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Last Updated: Saturday, 27 November 2004, 12:05 GMT
Zimbabwe's school crisis

By Barnaby Phillips
BBC, Zimbabwe

The education system in Zimbabwe used to be Africa's finest and one of President Robert Mugabe's greatest achievements. But today schools are in crisis - economic collapse and political interference are having a devastating impact.
President Robert Mugabe
President Mugabe has banned BBC journalists from the country

This interview took place in a secret location - and although it had been planned for months, we were only told where we should go a few minutes beforehand.

We did it as quickly as possible, and my cameraman arrived and left in a different car.

The interviewee was never told my name. And I cannot tell you the interviewee's name, nor can I tell you where we met.

You get the picture. All very cloak and dagger.

So who was I meeting? Perhaps an underground rebel leader, who had decided to take up arms against the government? Or a fanatic, planning an assassination?

Reporting in Zimbabwe has become so difficult and dangerous that you cannot take too many precautions
Sadly, the truth is more mundane.

I met a teenage school-girl. Or, to be more accurate, a teenage ex-school-girl, because - like so many Zimbabwean children - her parents can no longer afford her fees and she has dropped out.

Tighter controls

So why all the secrecy for an interview about education?

Partially because reporting in Zimbabwe has become so difficult and dangerous that you cannot take too many precautions.

This month the Zimbabwean government tightened - again - its reporting laws.

The innocently named "Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act" makes it illegal for any foreign journalist to be based in Zimbabwe.
When the Zimbabwean authorities can identify people who have spoken to the foreign or independent media, they are prepared to go after them, and punish them.

It also says that any journalist who reports without the approval of a government-appointed commission can be sentenced to up to two years in prison.

Zimbabwe's information minister, Jonathan Moyo, says "this kind of legislation is the norm worldwide", but the intention of this legislation is to get Zimbabwe off our television screens, and radios, and newspapers, and minimise the government's embarrassment.

Punishment

For foreign journalists, it has made life inconvenient.

For brave, independent Zimbabwean journalists, it has made life very difficult.

But there is another reason for our secrecy: to protect the people who have the courage to give interviews. Because make no mistake, when the Zimbabwean authorities can identify people who have spoken to the foreign or independent media, they are prepared to go after them, and punish them.

School in Zimbabwe
Rampant inflation has meant little money is now spent on education
And yes, even a school girl, talking about the disappointment of not finishing her studies, would be a target.

So at the risk of annoying Mr Moyo, and his colleagues, let me tell you a little bit more about Zimbabwe's education system, and its problems.

It was the pride of Africa.

And the credit for that goes to President Robert Mugabe and his government. In the years after independence, President Mugabe supervised an enormous expansion in spending on education.

By the late 1990s, Zimbabwe had a higher percentage of literate people than any other country on this continent.

According to the UN, as recently as 2000, 90% of young Zimbabwean children went to primary school. Again, the highest attendance in Africa.

'Social catastrophe'

But by 2003, that figure had plummeted, to only 65%.

This represents a social catastrophe, the impact of which will be with Zimbabwe for decades.

The crisis in the economy is the main reason for the collapse in school attendance.

The girl I met at the secret rendezvous is typical. She is bright and was planning to take her A-levels and qualify as a social worker.

Barnaby Phillips talks to a teacher
These stories are important - the girl who can no longer go to school and the teacher who was beaten

But her family has been hit by unemployment and Aids, and now they cannot even afford to spend the equivalent of 5 a term to send her to school.

They want her to go out and make money instead. So it is not surprising that many girls are falling into prostitution.

To make things worse, thousands of qualified teachers have left Zimbabwe in recent years. The head of the teachers' union told me that he believes that at least 10,000 have gone.

They are, mostly, economic migrants hoping to make a better living in South Africa or Britain. They say they were fed up in Zimbabwe where schools are under-funded, and salaries cannot keep up with inflation.

Intimidation

But several of the teachers whom I have met in South Africa say that they fled for political reasons.

The Zimbabwean government believes that teachers tend to be opposition supporters and has used violence to intimidate them.

In a squalid flat in downtown Johannesburg, a former Zimbabwean teacher told me how government thugs stormed into his school and told him that his teaching should be more "patriotic".

Later, he says, they attacked him and beat him so badly he needed stitches in the head. That is when he decided to leave Zimbabwe.

Like many exiles, he has not found life easy in South Africa. He works as a waiter. Other former teachers that I have met drift between odd jobs, selling things on the street, cleaning houses in Johannesburg's rich suburbs.

These stories are important - the girl who can no longer go to school and the teacher who was beaten up. They say so much about Zimbabwe today.

And that is why we have got to keep on trying to tell these stories, no matter how hard the Zimbabwean government makes it for us, the reporters.

Because we owe it to the brave Zimbabweans who do want to speak out.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 27 November 2004 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



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