Zimbabwe’s education system, once regarded as among the best in Africa, is in crisis because of the country’s economic meltdown. Almost a quarter of the teachers have quit the country, absenteeism is high, buildings are crumbling and standards plummeting.
In one of the most shocking examples of the Dickensian conditions, a reporter witnessed hundreds of children at Hatcliffe Extension Primary School in Epworth, 12 miles west of Harare, writing in the dust on the floor because they had no exercise books or pencils.
The makeshift huts they use as classrooms are filthy and swarming with insects. Instead of chairs, the children sit on mud bricks which leave red stains on their tattered khaki uniforms. Similar scenes can be found across the country.
“Starting this term, we are supposed to buy our own teaching materials,” said a teacher at Warren Park 1 Primary in Harare. “With our paltry salaries I don’t see it working. We will just sit in the classes.”
At Insimbi Primary School in Gwanda, south-east of Bulawayo, there is one textbook for a class and only half the children have exercise books. The others cannot afford them.
Absenteeism is rife. Concern Mkhwananzi, 42, who left three weeks ago to seek work in South Africa, said almost a quarter of his class of 45 pupils had dropped out. “They were coming to school with empty stomachs because there was no food at home,” he said. “Then they would faint, so they preferred to stay at home.”
Conditions at the universities and colleges are just as bad. Fees have skyrocketed, student grants are almost worthless and teaching is almost at a halt. At the University of Zimbabwe in Harare, disused offices and storerooms have been turned into makeshift brothels by students and staff who have turned to prostitution to make ends meet. “What would you do if you were given a paltry Z$2 million (£1.20 at the black market exchange rate) per semester?” said one female student.
During a recent visit to the university, several students showed signs of malnutrition, and conditions in their hostel were squalid. Lavatories were blocked, water flowed down unlit corridors and dustbins overflowed.
“The situation is terrible,” said Tendai Mbera, a second-year history student. “There is no food, and most of us have been forced to commute daily, only to find there are no lecturers.” Half the university’s 1,200 lecturers have left this year, joining an accelerating exodus of teaching professionals.
According to one of the main teachers’ unions, the PTUZ, 25,000 teachers—almost a quarter of the workforce—have gone abroad since January—10,000 of them in the past three months. Most moved to South Africa, Botswana or Namibia.
Progressive Teachers of Zimbabwe, an organisation that assists immigrants in South Africa, estimates that 20,000 Zimbabwean teachers now live in South Africa—many working in unskilled security or construction industry jobs.
Among them is Charles Khumalo, 43, who resigned his post at a primary school in Matobo, Matabele South province, 18 months ago. Despite 17 years’ teaching experience, he has managed to find only casual work as a security guard and then as a plant superviser. “I came here legally and I’ve done everything to get work as a teacher but without a South African identity card it’s very difficult,” he said.
Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s schools are hiring unqualified teachers. At Mawani Primary School near Mnene, 300 miles south of Harare, the teachers’ homes are deserted at weekends when most “temporary” teachers go panning for gold.
The government is so alarmed that Aeneas Chigwedere, the education minister, has urged neighbouring countries to cease taking Zimbabwe’s teachers. But that did not stop Sithokozile Ngwenya, 28, quitting as geography teacher at a Bulawayo primary school last week to go to Namibia. “There is nothing to stay for in Zimbabwe,” she said. “My salary is not enough. I had to leave as I have to fend for my two children.”
Until August, state school teachers were paid Z$2 million a month, enough to buy four loaves of bread. After a strike last month, President Robert Mugabe raised this to Z$17 million but with inflation at 14,840 per cent, most teachers are still below the poverty line.
The exam system, too, is in chaos. Examiners refused to mark scripts when they were offered just Z$79 a paper, enough to buy three small sweets. Suspected corruption might have been why in January thousands of pupils received no marks for subjects they had entered, while others were deemed “excellent” in subjects they had not sat.
The tragedy is that the education system had been one of the few achievements of which Mr Mugabe could be proud. After independence from Britain in 1980, the government invested heavily in education and raised the literacy rate to 80 per cent, one of the highest in Africa.
Zimbabwe’s annual inflation shot to almost 15 000% last month, almost double the previous month’s rate and the worst mark yet in the country’s struggle with hyperinflation, according to reports on Friday. The privately owned weekly Zimbabwe Independent quoted official sources in the state-run Central Statistical Office as saying annual inflation in October reached 14 850%, against September’s 7 982%. The office was promising journalists and economists on Monday that the eagerly awaited monthly figures would be released as they normally are on the 12th of the month, but on Friday would not confirm the Independent’s report. On previous occasions this year when the government embargoed the release of statistics following spectacular rises in inflation, Harare’s privately owned newspapers had correctly published the figures. Monthly inflation from September to October soared to 135%, against a previous high of 102%, the Independent said. Monthly inflation sustained at that rate for a year would produce annual inflation of 2,8-million percent, according to economists. Also on Thursday, President Robert Mugabe was quoted in the state-controlled daily Herald as saying that “Zimbabwe will not collapse, now or in the future” and blaming “the dark clouds sown by Western destructive forces” for the country’s economic demise. Zimbabwe is in its 10th year of fundamental economic decline, the fastest in recent history in a country not at war, following what the International Monetary Fund confirms is a history of reckless political decisions and economic bungling. Zimbabwe’s inflation is the highest in the world, the currency continues to halve its value each week, now standing at $1 to Z$1,5-million. About four million people are forecast to be hit by famine in the next few months, and needing to be fed by Western aid agencies. The country was regarded by the World Bank as Africa’s brightest hope for broad economic prosperity, but its thriving agricultural-based economy was dealt a critical blow in 2000 when Mugabe, now 83, began the illegal seizure of nearly all the country’s highly productive white-owned farm land. Zimbabwe is now experiencing a critical shortage of cash, with banks on Friday restricting customers to withdrawing Z$10-million and a sudden surge in barter trade using fuel, fuel coupons, even beef or chickens instead of cash. Supermarkets and shops are critically short of goods following a crackdown in June in which the regime, as a strategy to beat inflation, ordered all businesses to sell their goods at well below what it cost to procure them. This week, Godwills Masirembwa, the head of the state-run Prices and Incomes Commission, which sets prices and wages—ignored on pain of a jail sentence of up to two years—announced that companies had up to November 22 to cut the prices of imported goods. Imported goods have been steadily replacing locally made goods that disappeared from the market in the wake of the first blitz. The commission has ordered that businessmen will be allowed a range of mark-ups of goods bought abroad and imported for sale in Zimbabwe. Masirembwa has insisted that the value of the goods be valued in Zimbabwe dollar—but at the officially fixed exchange rate of $1 to Z$33 000, instead of the far higher semi-legal parallel exchange rate, almost the only source of hard currency businessman have access to for import purchases. “If they go ahead with that, there will be absolutely nothing on sale because businesses are being asked to give away their goods,” said an economist requesting anonymity. “Strengthening the existing price controls will see much bigger shortages and a much bigger spike in inflation.” The Zimbabwe Independent on Friday published pictures of a large dusty, grimy chicken project it said belonged to Masirembwa, and quoted workers as saying that he was selling chickens at three times the official price. No comment was available from the prices commission.