It has been a momentous week for the education sector.
The school year began on Monday but as expected the majority of public school teachers did not turn up at their workstations citing what they call “incapacitation”.
This word has become a battle cry of the struggle by teachers to earn a living wage.
All public schools, that is schools where most children seek an education, were dysfunctional all week.
The government sought to alleviate the situation by awarding the teachers a salary increment.
But the educators found it too paltry to accept, so they continued with their industrial action.
Predictably, the Minister of Primary and Secondary Education cynically suspended the beleaguered teachers.
In a statement the ministry said it had suspended without pay all staff within the ministry who did not report for duty since the official opening of schools on February 7.
Minister responsible, Dr Evelyn Ndlovu herself made the announcement.
The statement seen by the media closed with the following sentence:
“The ministry remains committed to the provision of quality, affordable, accessible, relevant, equitable, inclusive and wholesome education for all Zimbabweans.”
The statement sounds hollow and preposterous.
Quality education can only be based on its facilitators, the teachers.
First of all, the teachers have to be able to go to the schools; very few live on school campuses.
A cursory look at a teacher’s payslip shows that he/she cannot commute to and from work for the 20 days a month they have to teach after taking care of all other bills.
Quality education can only be possible if the teacher is well fed and well dressed.
This has become well-nigh impossible considering the prices of food and clothing.
Most teachers in urban and peri-urban areas do not have decent accommodation.
They can’t afford to build their own houses like others are doing and the rentals landlords demand are beyond them because they should be paid in US dollars simply because no house owner accepts the joke that the Zimbabwe dollar has become.
The teacher can only be successful in executing his/her duties when he/she has prestige in the community in which he works.
In the past two decades this prestige has been eroded irrevocably and the teachers have become the butt of community jokes.
What has happened to our education system over the years is truly shocking.
Children continue to write examinations and the country’s leadership continues to tout the education system as the best on the continent.
That is a total lie when one looks at the product.
It is obvious the grades the children get are contrived to push the best-education-in-Africa narrative.
Except for private schools, where parents have to pay an arm and a leg, nothing is happening in public schools.
This has a long-term effect on the wellbeing of the country as a whole. Sadly, all those children attending private schools will, on completion, emigrate leaving the country with a functionally illiterate labour base.
Zimbabwe’s sharpest minds are being developed for other countries which will utilise the talent for their own development.
The continuing standoff between teachers and the government has to be handled with the sensitivity it deserves otherwise it may easily turn into a threat to state security.
It cannot be dismissed that there could be a hand behind the strikes; the proliferation of dubious teacher unions is a red flag.
But the point is the teachers’ grievances are genuine and need to be addressed.
The government needs to be sincere in its negotiations with genuine teacher unions and the unions themselves should have a clear appreciation of what is possible and what is not possible.
There should be a give-and-take approach to negotiation.