By Takura Zhangazha*
It is the opening of the final term of Zimbabwe’s primary and secondary education calendar this week. As usual, there is the threat of strikes by teachers via their unions. And in turn, government is stubbornly refusing to accede to their demands. This is a routine battle that plays out in the media and boardrooms every quarter year.
Its symbolic effect is that teaching as a profession is in the throes of negotiating retaining its national importance against a government that is intent on its national devaluation. And there are many reasons for this.
The teaching profession is as important as any in the country. Historically it was the bridge between ignorance and knowing the ways of the modern world. Most of our nationalists dabbled in this profession before deciding to pursue the politics of liberation. Every other Zimbabwean even in the aftermath of our national independence will always recall their coming into full consciousness via one teacher or the other.
With the advent of economic structural adjustment, teaching began to lose is luster. Not only in relation to the material benefits of being a teacher but in terms of societal respect. It was beginning to be viewed as a fall back profession for many young Zimbabweans who could not make it to university or other tertiary institutions.
The pay and working conditions were also so poor particularly in rural areas that it was mainly vacationing university students would take up temporary teaching posts.
Teachers were to also suffer the brunt of political violence in the aftermath of the formation of the Movement for Democratic Change in the late 1990s. The ruling party felt that they were not only too sympathetic to the new opposition but also viewed them as the primary drivers of its organizational capacity in rural areas. In the process the teaching profession and teachers unions eventually became politicized, as was the case with the main Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and became key battlegrounds for political party interests.
In contemporary times, these political battles have somewhat dissipated. In their stead there are now new breakaway unions from the mainstream Zimbabwe Teachers Association (ZIMTA) such as the Progressive Teachers Union and the nascent Zimbabwe Rural Teachers Association all of whom are competing for members and their ‘stop order’ subscriptions.
Beyond these historical characteristics, in contemporary times, teaching has also become once again, a highly sought after profession. This is manila due to the fact that a lot of young and middle aged Zimbabweans, suffering from high unemployment rates, have decided to pursue the almost definite employment that a teaching qualification brings. Even in the private education sector, so long one is accredited with the relevant ministry.
It is however this desperation in the teaching profession that has seen it struggle to defend its autonomy and professionalism. Because of divisions within its rank and file, and the motivation of largely wanting to get that pay check, government has been able to target teaching and teachers as the first arena of its intentions of downsizing the civil service. The reasons that have been given are largely quantitative, that is, removing ghost teachers from the government pay roll. Or arbitrarily reinforcing teacher qualification criteria in order to reduce the wage bill.
Rarely has debate around teaching focused on the qualitative and public interest aspects of the profession. True, the unions have focused on working conditions and remuneration out of necessity but are always cautious in their threats of strikes. Not least because it is difficult for them to organize such mass action but also because their members are wary of losing their jobs.
It is a hard ask to see the debate within the profession shift to issues of the very model that we are using in education such as the semi privatization of government schools through school development associations and its attendant high costs for the poor. Or the evident schools as businesses profit motive that now informs access to education in the privately run education institutions.
The profession itself rarely puts out position papers, analysis of the entirety of its work and its input into the national political economy. Even government has not had an education blueprint since its 1999 Nziramasanga Commission of Inquiry into Education, a telling sign that the teaching profession is caught in a retrogressive time warp.
The challenge is for the teaching profession to get itself organized in a much more holistic fashion. Beyond its unionism around wages, it needs to demonstrate not only its democratic public service value but also its firm commitment to the noble values of its existence summed up in the popular African American phrase, ‘each one, teach one’.
Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)