Protecting our children’s education

ZIMBABWE has an enviable record in Africa for the quality of its educated population. The enormous investment in education from the beginning of Independence in 1980, has drawn favourable comment in Africa and around the world.

Safe Learning Institutions Initiative , Civic society organisations

It is thus deeply disturbing that schools have become sites of repression and teachers targets for repression.

Children have been forced to attend political rallies, schools have become places where partisan political meetings take place, and teachers have become the targets of intimidation and violence.

This is no new phenomenon. Teachers were targets for political violence during the liberation war, and have been targets in most elections since 2000, with 2008 perhaps the worst to date.

The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum (Human Rights Forum) documented 283 cases of human rights violations against teachers in the period from January 2001 to June 2002. In 2008, 50% of teachers in a national sample of 1 034 teachers reported an incident of organised violence, with half of these reporting that this happened at school in front of children.

Teachers tried to prevent the abuse of schools, children and teachers during the 2018 elections. The teachers’ unions approached the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, who issued a comprehensive report and recommendations, but these were ignored. Veritas then took a case on behalf of Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ) against political parties commandeering school premises and other property for their campaigning. The court application also asked that coercing school children and teachers to attend or participate in rallies must be stopped.

The case resulted in an interdict on political parties doing so. The case came to the attention of the United Nations which commended the outcome. Unfortunately, Zanu PF appealed to the Supreme Court presided over by Chief Justice Luke Malaba, who overturned the interdict.

When reports came in that teachers were once again being targeted, this time for participating in industrial action, the Safe Learning Institutions Initiative (SLII) decided that it was important to document what was happening. Using a survey approach we received reports from 634 teachers in eight provinces and were all working in rural schools.

The report details the experiences of these teachers during the industrial action that took place early this year, and is released at a time when new industrial action has been announced.

The teachers in the survey had lengthy experience in their jobs: 51% had been teaching for more than eight years. Nearly 40% had been at their present post for more than seven years, and over 70% had been there more than four years. They were therefore mature citizens with demonstrated commitment to their jobs.

In summary then, there are very high rates of alleged intimidation, humiliation and threats, both directly experienced and witnessed. Many had similar previous experiences, and 81% had such experiences during an election year, with 2008 being far the worst election year. The main alleged perpetrators are Zanu PF supporters, ministry of education officials, members of the school development committees (SDC) and traditional leaders.

In the context of an industria, it is evident that the only parties to the dispute are the teachers engaged in dispute and their employer, the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education. Thus, traditional leaders and members of the SDC have no business getting involved, and none of the above-mentioned parties — Zanu PF, ministry officials, SDCs and traditional leaders — have any business intimidating, humiliating or threatening teachers on strike.

Thirty-two reports were deemed as “serious cases” and were referred to the Counselling Services Unit (CSU) and the legal unit of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum. Twenty-five required medical assistance, mostly for soft tissue injuries and fractures and were provided with antibiotics, analgesics and anti-inflammatory drugs.

Initial psychiatric screening of all these clients indicated that 60% had scores signifying high psychological trauma levels warranting counselling and medical interventions.

Virtually no-one reported to the police, with 88% stating that they feared reprisal if they did so and anyhow the majority thought that the government and Zanu PF were behind the violations.

More important is what teachers will do, both with the dilemma over employment and livelihoods, and with their ill-treatment.

Thirty-seven percent of the respondents knew of teachers that left a school because of political pressure, as well as 25% knowing of teachers that left for the Diaspora. In the current situation, 46% think about leaving very often or often, and overall 84% have thought about leaving their current station because of threats.
Nearly half (49%) of these teachers would merely wish to shift to a more secure position, and most of these to an urban school, but over half (51%) would leave the country, a pattern that has been seen repeatedly. Bear in mind here that these are experienced teachers, and the country can scarcely afford such a loss of skilled manpower.

Conclusions

One might wonder why poor communities with struggling teachers and schools would want to jeopardise the lives of their children by ill-treating their teachers. Qualified and committed teachers are a precious resource, and there can be little doubt in the minds of any Zimbabwean that teachers (and doctors, nurses and plethora of state workers) are struggling with severe adversity.

Teachers, and other essential workers, carry an important responsibility for other Zimbabweans, and not merely their families. The future depends on the young, and Zimbabwe is a young country. Our development in the future will depend in great measure on the quality of our children’s education, and the quality of the education will determine to a great extent the skill set of the future population and the solutions to the many problems the country will face. Thus, there can be no advantage in jeopardising a precious resource by ill-treating teachers in addition to the burdens that they must face as ordinary citizens in times of severe hardship.

It is further disappointing that there is no provision in the proposed new Education Act for making schools safe, not merely to protect teachers from intimidation and threat (and worse), but also to protect children from witnessing political violence, being forced to rallies, and being caught in the middle of the political disagreements between the parents in their communities.

This small report cannot be definitive, but the allegations made by these 634 teachers cannot be brushed aside. Industrial disputes are not prima facie political acts, but part of normal democratic practice, and protected under the Constitution in Section 65 (Labour Rights) and Section 67 (Political Rights).

Recommendations

We offer the following recommendations:

That the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission should immediately undertake a full and comprehensive investigation of these allegations, ascertain their veracity, and make recommendations to the government for appropriate action;
That the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education should issue an immediate instruction to all its officers that any industrial dispute should be managed solely in terms of the Labour Act and government regulations;

That the government of Zimbabwe should make an immediate statement that all persons and groups, not party to the industrial dispute (political party supporters, traditional leaders, members of School Development Committees, etc.) should desist from any independent and unlawful involvement in the dispute;

Finally, the government of Zimbabwe should establish its good intentions in respect of the above by endorsing the safe schools declaration and implementing the safe schools guidelines.

Safe Learning Institutions Initiative is a collaboration between the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe, Research and Advocacy Unit, Student Christian Movement of Zimbabwe, Veritas and the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum.

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