Opinion & Editorial

Opinion: Teachers’ strike versus an intransigent government

The teaching profession, the world over is held in high esteem by society. The trend of holding the teaching profession in high regard has been upheld by society for years immemorial. Biblically the Rabis were highly respected as society looked up to them for advice. Historically, society is replete with stories of how people held teachers in high esteem.

At Independence Zimbabwe implemented wholesome reforms in education which saw the educators highly respected in the post colonial state. The government after independence had a soft spot for teachers and the teaching profession at large as it looked up to them to train manpower that was required to build industry and develop new institutions in the newly born state.

However, the dawn of the century began to witness teachers in Zimbabwe being shown the middle finger by the government. The teachers continued to be at the receiving end receiving a pittance as salary. Most teachers who joined the profession recently have nothing to show for the years at work. Sadly, most teachers are equally getting a pittance as package after serving government for between 30 to 40 years.

The period of the Government of National Unity (GNU) was indeed a relief to most teachers as their labour was a bit valued.
Years after the GNU, witnessed the status of teachers continuing to be battered left, right and center due to poor and very low salaries. October 2018 was the master stroke when the government said that the US dollar and the Zimbabwean bond note was not the same in value. By that position teachers’ salaries were reduced in value as the prevailing salary fell in purchasing power compared to the same salary just a month before. Teachers became the laughing stock of society with touts and surprisingly some government ministers taking the lead in mocking their poor salaries. Some touts could be heard saying, ‘nhasi ndashanda yaticha” translated to, “today my daily earnings are similar to the monthly salary of a teacher”. This is sad really. Since 2018, teachers’ unions have cried in vain to the government in the hope that the challenges that the teachers are facing may be addressed. Incapacitation has become the familiar term used by teachers as they battle to knock sense to their employer, the government. It has become a trend that school terms have been facing disruptions as teachers declare incapacitation which is legitimate because everyone works earn a living, support the family, build houses and buy cars where possible.

Schools closed in March as the country followed the chorus of closing schools because the world was faced by the invasion of the Covid 19 pandemic. During the lock down prices of goods and services rose astronomically and during the same lockdown the government allowed most businesses to charge in US dollars. 28 September the government said that schools were set to open starting with exam classes. The teachers immediately declared incapacitation. Teachers across the length and breadth of Zimbabwe are incapacitated. They are incapacitated in the sense that they can not afford the daily realities in transport costs, food costs and other related services that matter. Teachers are also not happy because the government has failed to support schools with basic PPEs so that they will not contract the Corona virus. Teachers complain that their low salaries are a disaster in the face of the pandemic. The medical aid scheme is nolonger able to support the teachers as medical services are now charged in US dollars. As teachers’ strike continues unabated it is important to note and understand the type of government that they are dealing with, an intransigent government.

Doctors went on strike last year and the government largely ignored the strike and no solution came thereafter, until some trooped back to work. In the process, other doctors left the profession to greener pastures in foreign lands. This year nurses went on strike for up to 3 months in which doctors joined. This time like in the doctors’ strike of last year, the government largely ignored the strike again and removed some nurses on the payroll. In the end, the doctors and nurses trooped back to work. This government does not respect workers and trade union rights. The nurses were flogged by sijamboks and button sticks by some overzealous police officers who literally need their service when they fall ill. Union leaders are often hunted like wild animals and arrested. The government in its intransigence has taken IGNORING as a labour dispute resolution method.

Teachers are likely to meet the same fate with threats beginning to come from government ministers. The threats are hollow because they won’t solve anything, they won’t add a cent to the meagre salaries. The threats will remain hopelessly empty because the current teachers’ salaries can hardly afford them traveling for the whole month to work especially teachers who commute to work from home like in peri urban schools where transport is charging in US dollars. In the highly likely situation, such teachers will have to approach cash barons to get soft loans to subsidise government so that their faces are seen at work places to please the government. The other worse scenario is that the teachers can no longer afford to pay fees for their own children even at the schools they are teaching as school fees approved for most schools has risen astronomically. It’s even worse for boarding schools whose fees range between $20 000.00 and $40 000.00 . In the end, the intransigent behavior by the government will likely destroy the gains made in the education system in post colonial Zimbabwe, gains which the former President, R. G Mugabe took pride in, bragged about and guarded jealously. There appears to be a replay and revisit to the 2008 scenario where schools were manned by headmasters and deputy headmasters only, while all teachers left the chalk and chalk board looking for opportunities to survive harsh economic realities which the government chooses not to address but instead looks the opposite direction blaming non existent foreign hands and foreign spooks that are neither here nor there. Pointing fingers at the USA is rather unfortunate. It would appear as if the teachers have no brains to see that the pittance and peanut salary can hardly afford them transport costs to work, fees for their children and a respectable life in the society.

The so called examinations that are going to be written goes on to show an uncaring government that lacks concern but pushes on despite being given sound advice which it ignores. Despite the fact that students lost 6 months of learning, the government has chosen 3 months as best suitable for students to cover up lost ground and complete syllabuses, which is however a difficult task that can miraculously only happen when teachers are well remunerated and adequately motivated. The same students are now greatly affected by the incapacitation by the teachers across the country as no learning happens in the absence of the classroom practitioners. They are not learning as they should be doing under normal circumstances.

The questions that need sober attention are: will this government get back to senses and address the current impass with teachers? Will it turn to the denial tag like it has always done to the extent of believing its own lies and say that there is no strike in schools, all teachers are teaching normally or it will pick up its bag of tricks of using IGNORING as a method of temporarily addressing a problem like it did to doctors and nurses but with dire consequences to the students. In any case, the government behavior in handling these matters has revealed that the government does not care about these children because most of the ministers’ children attend school in private schools and in foreign schools, so it’s generally the poor men’s children who are affected. If they had a strong heart to ignore the doctors and nurses strike where chances of people dying are very high, your guess is as good as mine that in the last 4 months many people died under circumstances where they could have been saved and noone cared enough, what more can we expect in the education sector where no one is dying. We expect the worst from these guys.

Way Forward

The government must respect the teachers’ unions and seriously engage them in the national interest.

The government must adopt a more sober approach than the threats and war talk which will not solve anything but remains hollow and make teachers dig in and even getting reenergized in the face of blantant open neglect by their own government which is being seen by everyone.

Government must avoid imposing decisions on workers before seriously engaging all stakeholders. The decision to open schools left out the important input from teachers’ unions and some of the current challenges could have been avoided.

A living wage to eductors will see them back within the four walls of the classroom. Let it be known by those in government that threats will send all teachers back to schools but the same threats will never make the same teachers deliver success at work. Being present at work does not constitute to successful work delivery as a disgruntled and demotivated teacher has a tendency to produce unintended results.

Mupoga Jonah Historian, published author and Freelance writer.

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