With a broad-brimmed hat shielding his gaze from the African sun, Father Hugh Ross stands holding a stopwatch. The rainy season is almost over and the sports fields at Zimbabwe's oldest boys' school, the Jesuit St George's College in Harare, have turned a lush green that could rival the Cotswolds. "They've already been on a cross-country run, so they won't be doing too much more today," he says, as a bunch of teenage boys toil round the athletics track. "That chap's an outstanding prospect," he says, pointing to the fluent runner heading the pack. "He's done 51 seconds for 400 metres."
Father Ross, 82, has been an inspiring presence on the St George's sports fields and in its classrooms since he arrived here from England 47 years ago. He's one of three Jesuit teachers left at the private Catholic school, which was founded by a French missionary, Father Marc Barthelemy, in 1896 - less than six years after the British South Africa Company conquered the territory at the behest of Cecil John Rhodes.
It was a conquest that foreshadowed much of Zimbabwe's turbulent history, including two civil wars against white minority rule. Today, with elections in the offing and Robert Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF party doing its best to suppress any opposition, civil war looms again. But the college, which has always held a unique place in the country's education landscape, is a picture of tranquillity. The Zimbabwean flag flutters gently over the school's "castle" - centrepiece of the old stone buildings - and pupils stroll by with pleasant greetings of "Good afternoon, Sir". It seems that the manners and discipline drummed in when I was a pupil in the late 1970s and early Eighties still prevail.
St George's is a relatively rich, fee-paying school. Its 740 pupils - 40 per cent of them white - pay tuition fees of 76,500 Zimbabwean dollars (around pound;970, according to official exchange rates, or pound;170 in the more commonly used black-market rates) and Z$73,300 (pound;930 or pound;163) boarding fees. Two per cent of the school budget pays for bursaries for pupils accepted on academic merit, and other funds are available from the Jesuits and Zimbabwe's Association of Trust Schools. But St George's is not immune from crisis. Shortages in foreign currency and spiralling inflation make anything imported extremely scarce. "We can't get books, computers, vehicles, sports equipment, even fabric for uniforms," says headteacher Brendan Tiernan. Staff and pupils are leaving the country in droves. "We've lost a lot of staff and around 10 per cent of our pupils in the past year alone," he says.
A similar exodus took place during the seven-year revolt against Ian Smith's white-led government in the 1970s, when the country was still known as Rhodesia. Back then, pupils and staff would line the school driveway, heads bowed, as hearses passed with the bodies of ex-pupils killed in action. The country's government schools were segregated, but St George's, as a private school, was allowed a limited black intake, and was multiracial. It had admitted its first black pupil in 1963.
The foul logic underpinning Rhodesia's education system had been spelled out years before in the government's Native Affairs Annual Report (1925), which read: "The objects of our native policy (are to ensure) the development of the native in such a way that he will come as little as possible into conflict or competition with the white man socially, economically or politically." The Land Tenure Act imposed segregation in schools, hospitals and housing. Whites were entitled to free education; blacks had to pay for it.
Private schools were ordered to limit their intake of black students to 6 per cent, and were barred from fielding blacks in sports competitions against government schools. St George's resisted this diktat, eventually forcing the government to back down. "We just never paid much attention to it," says the college's current rector, Senior Jesuit Paul Edwards.
The school wasn't an oasis of racial calm, though. Its first black pupil, Titus Munyaradzi, arrived there after winning a scholarship from Kutuma, a mission school. "The atmosphere was tense," he recalled years later. "Most students, like their parents, believed integration was not possible. But the school authorities are to be commended in that they believed in justice for all and never reversed their policy."
By 1979, the year before Zimbabwe's independence, only 60 out of every 1,000 black children in the country attended secondary school, and only 3 per cent completed their schooling. When Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF took power in March 1980, it made education a major priority with massive investment. Between 1986 and 1988, 22 per cent of Zimbabwe's national budget was allocated to education - in Britain, the equivalent figure at the time was 2 per cent. The country still has the highest literacy rate in Africa at 85 per cent. During this period many white parents took their children out of the government schools - which had become overwhelmingly black - and put them in private schools unaffordable to the majority.
While economic mismanagement, the effects of an International Monetary Fund and World Bank-imposed structural adjustment programme, and now political violence, have wreaked havoc on Zimbabwe's schools - universal free education is a thing of the past - the Mugabe regime is now reaping the consequences of that early investment.
For it is the generation educated in the 1980s that is leading the opposition to Zanu-PF. Mugabe is himself a former teacher, and one of the many bitter ironies of the current situation is that teachers, particularly in the rural areas, are one of the groups being persecuted for supporting the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change.
Days before my visit to St George's a few weeks ago, 30 schools had been closed down in the country's Masvingo province, their staff fleeing marauding Zanu-PF mobs. Abias Dambuza, a headmaster at one Masvingo secondary school, was stripped naked and beaten with sticks and iron bars in front of his class by a group of 40 youths, accused of being an MDC supporter. It is a common tale.
Despite everything, Paul Edwards remains optimistic about St George's future. He reels off recent achievements of ex-pupils: six Rhodes Scholars in the 1990s, four members of the current Zimbabwe cricket team, and many old boys studying at Oxbridge, Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "I see the college doing its best to build on the high standards of education it has established over the past century and more. Continuing to serve the people of Zimbabwe by educating them to be, in the words of the current Jesuit General, 'people of competence, conscience and compassionate commitment'. In short, as one of my predecessors as rector put it, 'men for others'."
Father Ross could well be enthusing about St George's latest athletic prospect long after the dread now enveloping Zimbabwe has lifted.