AMALGAMATED Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (Artuz) president Obert Masaraure has on several occasions claimed abduction by State security agents for fighting for better conditions of service for teachers.
He has also been accused of being one of the Trojan horses of the United States and the West to effect regime change in the country.
The Daily News on Sunday Senior Staff Writer Blessings Mashaya recently spoke to Masaraure on these and other issues. Below are the excerpts.
Q: What is the welfare of teachers in this country like?
A: Traditionally, teachers have been surviving on side hustles, the current salaries are too little to cater for the basics.
Unfortunately, the Covid-19 crisis has made it extremely difficult for one to engage in any rewarding side hustle. Our teachers now solely rely on their meagre salaries for survival.
Teachers earn an average of US$30, far below what is earned by a gardener in neighbouring South Africa.
The cost of living in Zimbabwe is 44 percent higher than that in South Africa, yet we earn five percent of the salary of a South African teacher.
Teachers can no longer afford health insurance, among other basics. We can’t afford to enrol our own children in the schools we teach. We have been reduced to paupers. We are better off taking to the streets to beg than teaching.
Q: Given what you have said, in your view, is the government taking teachers’ plight seriously?
A: The government is not taking education and other social services seriously. They have normalised the collapse of all public services. The situation in our hospitals is a clear testimony that we have an uncaring government.
Our call for a living wage paid in a stable currency is justified and legitimate.
The call is not inspired by any selfish interests, it is purely informed by the market. We are simply requesting a US$520 monthly salary so that we can cater for our basic needs.
The government has disregarded our call for a living wage and further mocks us for accepting the current salary. The late Agriculture minister Perrance Shiri was quoted mocking teachers’ salaries at a Rushinga rally. The president’s spokesperson, George Charamba, is also on record mocking underpaid teachers. They take us for granted.
Q: The government accuses unions such as yours of being used by opposition parties, what is your reaction?
A: There is a contradiction between our greedy employer and us underpaid restive employees. The contradiction is born out of underpayment for the services we render.
This can easily be addressed through genuine negotiations between the two parties. Unfortunately the government is choosing to play truancy with its employees.
Such truancy has forced us to resort to protests. Beyond the power of union membership, unions also have a right to mobilise for community support. We are now rallying learners and parents to our corner to help us push for better salaries.
We don’t work with any opposition party. We will, however, not bar any group of citizens from supporting us.
If opposition parties are pushing for better salaries for us, then we will heartily thank them for such solidarity.
The government should not waste time blaming those who support our cause, they should simply review our salaries to restore harmony.
Q: What is the way forward then?
A: We haven’t done everything; we have just initiated the process of building a genuine labour centre in the education sector. Teacher unionism has been heavily polluted, through a toxic culture of extorting membership subscriptions, but never delivering.
We always knew that it was going to be very difficult to renew trade unionism among teachers. Our conviction towards trade unionism renaissance in the education sector remains unshaken.
We have successfully spelt out our theory and have been consistently putting it into practice. The teachers are getting inspired and are now joining us in droves.
The next step is conducting massive training programmes for our members so that they fully appreciate their role as members of a trade union. We are building a movement of class conscious cadres who can be able to radically confront the employer when they are short-changed. The journey has just begun, we are proud of the results so far, but we will continue to work hard.
Q: You have been arrested and abducted several times, what motivates you to continue representing workers?
A: The welfare of my family is dependent on the size of my paycheck. When we are demanding better wages for teachers, we do it wholeheartedly because we are teachers.
We speak on behalf of our own families and on behalf of other teachers. Our government is forcing us to make difficult choices.
They force us to choose between starving at home or fighting for better, which usually attracts time in jail cells.
We choose to fight for the welfare of our families and we are not apologetic about it.
We refuse to accept the narrative that teaching is a peripheral profession. It is our considered view that teaching is a special profession which must be held in high regard.
We are determined to restore the dignity of the profession. We envisage a nation where teachers are well remunerated and in return they give quality education to our communities.
We hope to inspire others to stand up for themselves in the face of oppression and exploitation. The world can only be better when people are readily outraged when confronted with injustice.
Q: Is it reasonable to re-open schools this year?
A: The reopening of schools should be informed by scientific facts, research has to be conducted to establish the quantum of resources needed for safe schools re-opening.
Treasury and other developmental partners should be consulted to establish the timeframe needed to raise such funds.
The dates for schools reopening will be informed by the timelines set for successful raising of adequate funds.
Schools should only be opened when safety measures have been fully instituted in our schools. The learning calendar is not cast in stone, we can always reconstruct it to suit our contextual realities.
Q: Do you think there are enough teachers for schools re-opening?
A: If schools are going to safely reopen, there is a need to reduce class size to cater for the mandatory social distancing.
Zimbabwe needs an additional 90 000 teachers to complement the current 136 000 teachers. Our schools are heavily understaffed because of the austerity measures adopted by our government.
Q: As rural teachers, the government has introduced radio lessons, do you think this will work?
A: Radio lessons pose a barrier of access for those who don’t have the radios. Secondly the radio lessons are being conducted at national level, which makes the programmes less interactive and less effective.
Education radio channels should be launched at community level. Each district should have its own education radio channel, such channels should be run by practising teachers in a more coordinated fashion.
In the interim we are proposing offline remote learning to enhance access to education for marginalised communities. Under this programme, learning kiosks will be opened in schools.
Teachers prepare tasks for learners and learners will pick tasks in batches in a manner which minimises physical contact. Learners will submit feedback at the same kiosks for evaluation by the teachers. The programme will only be feasible if our teachers are paid a living wage and are highly motivated to conduct such an exercise.
Q: What are some of the problems in the country you think need to be urgently addressed?
A: The government of Zimbabwe should urgently arrest corruption, suspend misguided neoliberal policies, stimulate production, demilitarise State institutions and open democratic space.
In the immediate, workers’ salaries should be paid in a stable currency. The ultimate goal should be to eradicate poverty, the current situation is untenable.
The cancer of corruption has pushed the majority of our people into abject poverty. Our government is now a certified parasitic bourgeoisie; they have no appetite for production, but a big appetite for consumption.
This sick culture of consuming without producing is the key driver of the endemic poverty obtaining in our country.
Our civil service has literally collapsed because of underpayment of civil servants. We encourage the government to urgently pay salaries in a stable currency to restore normalcy in social service delivery.
Our fundamental rights and freedoms provided for by the constitution should be protected by the government.
It is sickening to see Jacob Ngarivhume being imprisoned for calling for a peaceful protest in line with Section 59 of our national Constitution.
It is a shame to see trade unionists being persecuted by the state for simply pushing for labour justice in line with Section 65 of Zimbabwe’s constitution.
State apparatus are sadly being deployed to terrorise citizens through abductions and torture. This must come to an end.
The much-hyped Transitional Stabilisation Programme, which is anchored in neoliberalism, has proven to be a monumental failure.
The programme has precipitated untold suffering among citizens and aided the collapse of our economy. (Finance minister) Mthuli Ncube must be fired from government and a new production-oriented and pro-poor economic blueprint must be adopted.