A majority of Zimbabwe’s 300,000 civil servants find themselves in a predicament as the economic state of the southern African nation spirals out of control.
The country is beset by a ruinous economic crisis exacerbated by fluctuations in the currency, resulting in steep increase in the prices of goods and services.
The local currency is experiencing severe depreciation, with an exchange rate hovering around ZW$4000 to the US dollar.
This situation has brought hardship to numerous civil servants, as their average salary stands at ZW$50,000, equivalent to a paltry US$12.50.
Given the soaring cost of living, the US$200 portion of civil servants salaries prove to be inconsequential.
For instance, a civil servant living in a three-roomed house in the capital’s densely populated suburbs pays an average of US$260 for rent and utilities.
This expense already consumes a significant portion of the employee’s salary paid in US dollars. With the escalating prices of goods and services, a typical family of four requires an average of US$50 for groceries alone.
Consequently, the combined cost of rent and groceries amounts to US$310, leaving the civil servant with a deficit of US$110.
Transportation fares, which have escalated in line with the parallel market rates, further exacerbate this situation.
The cost of an average commute to Harare’s Central Business District (CBD) is approximately US$1.
For a civil servant employed in the CBD, transportation expenses can amount to an estimated US$45 monthly.
This figure increases for those whose workstations are in ministries or government departments located outside the city, with transportation costs potentially reaching around US$100.
Compounding their financial burden, schools commenced their second term two weeks ago, placing an expectation on civil servants to cover tuition fees for their children.
Numerous public and private schools have incited the ire of civil servants by insisting on school fees payment exclusively in US dollars, placing them in a precarious position of potentially being unable to afford their children’s education due to financial limitations.
The Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, in response to this predicament, has recently issued a statement pledging to enforce stringent measures against schools that persist in charging fees solely in US dollars.
“…all public and private schools must accept all forms of currency payment obtained in the country for school fees and levies. Therefore, the demand to receive payment exclusively in USD is not permissible and is contrary to the laws of the land,” reads part of the statement.
The Ministry added that ZWL is still the legal tender and guardians should be allowed to use it to pay fees and levies.
Despite the Ministry’s directives, numerous schools are demanding US dollar payment for tuition fees.
This unrelenting stance compounds the hardship faced by financially beleaguered government employees, who are grappling to make ends meet amidst an economically debilitating environment.
Their already scant wages prove insufficient in managing the escalating costs associated with their livelihood.
Adding to their woes, the Zimbabwe School Examinations Council (Zimsec) has fixed examination fees at US$55 or its equivalent for a minimum of five Ordinary level subjects, exacerbating the financial strain on these civil servants.
Prominent experts are raising their voices against this grave situation, indicating that it infringes upon the fundamental right to education, a cornerstone principle embodied within the Constitution.
These predicaments underscore the urgency for systematic changes that prioritise and safeguard the constitutional rights of citizens amidst economic adversities.
The cost of higher education in Zimbabwe has seen a significant surge, further intensifying the burden for civil servants.
For instance, students pursuing a law degree at the University of Zimbabwe now face a steep fee of ZW$375,000.
Those in the faculty of Social Sciences are expected to pay US$470 while those in the medical faculty have to pay US$724 or the equivalent.
A glance at a civil servant’s payslip from the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, in ZimSeen’s possession, reveals a net salary of merely ZW$13,000.
With such a meagre income, the dream of facilitating a child’s law school education, irrespective of their potential or academic prowess, appears unattainable.
Such circumstances have a ripple effect on the child’s mental well-being, possibly leading to psychological distress due to thwarted ambitions.
Takafira Zhou, president of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ), expressed concern over the untenability of the prevailing conditions.
“PTUZ has always argued for purchasing power parity of US$540. We are lobbying for a united front of teacher unions demanding payment in US$,” said Zhou.
“Government has been apprised of the urgent need to pay teachers US$540, while at the same time consultations among teachers’ unions are in progress.
Unfortunately, things have not been moving as fast as public servants envisioned.
“Government, as usual, has been intransigent and irresponsible, failing to appreciate the critical importance of teachers to the provision of skills necessary for sustainable development of the nation at large. It is incumbent upon underpaid teachers to unite, organise and fight for better salaries and improvement of working conditions.”
The situation is even worse for teachers or government workers who work far from their families and have to pay rent and food for themselves and their families.
“The government as an employer is exploiting and impoverishing us as a working class. We are aware of the billions of dollars lost every year through gold smuggling and illicit land deals which could generate revenue that could be used to create a sovereign wealth fund to finance education and remunerate workers,” said the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe president Obert Masaraure.
“Overall, the May 2023 inflation figures pose an existential threat to the welfare and livelihood of the teacher and we recommend that the government increases our salaries and pays us in US dollars or an equivalent of US $1260 to insulate the teacher from inflation.
“Government should, by all means, deter corruption and fiscal leakages and channel funds towards financing education and salaries. Government should also make decisions that affect our working conditions after consulting us,” he added.
Efforts to get a comment from Apex Council chairperson Cecilia Alexander on the Council’s position regarding the situation were fruitless.
The dedicated civil servants who find themselves grappling with financial challenges are also burdened with the responsibility of providing support to their aging parents residing in rural areas.
These individuals not only face their own economic hardships but also bear the additional weight of ensuring their parents’ well-being.
“The situation is dire. It appears there is no solution in sight and we have no idea where this will lead us,” said analyst Jethro Makumbe. ZimSeen