/ 10 January 2012

Zim ‘powerless’ as teachers threaten to strike

Zimbabwe’s minister of education, David Coltart, says he is “powerless” to stop a strike by the country’s civil servants, as teachers press for higher salaries of $540 — more than double their current $250 paycheck — in a fresh sign of trouble that threatens to rattle Zimbabwe’s fragile unity government.

“We have done what we can and everything is on track — exam papers are being marked, dates for opening of schools have been set long ago, secondary school textbooks are being delivered countrywide, but of course all of that will mean little if teachers go on strike,” Coltart said on Monday. “But that is something beyond our control.”

Schools in Zimbabwe are set to open on Tuesday this week, but uncertainty is growing over whether teachers will report to work as salary negotiations between the teacher’s representative body, the Apex Council and government will only take place this Wednesday.

The Apex Council encompasses the Progressive Teacher’s Union of Zimbabwe, Public Service Association, the Teacher’s Union of Zimbabwe (TUZ) and Zimbabwe Teachers’ Union.

Already, the Apex Council has threatened “drastic action” should their demands not be met. On the back of the new demand for higher salaries, the country’s civil servants are seething over the recent awarding of $15 000 payouts to each of the country’s 211 members of Parliament. Teachers’ unions said the payouts exposed the government’s “insincerity” in dealing with repeated calls from the public service to address their material position.

The Zimbabwe Teachers Association’s chief executive, Sifiso Ndlovu said: “Government should not underestimate the anger that is latent in the civil service, their insincerity and insensitivity just shows that all the salary negotiations we have been holding are not genuine.”

“It’s one promise after the other,” agreed TUZ leader Manuel Nyawo. ‘Someone’ affords to pay $15 000 each to just 211 people, but those who matter in a government are useless to ‘him’ and they continue to wallow in poverty.”

But as Zimbabwe steps into the new year, observers say the threat of a civil servants’ strike could be a crucial indicator of what lies ahead for the unity government, which enters its third year next month.

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian, Tony Hawkins, an economics professor at the University of Zimbabwe said: “The civil servants are already making noise over salaries and this is a crucial indicator that jobs and money will remain the biggest challenge for the government this year.”

Zimbabwe reportedly has nearly 75 000 “ghost workers” in its civil service.

Hawkins said: “With the prospect of elections being held this year, no one in the unity government has the guts to take on a hugely unpopular decision to cut down on the civil service workforce, so we are likely to see a prolonged bloated wage bill.”

Previous overtures to quell anger among civil servants with promises of salary increases financed by the country’s Marange diamonds also seem unlikely to work this time, as the country’s Marange diamonds face growing resistance on the international market.

The United States, watchdogs Global Witness, Rapaport and diamond miners De Beers have all tightened the screws on the country’s Marange diamonds, boycotting its so-called “‘blood diamonds”, and further shrinking the available diamond market in which Zimbabwe can sell and earn projected annual earnings of $2-billion.

This year, diamonds are expected to chip in with $600-million, while the economic growth rate has been set at 9.4% by Finance Minister Tendai Biti. Economic analysts say a 6% growth rate is more realistic as the high risk of a global economic recession looms.

Meanwhile, the African Development Bank has also warned that the combination of elections being pushed for by Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party and the indigenisation programme were likely to affect Zimbabwe’s economic recovery prospects.

“The ongoing implementation of the indigenisation and economic empowerment laws and the expected national elections in 2012 continue to weaken external investor confidence”.

It added: “The achievement of the 2012 projections is therefore subject to a stable political and economic environment … and continued firming of the international commodity prices or increase in output.”