'Enemies of the State'

17th October 2008 at 01:00
As stricken Zimbabwe enters an uneasy power-sharing alliance, Paul Martin reports from Harare on the plight of its teachers

By day, Raymond Majongwe works as a teachers' union leader. But he is better known in Zimbabwe for his protest songs, which are distributed clandestinely and enunciate his feelings about his strife-torn country.

"Now is the time - to forget the anger and hatred of the past, to bury the hatchet, to bury the AK47s and to come together," one of his songs goes. "Now is the time to unite."

Raymond (below), an engaging 38-year old, and his wife Loice, who is also a teacher, have seen colleagues arrested, abused and killed. The Majongwe family has been subjected to a range of intimidation from the authorities ever since he became an official of the Progressive Teachers' Union of Zimbabwe.

"They even cut the house's electricity for 33 consecutive days, while the houses next door all had power," Raymond recalled, in between frantic phone conversations to harassed union members. "It's obvious why."

Teachers get paid 200 new Zimbabwe dollars a month (56 pence). The new dollars were created after inflation became so ludicrous that the central bank slashed 10 noughts off the currency. But 200 of these dollars still buys next to nothing - perhaps 20 loaves of bread, if you can find a loaf: I saw women furtively selling bread at night on street corners.

Loice Majongwe works at one of the very few good-quality state schools left in Zimbabwe, a relic of the colonial days when the country's education system was regarded as the best in Africa - for all races.

It is hardly a surprise that schools are decaying. Teachers are in the frontline, and they were specifically singled out by President Robert Mugabe earlier this year as "enemies of the State", even though he is a former teacher himself. According to Raymond, Mr Mugabe is correct to recognise that teachers pose dangers to dictatorships. "They know we open children's minds, and give them courage; and those are two things the authorities fear most."

"Some of our teachers, especially in rural areas, have been spied on and betrayed by other teachers. Our teachers have even been betrayed by children telling their ZANU-PF parents what teachers have said in class."

Raymond took me outside Harare to a graveyard. A headteacher lies buried here, alongside around 80 people who had been killed in this year's waves of violence. "He was shot through the head in June, a day after being abducted, with a single bullet," said Raymond as he put flowers on the grave, a mound of mud. "First though, he was severely tortured, and badly burned."

The union knows of four more of its members killed in what they say was cold blood.

At another school, we were invited into the prefects' room where several of them were enthusiastic about talking to a foreign journalist. Then a teacher burst in, and demanded we leave. "He's the only ZANU-PF teacher here, and I didn't know he'd been promoted," said one of the union officials. We left, wondering if he would call in the police.

At the nearby Mutasa Primary, we were able to watch teachers inside their classrooms. The head was absent - in fact, more than half the staff have gone AWOL or have disappeared, some from political pressures but the rest because of demoralisation and very low pay.

"We have replacements who often don't even have any A-levels," said teacher Charles Mubwandarikwa. "Many of them sell cool-drinks and ice-creams and oranges in the playground - to supplement their income, you see."

The fabric of the schools is deteriorating, but the neatly-uniformed children show the manners of a bygone age. As I walk in, they stand up and chant: "Good morning, Sir."

Charles still bears scars from a beating at ZANU-PF headquarters. "They beat us with iron bars and clubs but, when we later went to lay a complaint with the police, the cops turned round and accused us of starting the violence," he recalled.

Raymond's union believes more than 7,000 Zimbabwean teachers out of a workforce of around 80,000 are considered "displaced", unable to return to their jobs or homes.

Could all this brutality be a thing of the past? Raymond is astonishingly optimistic. "I see a great future for Zimbabwe. What makes me proud is how little violence there is on the streets. Despite all we have gone through, Harare is still the safest city in Africa."

His union is part of the unofficial civil opposition to Mugabe. On his paper-strewn desk is a wildlife poster that appears to show a leopard being chased by an antelope. "This photo means: we cannot be the prey any more," Raymond said. "From now on, we are going to be the hunters."

Paul Martin, editor of World News Features, has been making a film with Zimbabwean teachers: www.worldnf.tv.

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