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Last update: 1 July 2022 h. 10:44
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Fallen academic giants

Zimbabwe's education system, once hailed as the pride of Africa, has fallen victim of the country's deepening political and economic crisis.
Rodrick Mukumbira

Most of the country's universities, once the pinnacle of a system bequeathed by colonial rule, are finding it almost impossible to keep functioning.

Meanwhile, in schools across the country, teachers are operating hand to mouth, worrying less about lessons than about what their pupils have to eat.

At the University of Zimbabwe, in one of the capital Harare's posh suburbs, clouds of tear gas frequently smother the campus and dormitories. In the past few years, police have sealed off the campus so often that it is almost routine. Once last year riot police dragged students from their dormitory rooms and beat them. One student died from his injuries in the scuffle.

The salaries of lecturers and professors are so low that almost all have to keep two jobs in order to sustain themselves.

So many university posts remain vacant after resignations that departments are decimated and academics say the university is at the point of collapse. Classes have been suspended and students sent home several times in the past three years, making it difficult for students to finish their degrees in a reasonable period of time.

"The university has become an encapsulation of Zimbabwe's problems," agrees student leader, Caiphais Matume. "There is political interference from political appointees, corruption, the continual running battles with the police on campus."

Other tertiary institutions across the country have faced similar troubles, while in school teachers have been beaten, forced to attend "re-education camps" and even killed, according to press reports.

But this is a far cry from independence in 1980 when President Robert Mugabe's government made education for all its first priority. Teachers were respected and relatively well remunerated. Primary education was nearly free and secondary education was within the reach of almost everyone in urban and rural areas.

Zimbabwe achieved impressive literacy rates, reaching 90 percent thereby making the country's education system one of the best in the developing world. But the education system, from primary school up through university, has experienced years of decline since the introduction of reforms in 1990 when the government was forced to reduce spending on education.

Since 2000 education has also been one of the main victims of the country's economic chaos and political repression.

According to Brian Raftopoulos, chairperson of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, a human rights pressure lobby, says Zimbabwe's education system has been one of the many casualties of the country's multiplying troubles.

He says the education system is struggling with tensions because of the government's desire to use schooling "as an ideological arm of the state".

"I have lost all the honour I used to associate with this profession," says Anastasia Sibanda, a veteran teacher with over 40 years experience. She says education is no longer of concern as everyone from the teachers to the students is feeling the effects of the economic and political crisis.

The issue has been made worse by uncertainty which is prevailing in schools as teachers, especially those in the rural areas, have to treat their students with suspicion.

Teachers have been accused by the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front(ZANU-PF) party of being agents of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) because they were once considered key informants and community leaders during the war that brought independence from Britain in 1980.

The Progressive Teachers' Union of Zimbabwe has documented the intimidation, harassment, detention, arrests, torture and the unprecedented unleashing of state security agents on the schools. As a result of the assaults by state agencies, the union reported that between 2000 and 2002 five teachers were killed, 119 raped and "many more were maimed, kidnapped, tortured and displaced".

The union says many teachers and students have been forced to attend "re-education camps" where lessons centre on a narrow, party-oriented 'patriotic history' of Zimbabwe, which includes lessons on the formation of the ruling party, ZANU PF, and its military struggle against white-minority Rhodesia.

At a recent lecture at the Canon Collins Memorial Lecture at London's School of Oriental and African Studies. Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition's Raftopoulos spoke of the successes Zimbabwe made in the education field in the early years of independence.

Primary enrolment increased from 820 000 in 1979 to 1,2-million in 1980, rising to 2,5-million in 1996 , according to government statistics. At the secondary level the expansion was even more impressive. Enrolment increased from 66 000 in 1979 to 670 000 in 1989. Yet Raftopoulos and other education specialists believe that the country's schools can rebound if Zimbabwe pulls out of the crisis through a peaceful, negotiated process of transition that will lead to free and fair elections.

"The damage to education is severe, but it does not have to be permanent. Teachers can once again have the respect of the government and the community. Students will once again have the opportunity to learn," he said.

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