My aunt recently found out how much I pay for my son’s education. She was taken aback. “That is the same amount for university here in the US. Why does he need to go to a private school?”
I could have replied by telling her that the same broken system that required her to move to the US for better opportunities for her family was the system that is so broken that, to allow my son the opportunities I had, I need to actually pay ridiculous amounts for what we grew up believing was a given.
My aunt and I studied at government schools in Zimbabwe in the 80s and early 90s. And I know many of my peers all over the continent who did and they turned out all right.
Back then, the infrastructure in the government primary school we attended, which was a 10-minute walk from my home, was spectacular. There was a team of groundsmen who tended the sports fields and the school swimming pool. In my school-going days, when the Minister of Finance walked to parliament and showed his briefcase to journalists before the annual budget was announced, we knew a large percentage of the budget would go to education.
Unlike now, we actually saw what the money did for education. Teachers earned enough to have mortgages. In primary, I was at a government school and the annual fees that my parents paid for a full year were equivalent to our grocery shopping for two weeks of food.
In high school, I went to a Catholic boarding school which was partially funded by government and that was considered expensive because my annual school fees, which included food and uniform, were equal to a month of my mother’s salary as a civil servant. From Grade One until I finished A Levels, the teachers went on strike only once, when I was in Form Two.
A major reason for the system I grew up with, I suspect, was because corruption was about securing their not-too-bright children a place in a government school with a high pass rate. My high school counted the daughters of cabinet ministers among its students.
Once a month when our parents were allowed to visit, a regular “parent” was the late Zimbabwean First Lady, Sally Mugabe, who would be visiting her niece. She would spread her kitenge and have a picnic lunch with her niece like all the other parents were doing with their children.
The last time I visited my primary school three years back, paint was peeling and there was a dead cat in the dry hole in the ground where the swimming pool used to be.
Teachers’ morale was so low that a few of those I talked to wanted to know how they could “get papers”, preferring to cross the border and work as waiters in South Africa than to work in their profession.
Today, the systems that many of my peers and I grew up with in government schools, can only be experienced in private schools. We want our children to be able to learn to read, write and play sports as we did.
They have this. My 22-year- old niece, who went to a government school and is now in university, is unable to manoeuvre her way around the internet as fluently as her cousin.
My peers and I often overstretch ourselves financially. My son’s school with its favourable amenities, runs a British school curriculum. In History, this 11-year-old can tell you all the names of Henry VIII’s wives but none of his peers know when Africa Day is.
I had to enroll him in a football academy for the weekends where he plays with neighbourhood children so he could learn Swahili. But this cannot go on forever. At some point in time, my aunt, many of my peers and I will have to take stock and say no more.
Perhaps a regulation that all public servants should have their children in government schools in the country they are from can be a start. NA
By Zukiswa Wanner, first published in the July 2016 edition of New African