$540 is what used to be an average teacher’s salary before the government technically slashed it to the current level of around $100 through a dexterous 2018 currency change that replaced US dollar denominated salaries with newly re-introduced local currency that was immediately ravaged by runaway inflation.

Although the government insisted that the local currency, called the RTGS dollar (Z$) that it was foisting on the citizens was on par with the greenback, the reality on the ground has been different. The exchange rate on the parallel market, where the US dollar is found, had reached $1: Z$250 at the end of February. 

This is the crux of the dispute behind the current strike by the over 140,000 public school teachers in Zimbabwe. 

Not Strike But 'Incapacitation'

Teacher unions insist their members are not on strike, but are rather unable to report to work due to "incapacitation" resulting from the slave wages that their employer has subjected them to.

"We are totally incapacitated to report for duty. Transporters want US dollars. We are not even protesting. We are simply saying we are incapacitated to turn up for duty," said Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) secretary general, Raymond Majongwe.

Teacher unions say teachers earn an average of Z$21,000, about $180 at the government’s controlled official exchange rate, or $84 on the widely-used parallel market. So bad has been their plight that until about a year ago, most teachers were earning an equivalent of only $30.

Negotiations between the country’s nine teacher unions and the employer have repeatedly collapsed as the government, which boasts of posting budget surpluses, has consistently pleaded poverty when it comes to the welfare of teachers and the rest of its workers. 

The country’s largest union for teachers, the Zimbabwe Teachers’ Union (ZIMTA), said in a notice to strike that "the salaries earned in January are inadequate to support transport needs for commuting to various stations in the rural areas and to support daily commuting by teachers in urban areas." The union said teachers’ patience has been "overstretched and now we feel provoked […] and abused."

Demanding Restoration, Not a Salary Hike

The unions also say they are not asking for a pay raise from their employer, but simply for the restoration of their salaries to the 2018 level.

"Teachers do not want an increase of their salaries but restoration of their US$540, no more no less," PTUZ president, Takavafira Zhou, said in a rally call to the union’s members. 

"For all fellow teachers, it’s now or never. Let’s engage in high gear and ensure that we make maximum gains within a short period so that we can get US$540 and travel to our schools to teach our students who are in essence future leaders of Zimbabwe."

Suspension, Intimidations, Witch-hunts

The government has responded to the withdrawal of services by teachers by announcing that it had suspended all the ‘striking’ teachers, and that they are pending dismissal. However, the teachers successfully challenged the suspension in court. While the government has been cajoling teachers with promises of free housing, education and transport, among other incentives, there have also been reports of use of threats to force the teachers back to work. 

In 2019, Obert Masaraure, one of the teacher union leaders was adducted and tortured by suspected government security agents for his role in mobilising teachers to fight the injustice of their employer.

"We have told our members to be vigilant because we know that there would be threats and victimisation as usual," Majongwe told FairPlanet.

Zimbabwe Teachers Among The Worst Paid

At around $100 per month, teachers in Zimbabwe are currently among the worst paid in the southern African region. In neighbouring South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, the greener pastures in which some Zimbabweans teachers have been trying their luck, pay teachers average salaries of $1,400, $1,300 and $1,000,respectively. In Zambia, teachers earn about $350 per month. while those in Malawi and Mozambique on average earn about $200 and $140, respectively.

learners Continue To Suffer

As the tussle rages on amid the moot debate on whether the teachers are on strike or not and whether they are demanding a salary hike or not, the country’s 4.6 million learners continue to miss out on their education.

"Our concern is the teacher," Majongwe told FairPlanet when asked if the unions cared about the plight of learners.

Image by GPE/ Carine Durand

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Author
Zimbabwe
A Lecturer conducts a lesson in class after a long break due to the Covid-19 imposed lockdown in Harare, Zimbabwe. At around $100 per month, teachers in Zimbabwe are currently among the worst paid in the southern African region.
© Tafadzwa Ufumeli/Getty Images
As the tussle rages on amid the moot debate on whether the teachers are on strike or not and whether they are demanding a salary hike or not, the country’s 4.6 million learners continue to miss out on their education.
© Christian Ender via Getty Images
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