By Lelety Mabasa
Mariah turns on her back. She winces from pain as she stretches her arms. She sleeps on the ground, and her thin blankets hardly protect her from the rough surface. From her room, she calls out to her neighbour in the other room, telling her to bathe the kids as she will not be bathing early today. She is normally the first to use the bathroom, but she will be the last today - she is not going to work because nurses are on strike.
As she continues with her “sleep,” Mariah reflects back on her college days, when she and her friends could not wait to graduate. They dreamt of “making names for themselves out there. ” They fantasized about owning houses in the country's posh surburbs, being the first to have the latest model cars, having happy marriages and a modest family with three children who would all go to the best schools the country has to offer. These naively hopeful students also planned on buying nice houses for their parents.
That was four years ago.
Mariah comes to with a start - somebody is knocking on the door. Her friend Tendai creeps in with a long face. Extremely worried to see her friend in this mood, Mariah jumps to her feet and demands to know what has gone wrong.
A teacher at a school in another surburb, Tendai came to borrow money to get to work. Teachers are also on strike, as well as nurses, but she has to report to her school for the customary staff meetings. She knows very well that the meetings will further frustrate her, because they will yield no results. Again. How many times have civil servants complained about their salaries yet gotten nothing in the end? When the government makes adjustments, they are usually late. The value of any increase will have been walloped by the untamed inflation, currently standing at 3,713 per cent! How many times have civil servants asked for salaries in tandem to the Poverty Datum Line (PDL) and yet gotten a figure far below the PDL? At ZD $500 000 per month (US $2,000)*, teachers' gross salary is a far cry from the PDL figure currently listed at above ZD $1.7million – a figure that the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe asserts a family of 6 needed to survive in 2006.
Mariah is worried, she can not help it. Nurses have resolved to demonstrate by staying at home because their salaries are so low they can not afford a month’s bus fare. “Can't Brian help?” she asks. A lecturer at a local state university - one which used to be the country's beacon of education - Brian is Tendai's boyfriend. But no, he cannot help, either - lecturers are also striking to express their discontent with their paltry salaries.
Civil servants' strikes are now the order of the day in Zimbabwe. Once respected professionals, members of the country's public service are a laughing stock today. Their remuneration and working conditions are pathetic; everyone knows they are denied a decent living. While everyone in the country is facing economic hardships, civil servants are in an even more precarious position, as they are often intimidated if they dare protest going back to work.
In a recent development, Zimbabwe's public sector doctors and nurses went back on strike barely two months after they had returned to work from their last strike. The reason - salaries do not even cover their bus fare for the month. The result: nothing but promises, as usual. In the recent stalemate, Health Minister David Parirenyatwa assured disgruntled health professionals that their concerns were being looked into.
“We are doing all we can to ensure that our health professionals are remunerated in an appropriate manner. We fully appreciate the hyperinflationary environment we are living in and we would like all our health professionals to be adequately taken care of," Parirenyatwa was quoted in the government daily, Herald.
Earlier this year, Zimbabwe's nurses and doctors went on a prolonged strike for several weeks demanding better salaries and allowances. However, most of them returned to work after the government threatened to sack them.
Because of civil servants' perennial strikes, the country's health and educational systems are further crumbling, in a system that has already been widely described as collapsed. The most recent strike saw a closure of several wards in the capital’s main hospital and children's hospital, in Harare, while nutrition and the psychiatric patients went completely unattended.
Nurses' basic monthly salary has for a long time now been pegged at a meager ZD $111,000+ (US $444.00) and medical allowances were only adjusted when they went on strike earlier in the year.
Even with the inclusion of other allowances like transport and housing, state-registered nurses are earning less than ZD $550,000 (US $2,200); while grade 11 matrons are getting around ZD $800,000 (US $3,200) including allowances.
Poor pay and working conditions have led to massive desertions in the public sector. Earlier this year, the country's main teaching union, the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe ( PTUZ) reported that 5,000 teachers had left their jobs in 2005. Recent reports say that since January of this year, 4,500 teachers have laid down their chalk for good. Mass desertions are equally common among the security forces, which are also suffering low pay and poor working conditions.
Most teachers seem to be seeking greener pastures in neighbouring Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) countries like South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Lesotho. Soldiers and police officers are opting for South Africa, where even as security guards, they realize better returns for their services.
While, as stated, many health professionals have left for South Africa and Botswana in the SADC region, others are spreading their wings further, to countries abroad like United Kingdom and Australia.
Quoted elsewhere, the chairman of the parliamentary committee on health and child welfare, Dr Blessing Chebundo, attributed the ever more critical situation of losing trained professionals to the government's arrogance.
Said Chebundo, “There is obviously no commitment by government. Remember how doctors were threatened into returning to work? It is really sad that we are in the same situation again. Medial and educational professionals are back on strike. They want more money. And who is suffering at the end of the day? --It is the ordinary person!”
Editor's Note: The “Tsano Basket”, or market basket of common goods means, “tsaono” or tragedy. This month a 20 kg bag of maize that was $24 US dollars is now $315 US dollars. 65% of Zimbabweans are said to be living under the poverty datum line (PDT). However, NGOs working in Zimbabwe say that 80% of the population is living under the PDT, and 60-80% of the population is without jobs. The average Zimbabwean salary is reported to be from ZD $200,000 - $500,000 , which is the equivalent of US $800 - $2,000. * But, as reader Bertha Shoko astutely points out in her comment below, this figure is actually the equivalent of $10 USD when you account for conversion standards!
About the Author
Lelety Mabasa is the pen name of a Zimbabwean journalist based in Bulawayo. She has worked for both public and private owned newspapers in the country and holds a BSC Hons in Media and Society Studies from Zimbabwe's Midlands State University.