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How Zimbabwe's Schools Fell Apart

Our expertise is bound to increase, as more and more educational and technical institutions are established to transform our skilled manpower. The whole world is looking on us this day.
Robert Mugabe, in a 1980 speech to Zimbabwe celebrating its independence

Illustrations by Nusha Ashjaee | Photos by Linda Mujuru and Talent Gumpo, GPJ Zimbabwe | By Linda Mujuru and GPJ Staff

When Robert Mugabe came to power in Zimbabwe in 1980 after years of fighting for the country’s independence, he made one thing very clear: Black Zimbabweans would take advantage of all the benefits that had for so long been reserved for the white elites who ruled the country during the colonial era.

At the foundation of Mugabe’s promise to his people was a quality education system, which had for generations been out of reach for most of the country. (Read more about that here.)

Primary school would be free for every Zimbabwean, Mugabe said. Immediately, school enrollment exploded and schools were built to meet it.

It was an era of jubilation and optimism. Mugabe was widely revered as a hero.

Soon, though, the new system faltered. The breakneck speed of its expansion left schools overcrowded and with scant resources. Meanwhile, Mugabe fomented serious human-rights abuses. Opposition movements were violently quelled. Torture and disappearances were common.

Then came economic collapse. Hyperinflation made even the cushiest salaries insufficient for basic daily needs.

By the time Mugabe was pushed from office in late 2017, he was deeply feared by his own people, rejected by other world leaders and widely viewed as having destroyed his country’s once-significant potential for economic and social strength.

1980

After years of war, the Rhodesian government falls and the nation of Zimbabwe, under Robert Mugabe’s leadership, is established. Mugabe announces that every Zimbabwean is owed an education. School enrollment increases by nearly 50 percent over the previous year, and new teacher trainings begin to fill slots. Violent conflicts between the military and civilians begin in areas that Mugabe’s government believed were opposition strongholds.

1982

Vocational schools, long used to ensure that black students were trained for manual labor instead of management, are converted into academic schools. Education officials begin to develop a new, national curriculum focused on Zimbabwe’s culture and history.

1983

Mugabe’s government attacks Zimbabwe’s Ndebele minority in an operation known as “Gukurahundi,” a Shona word referring to the early rain that washes away the chaff. The Ndebele largely supported Joshua Nkomo, Mugabe’s rival. It’s estimated that 20,000 or more people were killed by government forces during the next few years.

(Read more about the long-term impact of the government’s attitude toward the Ndebele here.)

1985

My name is Nyumwai Bere. I'm 55 years old and learned at a government school. I completed my O level in 1985. I didn't pass, because resources in schools were lacking.
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1987

The Education Act requires that school courses be taught in Shona, Ndebele or English – three widely-used languages in Zimbabwe – depending on the mother tongue of the local community.

Your View

Zimbabwe achieved near-universal education and a high literacy rate in the 1980s. Did you attend school in Zimbabwe during that era? Did you graduate? Why or why not?

1990

Egneta Mamvura, born in 1980. I'm 38 years. I learned at a private school and finished my O level in 1999. I passed, because we had books for writing and reading, and we would get them all from school, unlike now where books needed by students from ECD [that] we have to buy as parents. Life is hard. People cannot afford the books, and students are disadvantaged, and yet they have no laptops or internet access needed under the new curriculum. This is causing students to fail, because they do not have enough learning material.
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1991

The Education Act is amended to allow primary schools to charge fees to cover basic expenses.

Your View

By the 1990s, Zimbabwe’s government was struggling to pay for its overhauled education system. Did you attend a public school in Zimbabwe during that era? Did your school charge fees? How much were those fees?

1992

Severe drought occurs, turning Zimbabwe from a nation with a food surplus into a food importer. The Land Acquisition Act paves the way for the government to seize private land.

1995

My name is Victoria Tariro Chikoko. I’m age 38. I went to a public school. I did my O level in 1995, and I passed with six O level. I passed because of hard work. And our teachers, then, were very hard-working. We never had to go for extra lessons. They taught us those lessons in class, and that made us pass.
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1995 - 1996

The Zimbabwe School Examinations Council (Zimsec) takes over the nation’s educational testing from the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, a British agency, in 1995.

By 1996, 89 percent of secondary-school teachers are professionally trained, up from 48 percent in 1990.

(Read more about Zimbabwe’s infamous extra lessons here.)

Your View

Are you or were you a teacher in Zimbabwe’s public schools? Were you trained in Zimbabwe? Why did you decide to become a teacher?

1998 - 1999

Zimbabwe sends troops to Democratic Republic of Congo in 1998. Riots occur in response to high food prices. The Nziramasanga Commission is formed to review Zimbabwe’s faltering education system.

The International Monetary Fund and other foreign-aid lenders cut off aid to Zimbabwe in 1999.

(Read more about private schools in Zimbabwe here.)

2000

Violent groups, spurred on by Mugabe, seize large, thriving farms from white farmers, in response to colonial-era practices in which black Zimbabweans were barred from owning much of the country’s fertile land. But many of the new landowners allow the farms to go to waste, sparking a widespread food shortage. The land seizures continue for years.

2001 - 2003

The Basic Education Assistance Module (BEAM) program launches in 2001 to provide money for school fees, exam fees and other costs to students who require financial assistance.

Unemployment reaches 60 percent in 2002.

By 2003, it’s estimated that half a million skilled workers have left the country.

2005

Operation Murambatsvina, a sweeping demolition of illegally built homes and other structures, displaces an estimated 700,000 people and disrupts education for thousands of children.

Your View

Did you attend public school in Zimbabwe in the 2000s? Was there a school near enough to where you lived for you to attend regularly? What was the quality of that school?

2006

My name is Don Chiteka. I'm 27 years old, and l sat for my O level exams in 2006. I did pass my exams, and I learned at a boarding school, All Souls Mission. I did pass because of the fact that the environment was conducive for me to excel in my studies. It provided a situation where those who wanted to learn, they could, and those who were not willing also did not take advantage of such an opportunity. But largely it's due to the time that I had to put into my studies, reading but as well as the education from the school side, the teachers. Things were done, although they were not done in a manner which l would say was perfect, but I would classify that, if done, can improve someone's life. They were mediocre, but really actually helped me.
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2008 - 2011

Violence against opposition groups surges in 2008, with Mugabe supporters engaging in increasing brutality, especially during a tense election season. The inflation rate hits 89 sextillion percent. Only about 12 percent of students who take Ordinary level exams at the end of secondary school pass them.

Zimbabwe loses 75 percent of its teachers between 2000 and 2009, in a major brain drain. The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe announces plans to print a $100-trillion note.

In 2011, education ministries receive the largest share of the government budget.

(Read more about how some innovators are working to help students here.)

2013

A teacher's salary is $280 per month in U.S. dollars. At the same time, a monthly share of basic goods for a family of five costs $572.

2014

My name is Vimbai Kamudende. I went to a public school. I'm 20 years in age. 2014, that’s when I finished my O level. I passed because my parents had to pay my teachers extra lessons for me to pass, because in class they were not really that dedicated, so we had to pay an extra fee for me to pass my O level.
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2015

The ongoing economic crisis intensifies, ultimately causing a severe cash shortage.

2016

My name is Takudzwa Munamati. I'm 17 years old. I learned at a private school, Fanta College, and finished my O level in 2016. I failed, because most of the times I would be chased away from school for non-payment of fees, so that caused me to fail.
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2017

Mugabe is forced from the presidency. Emmerson Mnangagwa takes his place and announces that Zimbabwe is "open for business."

Your View

In your opinion, did Zimbabwe’s schools improve over time under Mugabe’s leadership?