Education, Sport, Arts and Culture minister David Coltart said this at the Zimbabwe Independent-run Independent Dialogue in Bulawayo on Wednesday whose theme was “The State of Education in Zimbabwe”.
“There is a limit to what I could do to address their (teachers’) legitimate concerns regarding conditions of service,” Coltart said. “One of the first things that I did after my appointment was to approach the international community to try and raise money to supplement their income, but unfortunately that was unsuccessful.”
The international community said payment of teachers did not fit under the scope of a humanitarian crisis and to that extent they could not justify expenditure to teachers in the same way as they did to nurses and doctors.
“They were not prepared to incur recurrent expenditure costs unlike one-off payments towards textbooks. They said they are not prepared to pour money into a bottomless pit of salaries,” he said.
However, Coltart said though conditions of service were still far from being satisfactory, he was pleased that this year has been “the best teaching year in a decade in terms of days of learning as there was minimum disruption through industrial action”.
Only 27 days of learning were recorded in 2008, Coltart said.
On infrastructure, Coltart said virtually all schools had become dangerous learning centres due to a decade of neglect.
He said several billions of dollars were required to rehabilitate close to 8 000 schools, but such funds were not available.
The education sector is still in a state of crisis “and a mammoth task lies ahead before we stabilise issues and that all children in Zimbabwe can expect quality education”.
However, participants at the dialogue, mostly from teacher organisations, expressed concern at the safety of teachers during the run-up to possible elections next year.
They asked Coltart what measures the ministry would put in place to ensure their safety.
Coltart said the ban on the usage of learning facilities for rallies would be enforced.
“Last year, I issued a policy directive stating that schools were not to be used for partisan political activity… I am in the process of revising legislation, to have legal measures to re-enforce that policy directive,” he said.
“Schools should only be used as education institutions and not to be used for partisan political activity. Yes, I will enforce the ban on the usage of schools for rallies by political parties in the run up to future elections.”
He said in instances where teachers have fallen victim to political violence he has acted swiftly to protect them.
Coltart cited a group of teachers in Chiweshe and Rushinga who were tortured during the 2008 presidential election, but were intimidated upon their return after the elections.
He said he had to move them out of the hostile environment.
However, Coltart said as minister “it is difficult for me to prevent these incidents from taking place as they happen beyond the realm of the education system”.
However, one of the panellists, Lawton Hikwa, the Dean of Faculty for Information and Communication Sciences at the National University of Science and Technology, said Coltart had a tall order in achieving a total ban due to historical reasons.
“Schools tend to be the most common available utilities used by rural communities for worship, for traditional meetings and also because of our long history of one political party rule which became part of the regime of things to view schools as facilities that could be used for political gatherings,” he said.
Hikwa questioned the “much celebrated high literacy levels in Zimbabwe” and challenged politicians to explain how the country was managing to attain the high levels.
According to the latest United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Digest released in July, Zimbabwe has overtaken Tunisia to become the country with the highest literacy rate in Africa, jumping from 85% to 92%.
“Zimbabwe has been topical in celebrating its literacy rate and what I don’t hear from politicians is how we justify the high levels. Are we talking of literacy rate as ability to read and write?” he asked.
In response, Coltart said UNDP findings were “deceiving”.
“A few months ago, UNDP released figures that showed that Zimbabwe had the highest literacy rates in Africa.
But I found it hard to reconcile that information against data coming through our own education sector,” the minister said. “UNDP seems to have reached their conclusion on attendance figures for the first four years of education and it seems Zimbabwe does have the high attendance levels in Africa. However, attendance figures do not translate to high literacy levels…We need to question this basis.”
Coltart said most schools did not have adequate test books and “we are deceiving ourselves if we rely on United Nations figures”.