Young victims of Mugabe's evictions

ZIMBABWE. Farm workers' children drop out in their thousands. Karen MacGregor reports on the collapse of a schooling system that was once the envy of Africa

Tens of thousands of poor black pupils have had their schooling thrown into chaos after last weekend's evictions of white farmers.

The pupils are children of farm workers who must seek work elsewhere in the country after being forced out by invaders who support President Robert Mugabe. An estimated 90,000 commercial farm workers have already moved, along with their families.

Schooling across the troubled country is already reeling from two-and-a-half years of economic collapse, famine and widespread harassment of teachers suspected of opposing President Mugabe.

President Robert Mugabe has encouraged the invasion of thousands of white-owned commercial farms by so-called liberation "war veterans". His chaotic fast-track land reform programme, has brought rural education close to a standstill.

Professor John Makumbe, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe and local chair of the good governance group Transparency International, said that, since the evictions started, drop- out rates in the country's schools had shot up to 30-40 per cent.

This is set to worsen with the government's eviction of nearly 3,000 commercial farmers, 1,200 of whom had reportedly left before the President's August 9 deadline.

Even more damaging than the evictions, suggests Professor Makumbe, has been the violence against teachers, which has seen thousands flee their jobs. "The education situation is very sad, and is caused by a combination of factors," he told The TES. "The main problem is state-sponsored violence against teachers."

Staff targeted are seen as supporting the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, against whom ruling Zanu-PF supporters have committed some 30,000 rights abuses, inluding harassment, beatings, tortures and murders.

Thousands of teachers have been driven out of schools - many of which are now used as bases for violent pro-government youth militia - and many were dismissed after President Mugabe won the election in March, globally condemned as rigged. Teachers have left in their droves for the UK and other overseas and African countries.

"Many don't give notice because they fear being prevented from leaving, so there are long periods when classes don't have a teacher. There has been a breakdown of the education system," Professor Makumbe said.

In May the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe claimed that some 20,000 teachers had been harassed, kidnapped or tortured, and 14,000 rural teachers displaced.

Poverty, drought and famine is also hitting education. Professor Makumbe said: "Severe drought is keeping a lot of children out of school, or if they do go hunger is rendering them unable to learn properly. Many areas are affected very seriously, especially in parts of Matabeleland where food aid workers have been kicked out by war veterans."

The professor also said there had been a decline in the quality of the education system that used to be widely recognised as among the best in sub-Saharan Africa.

Mr Mugabe's deep antagonism towards Britain and whites prompted him to unlink education from the British system and introduce "localised" O and A-levels. Parents fear the new examinations will not be recognised internationally.

And last month, to another outcry, Mr Mugabe announced plans to appoint civil servants to head independent schools, which he accused of being "sectionalist and racist".

The 55,000-strong Zimbabwe Teachers' Association is threatening to strike over a 60 per cent pay rise demand. A new teacher's salary is worth less than pound;40 a month, with salaries rapidly being eroded by 117 per cent inflation.

Finally, said Professor Makumbe, up to a million Zimbabwean children orphaned by the HIV-Aids pandemic were having to spend their days foraging for food rather than going to school. "We believe that as many as a third of them may no longer be in school," he said.

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