Connect with us

Support The NewsHawks


Dangers of selective education




ZIMBABWE’S education system and the skilled people it produces are the envy of the world.

That praiseworthy global stature is the result of several things. Firstly, Zimbabweans have always treated education as a collective and collaborative national project, worthy of the utmost priority.

At the family and community levels, the education of a Zimbabwean child is made possible by the cash and in-kind contributions of not only the child’s biological parents, but also their older working siblings. It is also very common for Zimbabwe’s maternal and paternal uncles and aunts to take a very active interest in the education of their younger relative. The same applies to a Zimbabwean child’s grandparents who, even if they are pensioners, all chip in to make sure a grandchild finishes school.

It is not uncommon for a Zimbabwean to recall how a grandmother ground some nuts and made peanut butter for sale. This was one way to raise funds for school. Or, when we let our guard down, we tell each other of how there was a situation during a difficult year which forced us to sell one or two cattle from the family’s kraal to enable school fees to be paid.

Family friends and neighbours have often been known to respectfully ask of the well-being of a child who is not in school when the academic term starts. They have enquired about what it is that they can do to assist. Or, they have discreetly dug into their own pockets and put money together. They have stuck their noses in the business of educating a child from their community by negotiating payment plans at academic institutions to settle historic debts and paid outstanding fees, purchased uniforms, books, and stationery and have packed a decent lunchbox.

Many Zimbabweans deflect individualised praise for how they have raised a child, and rather say “it takes a village”. It is our way of speaking about how, in many ways, our cultures are built on the collective notion of our shared and interconnected humanity. Scholars call it ubuntu or hunhu. Humanity.

When it comes to education, Zimbabweans have upheld ubuntu. We have moved seemingly unmoveable mountains for each other. It is therefore not boastful to say Zimbabwean teachers and academics, despite their legendary strictness and adherence to rules (some of which they make themselves), treat their students like the most precious treasure in the world. Students are, after all, the sole purpose behind why anyone who has answered the call to be an educator shows up.

Teacher salaries are woefully inadequate. Furthermore, teaching conditions are less than satisfactory. Zimbabwe’s teacher trade unions, such as the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) have organised enough protests to make this common knowledge.

Only someone who is so completely aligned with teaching as their reason for existing would show up with the degree of loyalty and commitment that Zimbabwean educators display daily. We have heard of the evidence and believed of the testimonies that teachers have severally shared of

how their meagre salaries mean they cannot pay fees for their own children. Yet, if we ask any Zimbabwean to name someone who has positively influenced the trajectory of their life, a teacher’s name is sure to make the shortlist.

Going to school and eating books, as our West African siblings so eloquently put it, is sacrosanct. It is education that has catapulted millions of Zimbabweans beyond the limiting inhibitions rendered by gender, race, language and class into successful careers internationally. Whether they are in Australia or New Zealand, the United Kingdom or the Bahamas, Zimbabweans working in the diaspora are successful leaders and innovators in their professional fields or they are the troops that hold up public service systems because of that educational acumen.

Of note is how Zimbabweans have remained true to the each-one-teach-one traditions of our African liberation struggles. They have kept the deeply entrenched systems of paying school fees for needy children at home alive. Every beginning of the year their remittances jam the systems of Mukuru, Moneygram or Western Union. Other things may fail, but in Zimbabwe school fees are somehow always paid.

From this picture, it is evident that the culture of what a scholarship is in Zimbabwe transcends those notions of scholarships that our country has inherited from our colonial era and, indeed, traditions that undergird belonging and value in

Western imperialist systems of rule. In the West, a scholarship is merely money. It is a cheque which enables a deserving, usually ultra-intelligent and often well-connected student to study.

For Zimbabweans, as with many other Africans, scholarships are a game changer. They enable us to reconfigure who gets to go to class. Scholarships aid us to figure out how well-fed students are, the quality of their uniforms and books. They also allow us to witness for ourselves what happens to their neurological brilliance as well as social self-esteem when they are nurtured and supported to be the best of themselves in order to transcend class, race and gender divides.

This ethos, of finding ways of ensuring that we are all part of the national project of educating each other, is the essence of the very best of our Zimbabwean identity. It is part of our foundational architecture of what it means to be a Zimbo.

This leads us to the second reason why education is such a huge door opener for Zimbabweans. Our liberation struggle war promised that when we ended racist segregation, all Zimbabwean children, not just some, regardless of colour or other discriminatory factors would have an equal chance to go to school. On the back of the liberation struggle, Zimbabwe’s leaders promised “free education for all”.

The vision then was that all Zimbabwean children could study the courses they were capable of as well as curious about. There was no limit on our imaginations. We were encouraged to study what we wanted to as well as go on and make careers in fields such as jaw dropping as engineering, brain surgery, or ballet. These were sectors where before Independence access had previously been ringfenced to the privilege of whiteness or wealth.

Those of us with lasting memories of the sacrifices made by combatants (many of whom are our relatives and friends) of our liberation war for independence remember that when the comrades came back from the war, one of the things they did was enrol in colleges. They went to night school to catch up on the academic years that the liberation war had stolen from them. Amongst others, institutions such as Kushinga Phikelela were established with the specific remit of educating ex-combatants.

Further, there was a ministry of Manpower Development whose focus was on building our capacity to be excellent. Zimbabwe’s first decade of Independence ensured that new schools were built right across the country. With this, Zimbabwe’s national vision focussed on closing the gap in education and skills amongst black people. A gap made glaringly obvious by segregated, racialised and discriminatory education systems as well as the long liberation war.

The Zimbabwe Manpower Development Fund (Zimdef) government agency established in 1984 initially provided college students at local colleges with education grants. These were designed to enable students to pay fees and for accommodation and to buy clothes and books. The minimal interest charged on the government grants meant that when we started working, we could pay those grants back. Not having a tertiary certificate was the exception rather than the norm for Zimbabweans.

In addition to Zimdef grants, the government of Zimbabwe scholarships, funded from a blend of taxpayer money and donor contributions, have over the years sent thousands of gifted black Zimbabwean students to university in places as faraway as Russia, Czech Republic, China, and Malaysia. A Presidential Scholarship scheme has sent students to the University of Fort Hare in South Africa and other institutions in many parts of Africa.

After my own education was disrupted in 1992 by my father’s illness, I eventually received a scholarship from the Sally Mugabe Foundation (SMF) in 1997 to go back to university and finish my degree. The SMF scholarships were designed to support young Zimbabwean women’s academic aspirations. Veteran broadcaster John Masuku, then head of radio at Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) where I was employed as a radio journalist, was one of the people who supported my application to the foundation.

I was awarded a merit-based Thompson Reuters Foundation Scholarship. This was given to students for their academic achievements. Both those scholarships were invaluable in helping pay my tuition fees. I would have had an altogether useless one third of a degree had it not been for those two scholarships. I would have been treated like a failure. I am not a lone ranger when it comes to scholarship beneficiation.

Many other Zimbabweans have received scholarships of one form or another to go to university, spend time studying, reading, arguing, think. The transformative powers that scholarships give us cannot be underestimated. They make sure we attain the endless, mind- opening and expanding gift that education is.

So, in 2009, when Zimbabwe was emerging from being seen as a pariah and struggling to draw international support to even pay teachers’ salaries, I worked very closely with the visionary Dr Peter Salama. Dr Salama was Unicef Zimbabwe’s representative. We conceptualised a mechanism called the Education Transition Fund (ETF).

International donors were understandably skeptical about whether the new power-sharing government of national unity (GNU) would work. Together with Bulawayo’s current mayor David Coltart (who was then Zimbabwe’s Minister of Education, Sports, Arts and Culture) we structured an arrangement where Unicef managed the ETF. Launched in September 2009, the ETF refurbished schools, purchased teaching supplies, supported the payment of teachers with a US dollar allowance, printed and published academic texts locally and distributed them to schools.

One of the most strident backers of our collaboration was Graca Machel, Mozambique’s first Education minister. Machel made several trips to Zimbabwe to meet with government officials and negotiate the parameters as well as modalities of the ETF. Another was the maverick Virgin Group entrepreneur Richard Branson. Yet another was a former New York hedge fund co-founder Amy Robbins of the Nduna Foundation, who hosted fundraising events internationally and set up a special project focussing on Zimbabwean girls.

Together, we galvanised millions of dollars to assist the Zimbabwean government, which was internationally blacklisted, to reopen schools and send children back to class. All the investors were compelled by one thing: the amazing story of how Zimbabwe’s education story has repeatedly proved itself to be our country’s real turnaround strategy.

The ETF performed so well that it resulted in the creation of the, Health Transition Fund (HTF). Again, international investors were convinced of going against the global anti-Zimbabwe mood of the time. What compelled them was how committed to Zimbabwe health workers were; even when supplies and services were dilapidated, they showed up and tried.

It was therefore disheartening to read the contents of a letter dated 15 February 2024 attributed to the government of Zimbabwe. The letter, signed by our Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga, made overt threats at the proponents of an Umuntu/Munhu Scholarship scheme which is aimed at supporting young key and vulnerable populations in Zimbabwe’s LGBTIQ+ community achieve their educational dreams. For those who don’t know, Umuntu/Munhu means humanity. It is about being humane.

The letter made baseless claims that the scholarship was unChristian and unAfrican and an attempt to exert foreign ideas and influence over Zimbabweans. However, there is nothing more African or Christian than the very act of offering to put support forward to those in need. Our funerals’ chema tradition are testament to this revered culture of indigenous philanthropy.

When we visit the homes of the bereaved, we make a small donation in cash or kind. This is meant to assist with funeral costs. More importantly, chema means to cry. Our giving conveys that we are mourning together with those most affected by a death — that they are not alone.

Sometimes we stay with the bereaved beyond the period of the funeral. We undergird them with prayers and comfort them with love. It is an expression of our humanity, our connection.

Were we to apply the same logic of castigating the Umuntu scholarship to our funerals then we would argue that a chema offering made to assist the bereaved will lead all of us to be deceased or bereaved. It is illogical. It does not make any sense that a country that has taken such exceptional efforts to foreground education would do this. Why?

Zimbabwe’s national budget is under tremendous strain. The government has introduced a new range of far-reaching domestic revenue generation mechanisms. These have put net incomes under phenomenal pressure, causing citizens serious economic distress. We have credible forecasts that this year’s harvest is unlikely to be sufficient for our food needs. A devastating drought is staring us in the face.

Rebuking the innovative efforts made by Zimbabwean individuals and institutions to redress inequalities in key and vulnerable populations sends the wrong message. Particularly when the same government is implementing policies and systems in the HIV, Aids, tuberculosis and health sector to reduce and expunge stigma and discrimination against LGBTIQ+ people.

If the rage expressed by some Zimbabweans on social media about LGBTIQ+ people is any measure of an independent African country that waged a liberation war being at risk of becoming unAfrican and unChristian because of claims that a scholarship makes it defenceless against influences from the West, then we would do well to prepare to face our dire economic and drought hardships alone. We need to remove from our minds any expectations that an appeal for international humanitarian assistance will be received empathetically by such foreign donors.

Those are the dangers of a policy message that encourages a selective education trope. The confusing contradictions go far beyond the question of LGBTIQ+ focussed scholarships. They affect our ability to secure traction on Zimbabwe’s wider current global re-engagement strategy. They are also anti-democracy, particularly for a country whose constitution promises its citizens the right to a hard-won universal right to education for all. They also contribute to a dangerous, emotive form of nationalist propaganda that can quite well lead to renewed targeting and attacks against Zimbabwean people.

The fault lines cannot be ignored. This act of self-sabotage by the government of Zimbabwe is as curious as it is befuddling. It can only be named for what it is: Self-hate. The concept of self-hate arises from the field of psychology. In summary, self-hate is the inability to have such a pristine sense of self. In other words, this means to have no capacity to love the self, to be so unaware of one’s intrinsic worth and value, so much so that nothing – not even misperceptions about who you are, can assault you.

In spewing hatred towards a scholarship for key and vulnerable populations, we ultimately spew hate at ourselves — at the soul of what it means to be Zimbabwean. Imagine the courage it takes for an intersex child to show up at a school or college where every day they are confounded and confronted by a he/she binary that they cannot relate to?

Let’s stop pretending to ascribe to a purity that does not exist in our society. Let’s remember that the real revolution is not rejecting someone because we see them as different from the mainstream or a cause of our own discomfort. The real radical purposes of claiming revolutionary African sovereignty is in devolving expansive ideas of what Zimbabwean education can be. We can achieve this by opening all the doors of education so wide, that no one ever gets shut out.

So, unless Zimbabwe rethinks for itself and moves away from ideas and actions that result in self-isolation by constantly provoking external actions that lead us to being repeatedly framed as hostile and unworkable with we will continue to both undermine and chase away those graduates we have all worked so hard and selflessly towards creating.

Similarly, the very international support that Zimbabwe has been trying to court through readmission to the Commonwealth or via the Joaquim Chissano-led Structured Dialogue Platform on Zimbabwe’s Arrears Clearance and Debt Resolution Process will falter.

Optics matter. The time for reassessing the harmful impacts of Zimbabwe’s unnecessary belligerence is overdue.

About the writer: Bella Matambanadzo is a Zimbabwean feminist.