HomeBusiness DigestEditor's Memo: Sitting on a Time Bomb

Editor’s Memo: Sitting on a Time Bomb

ZIMBABAWE may already have up to two million illiterate people and the number is rising.

Last year 700 000 pupils in their mid-teens were supposed to write the school-leaving Ordinary level examinations; three quarters of them didn’t.

Also last year hundreds of thousands others were to sit the now-much-degraded Grade Seven exams. A lot didn’t; many did but the percentage pass rate was zilch in the rural areas where the majority of our people reside.

We saw this coming!

Now we have a huge problem on our hands yet we don’t have the foggiest idea of what we should do with such a sea of illiterate, unemployable people. Our education system is still in the doldrums; this week teachers started a strike for better wages meaning we face another difficult year for our children.

This scenario is not without precedent; it happened in Rhodesia. During Rhodesia’s apartheid the development was deliberate; it was a tool of oppression.

The policy was to keep the natives illiterate so they wouldn’t know their rights. So the Department of Native Education put in place a bottleneck kind of education in which fewer and fewer children progressed to the next level.

In the end the indigenous population was generally illiterate and unemployable in any skilled fields, only providing cheap labour in the mines and on the farms.

It suited the Rhodesians and actually worked for them, but for only a while.

The illiterate population eventually became restive and fought a painful guerrilla war whose effects are still felt today. Faced with no other way to vent their frustrations with the Rhodesian regime the only weapon they had was to kill.

It is these same guerrillas who wreaked and continue to wreak havoc on our agricultural sector and this can be traced to the depredations of the Rhodesian education system.

That is what’s going to happen in our country; in fact it’s already happening and the climax is just around the corner.

In the late-1990s when the Zimbabwean economy began to implode and unemployment began to get out of hand, it became impossible to keep children in school. Teenage boys and girls deserted schools and went into activities that gave them immediate returns and sustenance. Young women went into prostitution while their male counterparts mostly went into bhagabhaga (gold panning).

Their motivation was simple: those who had an education were not getting jobs so why bother with something that would only lead you into a dead end?

Our river systems were invaded and polluted with mercury, silting many rivers. But that was not the only story emerging from bhagabhaga! It was a real gold rush with all the violence that has accompanied it throughout history.

The makorokoza (panners) organised themselves into gangs prepared to kill for their claims. They literally became murderers because violence became the only means of survival.

The climax of this came in the Chiadzwa diamond fields. The makorokoza had become so violent the police could not contain them, hence the involvement of the army.

But the problem is not only about people who lack education turning to violence, it is also about the uselessness of our own examination system.

Those who manage to remain in school, at the end of their toil, write a useless exam that no one recognises. Yes the government will try to force industry and commerce to employ the Zimsec school leavers but in the end this cannot be feasible.

The government has allowed the existence of a parallel education system which is run by an internationally renowned examination board.

School leavers from this better education system are obviously superior to those from public schools and all things being equal will get jobs in commerce and industry ahead of their public school counterparts, resulting in elitism. A further result of this will be frustration and disillusionment.

Our government is just being driven by nationalist paranoia.

Just as it resisted dollarisation when it was the only way to go when the local currency had collapsed in the second half of the last decade, it is resisting the externalisation of our examinations system when, again, it is the only way to go in the circumstances.

The result will be that children will just not bother sitting the Zimsec examinations and their parents would not have any sort of ammunition to compel them to.

An illiterate, unemployable population is a source of instability for the country. It drove people to war in the 1970s. In Zimbabwe it has already caused little localised battles between the makorokoza and the police and the army.

Who knows, these little skirmishes may eventually escalate into something a little more sinister.

What is to be done? Zimbabwe’s overdependence on formal education is at the core of this puzzle. Every child has got to go through a classroom with a teacher for a number of years and then write an examination which the child may or may not pass. Those who pass are good, those who fail have themselves to blame. It’s as simple as that!

But there is room for distance education in Zimbabwe; it’s cheaper and it gave thousands an education in Rhodesia and young Zimbabwe. How many of us still remember the Rapid Results College, the Central African Correspondence College etc?

With so many teachers absconding there has to be a paradigm shift. We’re sitting on a time bomb.


Nevanji Madanhire

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