By Brendan Tiernan
IT was 3:40 pm on May 3, the day before the second term was due to reopen. The staff briefing of the morning was over; the crisp clear blue of a wintry Zimbabwean sky gleamed through my wi
ndows and the noisy chatter of returning boarders keen to meet with their fellows filtered in from the background.
Incongruously enough two police constables were shown into my office – Dzvairo and Mutinyinde. They said they had come from “DISPOL” (the rather Orwellian abbreviation for Harare District Police Headquarters) to tell me to close the school with immediate effect.
To do such a serious thing, I replied, I needed written authorisation. “Please could I see it?” No, they had none, but I could phone their superior. Several attempts to do this were unsuccessful, so I asked them to record my extreme reluctance to carry out this instruction without having sight of any official document.
On their way out, I suggested that if the school had to close the following day, they should go and warn our neighbour and parent (President Robert Mugabe) that he could not send his son to school. A wry grin indicated their reluctance to perform this frivolous request.
In truth this police visitation did not take us completely by surprise as messages from schools in the country areas about police closing their gates trickled in from midday. The day’s headlines in the official newspaper had also indicated that something was afoot although the chairman of the Association of Trust Schools – the local private schools’ umbrella body – had been assured by Education permanent secretary Stephen Mahere only a week before that school closures were not on the agenda and this had lulled us into believing that closure was not a likely outcome.
Any remaining doubts were dispelled the next morning when a couple of police constables were manning our gates by 6am, and we were left with no alternative but to ask boarders to return home and day scholars were not allowed through the gates.
A “softening up” process was launched on Wednesday evening whereby various heads around the country were arrested, and maintaining the fiction that they were responsible for raising fees, the police brought charges against them for supposedly violating the Education Act.
Two rather aggressive young constables knocked on my door at 7pm and said they were taking me in. This was a little euphemism. They had been sent on foot from Harare Central Police Station – a distance of about five km – and unless I could provide transport, on foot we would be returning.
On the grounds that I would phone to borrow school transport, I was able to make several calls for assistance before we drove to the police station. A rather unpleasant Inspector Rugara oversaw the taking of my particulars before I was led below to the holding cells to be detained overnight, according to them.
No charges were preferred. Happily for me, I was released about half an hour later – the result, I think, of a phone call from someone in authority. I was ordered to report back at 8am on Thursday when I was indeed charged with violating the Education Act by raising fees and then released.
My friend and colleague, Jon Calderwood, the Rector of Peterhouse, was detained for 18 hours at Marondera Police Station. More cheerful information reached us on Thursday that an application to the High Court by the Parents Teachers Association of our Preparatory School to have the minister’s closure of schools declared illegal was successful. The prep school waspermitted to open on Friday and the police at their gate removed. Despite this successful legal outcome, other schools including ourselves, continued to be blockaded by the police.
School authorities were informed to collect documents from Ministry of Education offices where they would be informed about the appropriate fees, to sign their agreement to these documents, and to return them by Friday at 4pm or risk the “nationalisation” of their schools. If they signed, the police would be removed and schools would be allowed to open on Monday.
In our document we were to be allowed to charge approximately one third of what our finance committee had recommended. Board members hastily gathered on Friday and consensus was reached that this was not a viable option. The document was not signed and we now await the response to this situation with some apprehension.
According to local media however, a majority of schools signed and opened on Monday. We may follow the Prep School’s route and seek an injunction in the High Court to have the closure declared illegal.The issue of fees is, of course, related to hyperinflation, which is at levels of 600%. In order to retain staff, most schools have endeavoured to keep salaries on track withinflation. Schools are self-supporting, depending entirely on their fee income for survival.
Inflation and mismanagement have wrought havoc on the government education sector. We were informed by the media that 80 government and mission school headmasters were recently suspended by the Ministry of Education for increasing, with parental consent, their “voluntary” levies without ministry approval.
Fees in the private sector and levies in the government sector, do require Ministry of Education approval but the Education Act also requires the ministry to respond to such applications “without delay”. Perhaps fearing the wrath of their political masters should they give the wrong answer, the ministry has become increasingly dilatory about making any responses to applications, seeking refuge in silence, and schools have gone ahead and implemented their fee and levy increases without formal approval. We submitted our application for fee increases in December prior to the current contretemps but have had no formal response.
Brendan Tiernan is the headmaster of St George’s College in Harare.