Zim teachers agree to end year-long strike

Zimbabwe’s teachers agreed to end a strike that emptied classrooms for a year, after the government promised to review salaries and appealed for US$458-million aid for schools, officials said on Tuesday.

Schoolteachers have been on strike since early last year to demand payment in foreign currency to cope with Zimbabwe’s stunning hyperinflation that has left the local dollar worthless.

They only returned to work for brief periods during that time.

The new Education Minister David Coltart, who took office this month when the Movement for Democratic Change joined a unity government, has agreed to review their demands while seeking international aid.

Coltart told the state-run Herald newspaper he had asked Unicef and other donors for $458-million to jump-start the education system over the next six months.

Unions said teachers had agreed to return to work next week while the government tried to secure the financing.

“We have reached an agreement that teachers must go back to school on Monday, while outstanding specific issues are being addressed,” Tendai Chikoore, president of the Zimbabwe Teachers’ Association, told AFP.

“Government has committed itself to source funds to cater for our needs. We have agreed to go back to work solely on the goodwill shown by the government, but we are also demanding that our salaries must match what teachers are being paid in the region.”

Takavafira Zhou, president of the Progressive Teachers’ Union in Zimbabwe, said teachers have agreed to return to work. But they have asked that they be exempted from paying school fees for their children—unaffordable on their salaries.

Zhou said that the deal also ensured that teachers who did not report for work because of economic and political reasons would not be punished.

“We also agreed that after three months teachers’ salaries must be reviewed to meet regional standards of 15 000 South African rands a month.”

Two weeks ago, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) called Zimbabwe’s schools a “national disaster,” estimating that attendence was down to just 20% while almost all rural classrooms are closed due to a lack of teachers.

Last year’s exam results have not been released, and teachers in urban schools only turned up for classes this year if parents could afford to subsidise their salaries in US dollars, the agency said.

Zimbabwe’s education system was once considered the best in Africa.

At the start of last year, attendance was estimated at 80%, according to Unicef.

Zimbabwe’s staggering economic collapse has left most of the population struggling to survive, as world-record inflation has decimated salaries for teachers, doctors and other professionals.

Unicef and other donors have already created a trust fund for health workers to subsidise their salaries, providing them with a US-dollar stipend towards their transport to lure them back to work.

Doctors and nurses are also on strike over poor pay and the lack of supplies in hospitals and clinics.
The new government is in talks with health workers about returning to the job.

Aid talks with Mugabe “positive”
Meanwhile, a top United Nations aid official said she had held positive talks with Robert Mugabe about finding ways to combat a raging cholera epidemic and food shortages in the country, the Herald said on Tuesday.

Catherine Bragg, the assistant secretary general for humanitarian affairs, met with Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai on Monday.

She said her five-member team, which is in Zimbabwe this week to assess the nation’s needs, was focusing on the cholera epidemic that has so far killed 3 806 people and spilled into neighbouring countries.

“We are focusing on cholera and any other form of humanitarian assistance the UN can offer ... We will assist to the best of our abilities,” she said, according to the Herald.

During the meeting with Mugabe, “we talked of the continuing partnership between the UN and the government. The president spoke positively. He invited me back,” she said.

Bragg said she had met ministers of labour, education, health, agriculture and foreign affairs, as well as aid agencies working in the country.

Zimbabwe’s shattered economy has made it that much harder to deal with the growing humanitarian crisis in the country.

A report issued last week by Doctors Without Borders said Zimbabwe had the health system of a country at war.

The country that was once a food exporter now has nearly seven million people dependent on food aid.—Sapa-AFP

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