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Last update: 1 July 2022 h. 10:44
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Teachers caught in a dilemma

Faced with low pay and poor working conditions, Zimbabwean teachers are undecided on whether to join a controversial national service as the government promises pay hikes to those who join it.
Rodrick Mukumbira

The embattled Zimbabwe government is luring the country's 95 000 teachers with promises of hefty pay packages to undergo the controversial national service in an attempt to teach children what it calls national heritage, sovereignty and patriotism.

Since 1999 following the advent of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the strongest opposition to emerge in Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, Zimbabwean teachers, who make up the bulk of the civil service, have endured the brunt of government's non-commitment to offering good salaries. They have remained the lowest paid civil servants as the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union government accuses them of being supporters of the opposition MDC.

Now the government is dangling a juicy carrot, which it knows would be difficult to resist - either the teachers join a programme that is so controversial or no salary increment for them.

The Robert Mugabe government conceived the idea of a national service in 2000 following its defeat in a referendum to a constitution that would allow it to grab white owned commercial farms without compensation.

Initially, this programme being administered through the ministry of youth, gender and employment creation, which appears as innocent as ever, was meant for school leavers as a way of creating employment and making them self reliant. Zimbabwe'sunemployment levels currently hovers around 55 per cent.

What is taught under this programme has remained shrouded in secrecy. Besides national heritage, sovereignty and patriotism, political commentators say the syllabus places emphasis on grabbing farms from white people, racism and the hatred for opposition supporters who are being seen as Britain's stooges.

But graduates from this six months programme with training centres in each of the country's nine provinces have gained notoriety as President Mugabe's secret weapon against supporters of the opposition.

Known for their brutality, the youths, now referred to as "Green Bombers" because of their green camouflage uniform, successfully campaigned brutally for the President Mugabe in the 2002 presidential elections in rural Zimbabwe by using rape and torture techniques, and even murdering some opposition figures.

Teachers in rural Zimbabwe also suffered as the marauding youths accused them of supporting the Morgan Tsvangirai led opposition. Many teachers have been rendered jobless after being dismissed from their stations by the youths, with the education ministry turning a blind eye.

Even President Mugabe, a former teacher himself, has accused teachers of teaching politics in schools. He once told a gathering of school children to celebrate the Day of the African Child that Zimbabwe's teachers were now "cheating children instead of teaching".

Although teachers are free to join any political party of their choice, their minister Aeneas Chigwedere says they are to blame for being victimised because they have actively involved themselves in politics. "I've no assurance (security) to give them and I don't want to give them any," he told a government owned newspaper, "The Herald", in December. "We employ them for the core business of teaching. I advise them not to become players, otherwise they will be bruised."

The idea to lure teachers into the controversial national service emerged last November when a teachers' union, Progressive Teachers' Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ), that broke away early in the year from the Zimbabwe Teachers' Association (ZIMTA), which is friendly to the Government staged a three week strike to press for salary increases. ZIMTA's president, Leonard Nkala, is a ZANU-PF councillor in Bulawayo, the capital of southern Zimbabwe.

Through the pro-government Zimbabwe Federation of Trade Union, the Youth, Gender and Employment creation ministry suggested that teachers should also undergo national service to avoid incidences of uprisings.

The trade union went a step further by forming a teachers' union, Zimbabwe Teachers' Union (ZTU) affiliated to it through which the Ministry of Education in December announced a 130 per cent salary hike that would be effected to those who underwent national service.

On paper the increase is meant for all the teachers and Chigwedere said Probably this is the best Christmas message the teaching profession has received ever since Western education descended on this country."

He said the government would introduce a Hardship Allowance for rural teachers possibly by 2004 to persuade them to stay for reasonable periods and partly to compensate them for the inconveniences stemming from their difficult environments.

He admitted that Zimbabwean teachers were among the worst paid in the region and these new measures were meant to retain their services in the face of a pronounced drain to greener pastures in neighbouring countries.

A number of teachers, especially from Masvingo, a resort town incentral Zimbabwe, have fallen for the bait. About 60 reportedly underwent national service in January for three weeks.

One unnamed 54-year-old teacher was to tell the independent "Daily News" that the group was made to do military drills, which occupied a bigger part of the day with this being interrupted by abrupt political lectures. "For a man of my age having to run 10 kilometres a day, that was too much," he told the paper. He also said he received a salary increase in January although most teachers say they were cheated by the ministry.

The education ministry is now mute on the issue of salary hikes. When contacted at the end of January Chigwedere said huge sums of money were needed to effect this adjustment. "This constraint therefore compels us to postpone for a while the implementation of this measure," he said.

PTUZ national co-ordinator, Innocent Sibanda, confirms that the teachers have indeed been lured to the national service because of poor remuneration and have been made to sign "dubious agreements" which did not address their grievances. "The government is capitalising on the desperation of teachers and is hoodwinking them to continue working," he says.

ZIMTA's Nkala says there is nothing wrong with the service as it teaches one what he terms the "values of being a Zimbabwean". "We should know that we gained our independence through bloodshed and one wouldn't want what we have achieved so far to fall back to the white man," he says, although failing to elaborate Zimbabwe's achievement.

But it is not only teachers that are being lured into the controversial programme. In January the government announced that all school and college leavers would have to undergo the programme before proceeding with their education.

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