by Wilson Johwa
(IPS) -- It was once celebrated as a rare African success story, an example of what committed leadership can do.
Education for all was the policy Zimbabwean authorities pursued diligently for much of the first decade since independence, from Britain, in 1980. The goal was to extend education to the previously disadvantaged black majority.
As a result, scores of schools were built and the training of thousands of teachers speeded up.
The investment did not take long to bear fruit: By 2000 Zimbabwe had achieved an adult literacy rate, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), of 93 percent, the highest in sub-Saharan Africa.
Sadly, those classroom gains are currently in jeopardy, threatened by triple digit inflation and political impenitence.
One urban primary school says at least half of its more than 1,000 pupils cannot afford fees, while a government directive says learners must not be sent home.
The very poor, including AIDS orphans, can apply for government help. But such dues are always too little, too late.
As a result, the school is permanently entangled in a never-ending cash crisis. Four classes have to share an average of 20 textbooks. There is no money to replace even the $100 worth of exercise books stolen during last week's burglary.
Parents cannot come to the school's rescue either. Four years of economic contraction and increasing inflation have left many unemployed and impoverished. They struggle to buy basic foodstuffs, let alone pay school fees.
"If you talk of raising levies, parents will tell you the government has directed there should be no increase," says the exasperated school head. Unwilling to endure the frustration of running a school with no resources to even cover its water bill, she has decided to quit. "This just gives you grey hairs," she shrugs.
The situation is equally dire in most urban schools, and often worse in rural areas. Here, not only are parents too poor to finance non-salary recurrent costs of education, but teachers have the additional burden of being targeted by President Robert Mugabe's marauding youth militia and war veterans.
Witness Ncube, a teacher at Matshetsheni Primary School in Nkayi, Matabeleland North province, says he fled after three encounters with war veterans, who accused him of preaching opposition politics to students.
Like multitudes of other teachers, who have turned their backs on low salaries and poor conditions, he is planning to go to Britain to do whatever work he can get. Meanwhile, three months after his departure, the school still has not found a replacement.
Ncube's problem is not uncommon. Teachers, considered key informants and community leaders in rural areas, have been targeted on a regular basis.
Brian Raftopolous, an associate professor at the Zimbabwe Institute of Development Studies, says in "its attempt to deal with this growing economic disaster and the severe loss of political legitimacy", the ruling ZANU-PF party has attacked its own state structures, including those in the educational sphere.
This is one of the many reasons the country's education system, long trumpeted as President Mugabe's enduring achievement, is on its knees.
To appease a restless population the government has put a freeze on school fee increases, despite inflation of 600 percent.
In the last two weeks the Ministry of Education, Sport and Culture suspended 50 school heads and dissolved a similar number of parents' school development associations for "raising fees and levies without government approval".
According to a government-controlled daily, the schools -- most of which are privately run -- will be charged under the Education Act, "which means that if they fail to comply with the Ministry's directive they risk being closed down."
Unable to balance their books but still expected to provide a service, it remains to be seen how schools will avoid insolvency.
Yet Mugabe's educational achievements had extended to tertiary education, where tens of thousands of college and university graduates were poised to run what was once one of Africa's most viable economies.
Ironically, however, that same education has also equipped its beneficiaries with the skills many are selling in neighbouring countries, and overseas.
Compared to one university at independence, Zimbabwe now has six state universities, with another being planned. The quantity of institutions has increased, but hardly the same can be said for quality.
Despite being only 12-years old, the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) had acquired a reputation for producing well-rounded, much-sought-after graduates. It too has been unable to prevent experienced lecturers leaving for positions, often better-paid, with universities elsewhere.
The education crisis has reached beyond class size and staff, pulling at the university's very foundation. The NUST campus consists of a few impressive concrete structures interspersed with bush. There is no sound of concrete mixers or workmen's chatter. University spokesperson Felix Moyo says due to inflation "money runs out earlier than projected."
There is little funding for capital projects. Mugabe himself captured the essence of the money problem last November, after getting an honorary degree from a new state university in Gweru, central Zimbabwe. He remarked that it was the first time he had received a degree "from the bush".
Mugabe was capped by a university with no buildings of its own. Three years after the foundation stone was laid, very little work had been done. There simply is not enough money.
Since independence, education ministries were often allocated the biggest share of the national budget. But economic consultant John Robertson says there has been a shift, more recently, as "it would seem they weren't given the money allocated to them."
He says it appears that when the government overspends in one area, it makes up for the shortfall by taking from the education and even the health ministry allocation, hoping donor funding would plug the hole. "But that hasn't happened." Furthermore, says Robertson, the money allocated "is not adjusted for inflation."
The mix-up of O' and A' level results early last year caused public concern, amid reports of corruption within the Zimbabwe Schools Examination Council.
Previously run by Cambridge University in Britain, O' and A' level examinations were localised in 2001 mainly to save on foreign currency.
At the oldest university, the University of Zimbabwe, under-paid lecturers withheld the processing of examination marks, resulting in thousands of students being unable to graduate. The students, meanwhile, exhaust their inflation-hit government grants in days, leaving them to their own devices the rest of the year. Education has clearly been a major casualty of the Zimbabwe crisis. Interestingly though, the number of students from neighbouring Botswana has increased, says Hugh Henstridge, campus director of Speciss College, a favourite among the Tswanas.
"There's a big gap in tertiary education in Botswana," he says, attributing increased enrollment to the college's solid reputation in Botswana. The weak Zimbabwe dollar has also made it cheaper for predominantly middle class parents to send their children to Zimbabwe and not South Africa.
However, as they make their way into Zimbabwe, Tswana parents cross paths with the growing number of wealthy Zimbabweans searching for quality education for their children outside the country.
Raftopoulos says while this quantitative growth of education has been impressive, several problems confront the future of educational development in Zimbabwe.
These, he says, include the absence of a comprehensive policy framework as well as gender equity, finance and access. About 15 percent of children remain out of school, Raftopoulos says.
The other challenges include the relevance of the curriculum which, currently, is considered unresponsive to the labour market and the high dropout rate.
For Robertson, however, the issue is that Mugabe prefers no growth to growth he cannot control.
February 12, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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