MUTARE, ZIMBABWE — After feeding his chickens and turkeys, Amos sifts through a heap of secondhand clothes, shaking down the ones he will sell from his backyard. This is far from the retirement he had imagined.
The former teacher lives in a dense suburb of Mutare, a city in the foothills of the Manica Highlands in eastern Zimbabwe. After 38 years of service, he had expected to enjoy a ripe pension when he retired in 2019. Instead, the monthly payout of 15,000 Zimbabwean dollars (ZWL) ($154) has forced him to work as a poultry farmer and salesman to make ends meet.
The pension is “barely enough” to survive, says Amos, who asked to use only his first name for fear of reprisals. Sitting on his verandah, the 64-year-old explains how more than half of his allowance is spent on medication to treat his high blood pressure and diabetes. He also is the legal guardian for his grandchildren and pays for their school fees. The extra jobs have become a necessity.
Amos is not an outlier in Zimbabwe, where two decades of political and economic turmoil have devalued pensions and plunged millions of retirees into poverty. Hyperinflation that began in 1999 eventually led in 2009 to the collapse of the original Zimbabwean dollar and the introduction of other currencies, including the United States dollar, eroding pensions. Economic austerity measures in 2018 diminished pensions once again.
In the education sector, the pension crisis is simultaneously fueling another crisis, according to teachers’ unions, who say the plight of retired teachers is putting the future of the teaching profession in jeopardy.
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“People are now shunning teaching, with the country losing [its] best minds through [a] brain drain” as Zimbabweans migrate for better-paid jobs, says Peter Machenjera, communications secretary of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe. “Teachers’ colleges right now are struggling to enroll new students.”
Working teachers also are voicing their discontent against poor salaries and conditions. There have been several countrywide strikes in recent years, demanding improvements. Concerns among teachers have only intensified during the coronavirus pandemic as a shortage of personal protective equipment led to a new wave of protests.
Paltry salaries and measly retirement packages have pushed current and former teachers “into perpetual poverty,” Machenjera says. “It can best be described as an insult to patriotic teachers who have served the government for years.”
Taungana Blessing Ndoro, communications director for the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, rejects the idea that inadequate pensions make it difficult to recruit talented teachers. A poor pension “does not equate to poor-quality teachers,” he says. “We have quality teachers in our schools.”
He didn’t respond to teachers’ concerns about poor salaries. But on the subject of pandemic safety, he says the government has now spent 909 million ZWL ($9.4 million) distributing protective materials such as masks to all public schools.
The pension crisis in Zimbabwe has been exacerbated by endemic corruption in the public sector.
“Those who are supposed to be managing pension funds are stealing from the coffers,” says Obert Masaraure, president of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe. He refers to a 2018 probe that found executives of a prominent pension fund pocketed allowances even as the fund failed to honor payouts to members. “How can we convince our youth to trust in education if their educators end up as paupers?”
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Zimbabwean pensioners, including but not limited to former teachers, have launched numerous complaints to the government in recent years. Paul Mavima, minister of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare, says his ministry has been asked to negotiate with local authorities to reduce or waive the taxes that pensioners are required to pay. “We will be doing necessary consultations,” he says.
Back in Mutare, in a neighborhood adjacent to where Amos lives, another retired teacher also faces financial problems.
Mutape remembers the golden era of teaching in Zimbabwe. Back in the 1980s, he says, teaching was a respected profession that came with the guarantee of a plump retirement.
“We used to send our children to good schools and live a comfortable life envied by many; I managed to buy a piece of land and built a house on it,” says Mutape, who asked to use an honorific that means “wise elder” in the local language, Ndau, instead of using his real name. He too fears retaliation for his views.
The educators who retired in the 1990s and early 2000s received rich pensions that allowed them to buy cars and even start up businesses, Mutape says. “Most of them got set up for life, which is what is expected from retirement.”
He says his own payout, which works out to $81 a month after he’s converted it from ZWL into U.S. currency, feels like “a mockery” after 33 years of service. The 65-year-old now grows and sells vegetables from his garden to supplement his income, disheartened that it has come to this. “We are not being given the recognition we deserve.”