Perseverance, character and hope: The Conference of Heads of Independent Schools in Zimbabwe (CHISZ)

| March 23, 2015 | 0 Comments

By Tim Middleton

At a recent meeting with Sylivia Utete Masango, the then-newly appointed permanent secretary for primary and secondary education in Zimbabwe, some independent schools representatives posed a question.

Why, they queried, must schools gain permission four months in advance from the provincial education director of every province through which a school would have to travel to compete in sporting fixtures against another school?

An example was given that one school would have to gain permission from five provincial authorities if they were playing a certain other school. As the permanent secretary expressed her surprise, a state education officer gave a reason, but could not say anything when she dismissed his answer by saying: “The independent schools will probably fly – what happens then?”

In one short statement, she hit the nail on the head: independent schools are different. Yet throughout the 58 years that the Conference of Heads of Independent Schools in Zimbabwe (CHISZ) has existed, such insights from ministry officials have not always been obvious, nor has such respect been shown. Often it has been the principal who has been hit, not the nail. Zimbabwe may have gained its independence in 1980, but the fight for the right of independent schools to exist and thrive in this country continues.

Road safety in Zimbabwe: ‘C’ stands for challenges

The serious challenges one faces driving on the national roads in Zimbabwe mirror the challenges that CHISZ has faced. First, there have been potholes (the depth of which is never really seen or felt until one is actually in one) – including the banning of work permits for teachers from overseas;1 the attempt to indigenise independent schools; and the shortages of basic materials, from fuel to sports equipment to textbooks.2

The issue of ‘indigenisation’ is a particularly vexed one. The Zimbabwean Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Act, enacted in 2008, was generally aimed at empowering indigenous people who were disadvantaged before independence in 1980.3 The Act seeks to bestow majority ownership and control of the country’s major resources to the black majority. However, all Zimbabwean private schools (also known as trust schools) have for years been black-dominated – some by 95% – as are their boards of governors. Yet these facts have not stopped government from demanding that CHISZ schools gain state permission for raising fees,4 and led to the regular practice of principals and their governing board chairs ‘leaving town’ on Friday mornings in recent years to avoid weekend imprisonment for raising school fees ‘without permission’.

Then there have been the regular speed traps hiding at every corner. Over the last three years, on three different occasions, independent schools were given only three weeks’ notice that they must close a week (or more) early to allow for a national census, a referendum and an election to take place (the government can use schools as polling stations and teachers as election officers.) As a result, fixtures, functions and work schemes have had to be altered, with no extra time being allowed to catch up that which is missed.

CHISZ schools also face regular educational roadblocks. Our members must comply with government term dates and face numerous government regulations, such as requiring every school in the country to have the same uniform.5 Just as the introduction of tolls on all major Zimbabwean roads on either side of major cities five years ago produced a furore,6 so in the educational world CHISZ experienced tolls, as the tax department considered that schools with high fees must have considerable sums of money to spare. The resultant taxes on benefits for staff members have been relentless and have led to court cases.7

Then, just as taxis are often a peril to road users in Africa, so the private independent colleges that have sprung up – mostly without any licences and no relevant experience – have proved to be dangerous on the educational roadmap, as they do their own thing and lure unsuspecting parents through cheaper tariffs.8

And lastly, there are the animals wandering on the road that make driving extremely dangerous and unpredictable – so increasingly, we find parents who have no concept of independent schools, teachers with no experience in independent schools and external sport coaches who have no commitment to independent schools wandering around the scene – not understanding, not controlled and not equipped.

In short, we have had heads incarcerated, guns on team buses (when driving to away fixtures), school fees paid in fuel coupons, wages paid in cooking oil, pensions left in tatters, exoduses in waves, examinations in disarray.9 Such have been challenges that CHISZ has faced.

‘H’ stands for history

Like many other countries, there has been an increase in the demand for independent education in Zimbabwe,10 though much of it has been in waves.

While some private schools have been in existence for over 100 years,11 10 principals became founding members of CHISZ in 1956, while in 1974, 24 attended the annual conference. In the six years that followed, the number of member schools was reduced due to sanctions, political ostracism, border closures and the ‘bush war’.12 Upon achieving national independence in 1980, CHISZ membership stood at fifteen schools while only nine principals attended the annual conference; more than twenty years later there are over sixty schools, with almost all the new schools being co-educational, while previously they had been almost exclusively single-sex.

The quality of education and health services have proved to be the crucial factors in people staying or leaving the country, and many have chosen to stay in the land they love. But finding a good school is costly and as the economy has fluctuated, so has the movement of teachers and parents out of the country. In November 1997, there was huge concern in schools on ‘Black Friday’,13 when the exchange rate dropped suddenly from 8:1 to 16:1. And if that was a ‘black’ day, what colour could be used to describe the day when the exchange rate was trillions to one? Even in this present day, parents are pulling out of independent schools in large numbers, purely as they cannot afford fees any longer; companies no longer pay employees’ children’s school fees and hundreds of parents are facing retrenchment all the time.14

‘I’ stands for impact

In as much as the challenges noted have had an impact on the CHISZ schools, so it is worth considering in turn what impact the CHISZ schools have had on society. In the first place, it would appear that CHISZ has had an impact on countless individual pupils who have passed through the schools. Universities and companies all round the world have been taken aback by the quality of youngsters presented to them from Zimbabwe. They are seen to be well-rounded, positive, mature, responsible, confident, disciplined, well-mannered and respectful – a product, perhaps, of the widespread belief in CHISZ schools that “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character and character hope”.15

Second, it is clear that the rest of the world has benefited from the impact of CHISZ – not only through the pupils but also through the many CHISZ teachers (and principals), who have left the country to work elsewhere with a strong work ethic and professional commitment.16 The ‘product’ is good; it is in demand.

A sad reality, though, is that the vast majority of CHISZ graduates are not in Zimbabwe – they have gone elsewhere for their tertiary education, and have then stayed on to work and travel. It is only when they have their own children that they begin to think they would like to have their child receive a CHISZ education. So the impact of CHISZ on Zimbabwe is perhaps minimal. And for all emphases on ethics, morality and spirituality within our CHISZ schools, corruption remains high in Zimbabwe.17

‘S’ stands for strategies

What then might be seen to be the ‘secret’ of survival in Zimbabwe? Well, CHISZ schools have certainly mastered innovation! In the 1980s, schools produced annual budgets; by the late 1990s, there were termly budgets and fee increases; by the early 2000s, these became monthly budgets and increases; while by the mid-2000s, it slid to daily and literally hourly budgets, before budgets became non-existent – if you had money and the item was available now, then you had to buy it, as it would not be there tomorrow and if it was, it would be double the price!

In this article, I have used the Zimbabwean roads as an analogy. I would like to use one more, surfing. We have to know which wave to surf and which to leave. If we are not careful, the wave will bring us down and will come crashing down on us. We need to use the energy from the situation and not force our own drive. We need to see the big picture of education, not the end of our surfboard. We have to get through the breakers to get to the real wave. We need to have balance to ride the unexpected; flexibility to react; endurance to face the power; passion to continue again and again; humour to see the lighter side; patience to wait for the right time to move; perspective to see what is important and strength to move forward.

‘Z’ stands for Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe remains an extraordinary place, even though there are almost as many Zimbabweans living outside Zimbabwe as there are within. There is no better place to educate one’s children, because education (formal and informal) ranks high – and CHISZ has a huge part to play in that. So what does CHISZ stand for? A great deal. It stands for facing challenges, for creating history, for making an impact, for learning strategies and for changing Zimbabwe.

Category: Autumn 2015, Featured Articles

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