THE confusion that surrounded the date of opening schools for the first term this month is a veritable hallmark of the manner in which the Ministry of Educ
ation has presided over the education system since Aeneas Chigwedere was appointed minister in 2000.
The fact that education secretary, Stephen Mahere, was not aware that pupils from different schools had been given different opening dates by school authorities clearly means that the men at Ambassador House are not in control and the ministry is on auto-pilot.
Because Ministry of Education officials decided to sleep on the job instead of doing what they are paid to do, parents, teachers and students were in a quandary two weeks ago, unsure whether schools were opening on January 8 or15.
Apparently the parent ministry had issued two conflicting directives on the date of opening schools with an earlier statement advising school heads that schools would open early on January 8 in order to accommodate the harmonised elections in March.
But after correctly anticipating that stranded teachers, who were paid a rediculous salary of $15 million in December, would not report for duty anyway, the ministry made a last-minute turnabout announcing that schools would open a week later on January 15.
The new date was chosen to coincide with the unplanned salary advances awarded to all civil servants on January 11 ostensibly to cajole teachers four days before schools opened.
But the net effect of that confusion was that several school children and teachers in remote parts of Zimbabwe — far from radio broadcasts and TV signals — travelled to their schools on January 8 hoping to find their schools open.
One can imagine the amount of inconvenience when they were informed on arrival that the ministry had actually postponed the date to January 15.
Tragically, it is difficult to imagine that the mayhem that has characterised Chigwedere’s tenure as Minister of Education will go away this year.
Emasculated teachers have already rejected the new salary increment awarded to all civil servants recently arguing that it does not tally with the escalating cost of living.
Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) secretary-general Raymond Majongwe has dismissed the new salary hike awarded to teachers as a pittance, setting the stage for another showdown with government.
Last year students lost more than 90 days of learning time when teachers went on strike on three occasions in February, May and October pressing for better salaries.
And 90 days is a lot of time given that an average school term is 65 days. What it means is that students were in school for only one-and-a-half terms the whole of last year because of the intermittent fights between government and teachers.
As we speak the PTUZ says teachers across the country are on a go-slow until their demands for a $520 million gross salary are met.
Impoverished teachers who by last year were earning less than vegetable vendors and bus conductors are now ranked in the same category with poor farm workers and prostitutes.
Teachers will be in a worse predicament this year with a basic salary of $150 million for the lowest paid.
It will obviously be difficult to make ends meet when the cheapest boarding school is charging $500 million per term in school fees.
What it means is that the poor teachers will for the second year running fail to afford basic education for their children when they are expected to be providing the same education to children of well-heeled citizens.
Unfortunately teachers cannot have all their children learning at cheaper day schools — where they teach — for obvious reasons.
For example, rural teachers cannot keep their children with them at their work place in primary school forever so as to avoid the expenses of secondary education and on many occasions the unavoidable boarding school life.
Teachers in Zimbabwe have been reduced to laughing stocks in communities that they are supposed to lead as role models.
Even the impressionable students in our schools should find it difficult to accept that education is a worthwhile endeavour when the very purveyors of that education live like paupers.
But Zimbabwean teachers are not fools. A visit across the Limpopo will leave anyone wondering whether our schools still have teachers.
South Africa — which needs 20 000 teachers every year — is teeming with highly qualified Zimbabwean teachers who are now holding fort in both private and government schools and earning real money for their labour.
The PTUZ says more than 25 000 teachers had left the education system by December 2007.
More are likely to skip the country this term as it is becoming clearer by the day that the Zanu PF government has no capacity to solve the problems bedevelling the country let alone the education sector.
As the few remaining teachers got the second half of their January salaries on Tuesday, teachers’ unions predict that most will use the money for bus fare as they join the great trek across the Limpopo.
Confirmed reports say some three schools in Matabeleland North province failed to open for the first term this year because all teachers, including the headmaster, had left for Botswana.
More schools have been left with less than half of the required teaching staff while rural schools are the hardest hit.
Others schools have only one teacher manning the whole institution.
Things are looking very ugly as the education sector titters on the brink of collapse.
The Zimbabwe Schools Examination Council (Zimsec) last December failed to meet its marking deadline because of an acute shortage of exam markers who are usually school teachers.
Presently Zimsec has not finished marking some subjects including mathematics and science subjects well after the December 19 deadline.
Because of the overwhelming work given to markers in terms of re-allocations it is obvious that the quality of results will be severely compromised.
From being the best in Africa, standards in our education system have deteriorated to the laughable levels of a failed state.
Yet those who have presided over the destruction of this education system take pride in flagging their superior educational credentials, most of them acquired in colonial Rhodesia.
President Robert Mugabe is arguably the most educated head of state on the continent -— at least on paper — with a string of university degrees acquired while serving time in detention during the liberation struggle.
But the barbarism he has displayed in running down this country contradicts what is expected of a man who has been refined or civilised by education. Mugabe is giving education a bad name by following the path of cynically inadequate and primitive policies that his government has repackaged and retailed as modern and progressive.
Zimbabwe is not yet a failed state but is in fact a dysfunctional state dominated by an illegitimate elite — a conclave of incompetent feudal potentates calling themselves a patriotic front.
The truth of the matter is that we are at the tail-end of a failed presidency which now has one foot firmly in the grave and is determined to be buried together with the country.
* Jacob Rukweza is a sub-editor at the Zimbabwe Independent.