According to the latest information released by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Zimbabwe has the highest literacy rate in Africa, 92.2% of adults and 99.0% of youth are literate.
In the small country of about 13 million people passing five subjects, including mathematics and English Language, at the General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level (GCE ‘O’ Level) is the threshold for admittance to any institution for tertiary education.
Gardeners and maids are ordinarily required to have at least three subjects at ‘O’ Level to enhance their chances of finding and keeping a job in a country where the job market is believed to have shrunken by between 60% and 75% between 1998 and 2008, depending on who one chooses to listen to.
A bit of statistics on the performance of Zimbabwe’s education system… let us look at information gleaned from the Education For All (EFA) 2000 Assessment Country Reports.
During the first 9 years of independence (1980 to 1989) the number of primary schools in Zimbabwe increased from 3161 to 4504, a staggering 42.48% increase. The number of secondary schools increased from 197 to 1502, an incredible 662% rise.
School enrolments increased by over 200% across the entire education sector (primary, secondary and tertiary levels). In the year before independence primary school enrolment in the 3161 schools was 820 000 pupils, and this had swelled to 2.08 million by 1990, a 154% increase. The number of teachers increased from 18 483 in 1979 to 60 886 by 1989, a 229% increase.
From only one university in 1980, the country now boasts a total of 13 universities, including a virtual university to provide for the needs of the working professional who cannot afford to attend classes on a fulltime or part time basis.
More than 25 000 students graduate with bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees from these universities every year.
For the multitudes who fail to enroll in the universities, there is the option to enroll in the five polytechnic colleges that offer certificate, diploma and degree courses in areas ranging from administration to engineering.
Thousands of school leavers also go through apprenticeship training with the few companies still operating profitably in the current challenging environment.
There is no doubt that this is a great achievement. But does this achievement translate into a better life for Zimbabwe’s citizens? The answer can be discerned from the picture above.
The picture was shot just before dusk on Tuesday 29 May 2012. The gentleman in the picture is a graduate of one of the five polytechnic colleges in Zimbabwe, and the structures in the background are what he calls home.
Dominic went to one of Zimbabwe’s mission schools that are renowned for their high pass rates, and upon completion of high school he enrolled at one of the polytechnic colleges where he studied diesel plant fitting for 3 years.
In addition to the polytechnic diploma, he sat for trade tests with the Industrial Training and Manpower Development and was awarded the coveted Journeyman Class 1 card.
With these sought after qualifications Dominic cherry-picked jobs, moving from one blue chip corporation to another. He worked for Gulliver, Border Timbers, Zisco Steel and Shabanie and Mashaba Mines, among other blue chip firms.
The companies paid well, and he bought a residential stand in the city of Gweru and built a middle income house. He married a nursing sister and together they started a family.
With a good education and skills training, as well as jobs that paid decent salaries, Dominic and his wife were archetypal middle class Zimbabweans. They ate well, sent their kids to good schools, subscribed to middle class sports clubs and afforded medical aid for their kids and elderly parents in the communal areas.
Life started to change in 1998. As a result of unbudgeted payouts to war veterans starting September 1997, inflation began to rise sharply and food prices spiked. This marked the beginning of the economic freefall that only ended with the formation of the unity government in 2009.
A lot of nasty things happened in Zimbabwe between 1998 and 2009. The political violence, economic collapse, displacement of the population and dislocation of families are well documented.
The companies that Dominic worked for were not spared by the crisis. Zisco Steel collapsed, Gulliver collapsed, Mashaba and Shabanie Mines collapsed and Border Timbers is on the brink of collapse after its plantations were invaded and settled by so-called new farmers.
By 2004 so many companies had closed down, and the job market had emaciated so much Dominic could not find a job. His wife’s salary had depleted so much it was not enough to buy basic provisions for them and their two children. They had left their elderly parents to their own devices.
As the rate of inflation reached a million percent and the country almost imploded, insurance companies terminated all life and endowment policies, except for those with premiums paid in foreign currency. The same happened to medical aid policies.
Dominic and his wife became so desperate, that desperation they made the most unwise decision of their lives. In mid-2005 they sold their house and invested the money in a small auto spares business. But inflation had spiraled to close to a billion percent by 2007 and pricing had become such a tricky business. A majority of businesses went under during that period, and Dominic’s spares business also closed down.
Dominic left for South Africa in November 2007 where he earned money loading Harare-bound buses at Park Station in Johannesburg. His wife quit her nursing job in July 2008 and after distributing their household effects with friends for safekeeping, she and the kids followed Dominic in Johannesburg. There she worked as a hairdresser on a street corner in Hilbrow to supplement her husband’s takings at Park Station.
Life in Johannesburg was not rosy at all. The two earned hardly enough money to pay for accommodation, food and school fees for their children. They accrued no savings, and they remitted nothing to their parents back in Zimbabwe.
In October 2011 Dominic and his family reviewed their situation in Johannesburg and came to the inescapable conclusion that they were wasting their time. They took the decision to return to Zimbabwe. They left their children, now young adults, in Johannesburg to fend for themselves.
Back in Zimbabwe and with nothing to their names, they also found most of their belongings either lost or damaged.
They found a place to rent in Gweru, but Dominic couldn’t find a job. His wife tried to return to the nursing service but was told that the government had frozen all vacant positions in the civil service, meaning that there would be no new recruitments until such time that the economy has improved sufficiently to allow the government to provision for better salaries. But the signs of any improvement are well pronounced by their absence.
They tried everything possible to make money in the city, but they found it impossible. Life in town became increasingly difficult, and eventually in March 2012 they resolved to go to their communal area in Masvingo where the village head allocated them a hectare of land on which to build their new home and prepare for the farming season that commences November.
In the picture the smaller hut is the kitchen where Dominic’s wife prepares meals…very rudimentary meals that are deficient in nutrients. The larger hut is the bedroom which he built with the help of his wife.
He dreads to think of the coming of the planting season…he has no cattle to plough and he has no seed or fertilizer. He will have to use hand-held hoes to dig, and maybe work in other people’s fields to raise money for seed. But he doesn’t believe he can afford fertilizer, without which he cannot dream of a decent harvest.
Dominic is not alone in this kind of situation. Thousands of well educated and highly skilled Zimbabweans cannot find jobs. Even the entrepreneurial ones cannot do much...banks do not give loans to start ups and those with no collateral. Also, there isn’t much money circulating in the economy, therefore buying and selling isn’t as good a business as it used to be before the collapse of the economy.
Unemployment is estimated to be between 80% and 95%, and there is no improvement in sight.
So what value is education to Zimbabwe and her people?
Names and places changed to protect the author.