The classrooms of Kambuzuma high school are deserted, with no staff to be seen and Tanaka Mupasiri*, 16, and his friends are milling around the school yard. It is 9am on a Thursday, normally a time when the school, in a high-density suburb or township on the outskirts of Harare, would be a hive of studious activity but Zimbabwe’s national teachers’ strike has thrown the education system into crisis.
Teachers in state schools have not been at work since 7 February and face a government deadline of Tuesday to return or lose their jobs.
For children like Mupasiri, who will be sitting O-level exams this year, the industrial action is further affecting their education after a year of learning already lost due to school closures during Covid.
“We come to school and sit; this is all we come to do. Since last week, we thought the situation would get better but it seems to be getting worse,” Mupasiri said.
“The O-level syllabus needs time to master but with this strike, I may never learn everything I need to know before my final examinations.”
In Zimbabwe, a teacher earns less than $200 (£150) a month using the official exchange rate, and less than $100 at the illegal market exchange rate widely used for goods and services.
Teachers are demanding a basic salary of $540 a month and say that the government offer of $100 extra a month is not enough.
Last week, the government responded by suspending more than 135,000 teachers without pay for failing to report to work.
“All officials within the ministry who absented themselves from duty since the opening of schools on 7 February 2022 have been suspended without pay forthwith for a period of three months,” said Evelyn Ndlovu, Zimbabwe’s schools minister.
A high court challenge by the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ) to stay the suspensions was granted. Only hours later, however, the Public Service Commission announced that teachers must return to class by 22 February; failure to do so would be regarded as a voluntary resignation.
“All teachers, deputy heads and heads of schools who do not report for duty by Tuesday 22 February will be deemed to have resigned from service. Those reporting for duty but not teaching will also be deemed to have resigned,” a statement seen by the Guardian read.
Raymond Majongwe, president of the Progressive Teachers Union (PTUZ), said: “We are not going to back down on our demands. Even if we assume that teachers go back to work on Tuesday, our demands would not have been met.
“The most important thing is that the Public Service Commission is doing something that is not above board. Their instruction is illegal, and we dismiss it with the contempt it deserves.”
Hundreds of teachers have already left the public sector to start illegal back-yard schools, where parents who have the money to spare pay for tutoring to get their children through exams.
“We are being forced to part with more money to pay for extra lessons because of the strike. Government should get the teachers back to class. The future of children is at stake here if we are not careful,” said one parent.
Like many, they worry that children out of school will be caught up in petty crime and drugs, which have seen a big upsurge among young Zimbabweans during the pandemic.
Outside Harare’s Kuwadzana high school, Brian Jonasi*, 14, tussles for the football with his friends on a makeshift pitch.
“Since last week, we have been coming to school but the teachers do not show up,” Jonasi said. “I am now in form 2 but do not have any idea what our syllabus entails, so there is nothing to read. That is why we are playing football.”
*Names of children have been changed