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Free education is no longer free

While most people in the tiny kingdom of Swaziland agree that education should be made free of charge, the correspondingly tiny tax base simply does not support such an ambition.
James Hall

Without money, there is no education. Government has no money. Education is supported by stipends from the Ministry of Education, which is endowed by the treasury, which in turn is supported by taxpayers. The tax base is small in Swaziland, and property taxes that in other nations support local school systems are miniscule.

This Southern African kingdom of less than one million people has a literacy rate of 78 per cent and a well-developed school system that, at the price of classroom overcrowding, can nonetheless accommodate a population that is 60 per cent under the age of 15.

"The goal is free education for every Swazi child," says Phineas Magagula, president of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers. "But realistically, the matter is more political than pragmatic. Government officials like to promise free education, but have no means for delivering this promise," he adds. Or, as King Mswati, the nation’s ruler, told lawmakers when he opened Parliament: "Free education is not free."

Attorney Fikile Mtembu, former mayor of Manzini, Swaziland’s largest urban area located 35 kilometres east of Mbabane, says: "Schools are supported by student fees paid by parents, not local taxes. Whether a student gets an education depends entirely on the parents’ ability to pay. This is more difficult in traditional polygamous families where there are many children."

Only a fraction of town residents are property owners who pay taxes called rates. The minister of housing told Parliament that these rates could barely pay for essential services and salaries of local government workers. Without government subsidies, towns cannot improve infrastructure or institute development programmes, which residents expect.

Needless to say, there is almost nothing to give to local schools. But the towns have tried. From 1996 to 2001, local government expenditure on education tripled, drawn, however, from a small base of about US$35,000 for all urban areas in the kingdom.

In rural areas, where 80 per cent of the population resides under chiefs, the situation is worse for school endowment from local revenues, because residents on communal Swazi Nation Land pay no property taxes. Legally, they own no property, but reside on family homesteads at the discretion of their chiefs.

This leaves the central government in Mbabane to build and staff schools. But admission still depends on the ability to pay fees, which one education survey found typically constitutes the largest outlay of family income behind food and rent, and is far ahead of clothing, transport, and other expenditures.

Government will spend the second-largest portion of the national budget on education this year. Education will receive 24 per cent of government spending, compared to 27.6 per cent spent to maintain the government’s workforce.

This percentage of government spending for education has been consistent for the past decade, with the exception of 1998, when a large portion of the education budget was shifted to expand the security forces. Teachers were partly to blame for staging an ill-advised march on the airport during the longest labour strike in Swaziland’s history to meet King Mswati upon his return from overseas, and press for a salary raise demand. The army broke up the march, and teachers never received their sought-for pay increase. Political observers say the action precipitated the declining influence of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers.

1998 was also the year that the deputy prime minister called for free education, and was rebuked by King Mswati, who wondered where the money would come from. Minister of Education John Carmichael also favours free education, but has started with a smaller programme. This year, he instituted the issuing of free textbooks to all primary students. Parents previously purchased these books.

While benevolent, the programme engendered controversy. "There is no increase in tax revenue to support major new spending programmes, as well-intentioned as they may be," worried the Times of Swaziland.

Government’s prime concern is poverty alleviation, as stated in the Economic and Social Reform Agenda from which all national policy is founded. Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini, a former World Bank executive, believes in the correlation between an educated populace and poverty eradication.

But without a property tax base to support a tuition-free school system, tax revenue has to be generated from the private sector, especially business. Government is putting maximum effort into luring the foreign direct investment that would expand industry and create jobs in large-scale agriculture. Until that happens, some parents have hard choices to make.

"It is common for children to rotate with their siblings for who will go to school during a particular year," says Gladys Shongwe, a teacher in Manzini. "A girl will attend this year, and take the next year off while her brother attends. This interrupted education is obviously bad, and it accounts for many students in their twenties who are still in high school."

Social pressure has influenced even rural parents to see to their children’s education. Dr. David Hynd, a former health minister whose parents started the first school for Swazis in the 1930s, recalls, "My father would seek out parents from the countryside and ask to educate their children, and the parents demanded money because they were being denied their children’s labour on the farm. ‘Who is going to tend my cattle?’ the father would ask."

The purpose of having many children, and indeed the purpose of the polygamous Swazi household, was to ensure workers at a time of high infant mortality and short life spans. Today, parents accept government’s message that education is necessary to increase family incomes, and they have had a generation of examples where children who have attended school find jobs that pay more money than subsistence agriculture on the family farm.

"People have seen that by having fewer children, and seeing to their education and health needs, they will be better off than having many, many children and remaining in poverty," teacher Shongwe says.

The royal government is seen as a benefactor. Indeed, a precedent exists in the government’s underwriting of tuition and living expenses for Swazi students at the University of Swaziland in Kwaluseni. Some Swazis are expecting a similar endowment for primary and secondary school students as part of a social welfare package that includes for Swazis free farming and homesteading land under a chief, free grazing land and veterinary services for their animals, free health care, and a long list of support services and grants for development projects, often paid for by donor agencies.

But with foreign aid drying up, a further expansion of the welfare state seems unlikely. Until standards of living are somehow raised, families will still struggle to raise school fees in the face of unfulfilled government dreams of free and universal education. But as educationists note, at least Swazi parents recognize the paramount importance of educating their children.

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