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Candid Comment

Opportunities that won’t return

By Joram Nyathi

THERE were two strikes going on simultaneously in Zimbabwe this week. They have been going on for much longer, and are likely still going on

despite assurances about an agreement. One is by doctors, the other by teachers.

There was one remarkable thing about both: save for the initial report of the imminent strike by teachers, there has been a blanket silence in the media. This is despite their devastating impact on our lives and the prejudice on the future of our children.

As usual, there was a belated reaction by government to both. It reviewed their salaries when much damage had already been done, not to mention the loss of goodwill.

I don’t know if the private sector has been able to match the poverty datum line, which is what the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) was clamouring for two weeks ago when it called for a two-day stayaway. The call was ignored partly because the ZCTU has aligned itself with capital from which workers are demanding better pay. That is the first paradox.

The second paradox is that the more damaging and widespread strike by teachers and doctors has been less “news” to the media than the ZCTU’s failed industrial action because it is seen as lacking political content.

Comments by deputy Health minister Edwin Muguti on the doctors’ strike are quite revealing if only inadvertent. He said: “There has never been a day when industrial action has resulted in positive things; we have to talk and discuss grievances because if you fail to go to work you will not be fixing the minister but patients.”

Put in another way, the “patients” could be our children, not the minister or government.

No doubt these are self-serving remarks, but useful nonetheless.

They are useful in so far as they demonstrate how short-termism has destroyed our capacity to think about the future. Many teachers say they cannot afford to commute to work for the full month on their meagre salaries. Their transport allowances are a pittance.

Parents appear to understand this more than they appreciate its full implications on children going to school to play while teachers engage in private “deals” in town or in South Africa. While “news” is that a strike called by the ZCTU or the MDC might result in political change, nobody stops to think that recurrent strikes by teachers mean we are bringing up a generation of semi-literate “future” leaders.

Opportunities missed by our children while teachers are nursing grievances over salaries will never return. The same scandal is going on at tertiary institutions where students have dropped out because they cannot afford the fees, can’t find affordable accommodation or there are no lecturers. Many young girls have opted to engage in daytime prostitution in Harare’s seedy lodges.

I fully appreciate the plight of teachers, but I am dismayed when a parent says they have a right to strike anytime they feel like it but thinks nothing about the future we are laying for Zimbabwe. Is this the generation which those aspiring to political office are happy to lead, people who cannot think beyond informal trades — bricklayers, carpenters, prostitutes, pimps and farm labourers — after a short training stint at Border Gezi indoctrination camps?

Is it the wish of Zimbabweans that we educate our children just enough to serve as party militia? When have militia become guardians of democracy, human and property rights, political tolerance and engines of national progress which Zimbabwe badly needs?

Like nurses, many teachers and other professionals are attracted to “greener pastures” abroad which were created by the sweat of humans no less mortal than ourselves. There, the former coloniser welcomes them with feigned sympathy but in fact regards them with the contempt of a slave who is set free but returns to his former master because he can’t fend for himself. Reasons for seeking political asylum have turned some of our brothers and sisters into creative geniuses about the evils going on in the motherland.

I am fed up with people telling me about how everything should be blamed on the Zanu PF government. I know that. The question is what is to be done? Do we have to sacrifice the future of our children, and as a corollary, that of our country, just to “fix” Mugabe? Yet I think something positive can be done, if only to assume responsibility for our destiny.

In the short-term, I believe parents’ associations can fund the education of our children by subsidising teachers’ transport and accommodation. Looking at the average teacher-pupil ratio of about 1:40, this shouldn’t be much of a sacrifice for your child’s future.

Secondly, the private sector can contribute money into these associations to top up what government pays, after all they are the major beneficiaries from those skills. People can’t be every business’ greatest asset only when they start making profits for organisations.

Thirdly, donors who fund most non-governmental organisations and civil society groups can also play a vital role. Most of them are involved in human rights issues, of which education is one. I know some will raise the usual noise about helping an evil regime. That is hypocrisy. Why should it be detestable to subsidise local education but morally right to take Zimbabwean professionals — teachers, nurses, doctors, engineers, etc — trained at a huge tax on the poor? Some kind of human rights there!

At the end of the day, the future of our children is in our hands. It is that simple.

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