In Zimbabwe, teachers defy president’s threat and continue protest into third week

Teachers in Zimbabwe, who are finding it to even difficult to travel to schools due to the decline in the value of their salaries, began staying off from work from September 28

October 11, 2020 by Pavan Kulkarni

The strike by Zimbabwe’s public school teachers is set to enter its third week on Monday, October 12. Earlier this week, president Emerson Mnangagwa himself threatened the teachers who have refused to return to work since the reopening of schools on September 28. This follows a similar threat by the education minister earlier.

“Let me assure all of you that the government will never be held to ransom by the teachers. By failing to report for duty, they think they will push us to do what they want. No, we’re very principled on that,” president Mnangagwa said on Wednesday. “We will apply the principle that (only) those who work will get paid. Those who are at home are not considered to be at work.” 

For the teachers, who claim to be unable to afford even the cost of travelling to their work, the president’s threat rings hollow. The teachers have seen their salaries decline from an equivalent of around US$550 to a mere US$30-35 in a span of two years.

“The threats to remove striking teachers from payroll are inconsequential. It is more like threatening to strangle a corpse,” Obert Masaraure, President of Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ), told Peoples Dispatch. He added that the teachers had already “ceased to earn a genuine salary from 2018”.

A similar threat was issued in vain by education minister Cain Mathema only a day after the strike began. The 40% wage hike that was subsequently offered by the government has been rejected by the unions. They maintain that this hike, which will not even raise their salaries to an equivalent of $50 a month, is not enough.

“The 40% cushioning allowance they gave us is nothing, it can’t even buy a shirt or a pair of shoes,” said Takavafira Zhou, the president of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ). 

“The worst part,” he added, “is (that) the government approved the increase of school fees yet our salaries aren’t enough to send our own children to school. How are we expected to go and deliver services which our own children have no access to? The minister’s children are not affected; they attend private schools while others are outside the country.”

Tapson Sibanda, the secretary general of Zimbabwe Teachers’ Association (ZIMTA), had previously Peoples Dispatch that the reason they chose the word “incapacitation” rather than “strike” to describe their position is that, “We are willing to go to work, we love our job, but we don’t have the means to go to work and subsist there. The money we are getting as salary is too small for a teacher and family to survive on.”

A similar decline of wages has been suffered by workers across the sectors in Zimbabwe, including government employees such as doctors and nurses. Workers’ wages have declined, on an average, by roughly 85% over the last two years.

The government maintains that the financial crisis it is facing does not permit it to restore the lost value of their wages. But the workers say it’s just a question of setting the right priorities. They point out that the same government decided to pay US$ 3.5 billion in compensation to the relatively wealthy white farmers whose lands were redistributed during the land reforms over a decade ago.

Unable to break the strike, the country’s president is now trying to intimidate them directly, which “is a surprise for us”, Masaurare said. He added, “We can only suspect that all is not well in the cockpit. The President is scared of the people, he feels threatened by every citizen action.”

This fear of labor actions is clear from the desperate measures employed against the unions of civil servants, ranging from dismissals of workers to death threats issued to the union leaders, allegedly by state security agents.

Masaraure, who was abducted and tortured by alleged agents of the state during a strike last year, is no stranger to threats. “I receive death threats on a daily basis. My home is under strict surveillance from the state. The only safety measure at my disposal is organining more teachers to confront the state.. We have to stretch their apparatus of cohesion,” he said.

He said that the rural teachers that his union represents are particularly affected by the government’s unilateral decision to reopen schools because of “severe infrastructure deficits. Both classroom space and furniture is inadequate for.. (physical) distancing. Water and Sanitation are rarely available. The government has ruled that schools with no running water should close. It follows that the majority of rural schools have no capacity to reopen.”

However, the government, while offering little support to the rural schools, has ordered them to raise the funds to implement the safety measures. But the “rural economy is in distress, citizens can’t afford to fund for safety,” he says. “The majority of rural students cannot (even) afford to pay school fees,” he concluded.