Educating The Masses An Analysis Of Zimbabwes

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Growing up in the United States, I never doubted that all levels of education would be available to me, at no cost through high school if I chose to enroll in the public school system. In my community, not only did almost everyone graduate from high school, the large majority of my counterparts and I continued our education at the undergraduate level. In such a community, it is easy to take such a privileged situation for granted, and forget that not all people have these resources so readily available to them.

While considering this, I developed an interest in Zimbabwe, a country that gained its independence a mere 31 years ago. Since then, it has significantly changed its own education system, aiming to increase its quality and make it available to all citizens. Emerging from a past dominated by colonial powers and scarred by segregation, Zimbabwe attempted to implement radical reforms in a short period of time. This paper analyzes Zimbabwe's colonial past, the changes to the education system that the independent Zimbabwean government made, the results of those changes, and the influence of the Western and developed world on the education system. In this paper I will argue that the Zimbabwean government was effective in establishing and implementing a new education system to be accessed by all its citizens, despite having just overcome a segregated colonial past. The results of the new education system were hindered by economic-driven Western influence.

The State of Education Prior to 1980

Zimbabweans, then known as South Rhodesians or Rhodesians, were caught in the middle of a power struggle in the 1950's and early '60's between the British Empire and its own white minority, which was represented by the Rhodesian Front. During this time, there were two education systems in place, both run by the Ministry of Education: the European Education Department and the African Education Department. Even though they were both run by the same ministry, the European Education Department received more money, and therefore offered an unarguably higher quality education than it's African counterpart (Dorsey 1989:41). In 1962, the Rhodesian Front gained control and issued new policies to limit the funds the African Education Department would receive. The system in place for black Rhodesians did not provide opportunities to most children, because as they progressed through the grades, admission to higher levels of education became increasingly competitive while tuition increased. This was in contrast to the system for white children, for whom education was both compulsory until the age of 15, and affordable for most (Dorsey 1989:42).

Finally in 1966, the Rhodesian Front realized they needed to make some changes in the education system to benefit the black population. They announced a 10-year plan to establish 300 junior secondary schools, however 10 years later only 59 had been built and their enrolment was significantly lower than the stated goal (Dorsey 1989:43). This segregated system remained in place throughout the 1960's and most of the 1970's, with black children unable to access the superior education provided to whites.

A year before independence, a coalition government was organized which included representatives of the black political parties, as an attempt to reach compromises between the black and white communities of Rhodesia (Dorsey 1989:43). The result was the Education act of 1979, which integrated the European and African Education Departments and reorganized schools into A, B, and C categories. While they were no longer legally segregated on the basis of race, the A schools were the former European Department schools, and were the most expensive. [1] B level schools cost less than A's, and C schools did not have any fees. Despite the lack of racial terminology, segregation along racial lines remained (Dorsey 1989:44). The fact that the white minority received such better treatment than the black population is consistent with European colonies throughout Africa, but is thought provoking nonetheless. At the time of Zimbabwean independence in 1980, only 3.5% of the population was white (Dorsey 1989:41).

Change Arrives with Zimbabwean Independence

The newly installed Zimbabwean government made a groundbreaking step forward by making education a right of all citizens. According to the National Report of the Republic of Zimbabwe (2001:7), "In order to redress these inequitable and discriminatory practices of successive colonial governments, the post-independence Republic of Zimbabwe government adopted the policy of education as a basic human right, and committed itself to universal and equal educational opportunity for all."

The National Report of the Republic of Zimbabwe provides a clear outline of the new education system: primary education ages 6-12, O-level secondary education ages 13-16, A-level secondary education ages 16-18, and finally Higher/Tertiary/Vocational Education at age 18. Students can either automatically progress to O-level or be accepted on the basis of previous examinations depending on the school. All schools accept students on the basis of their academic history to A-level secondary education (2001:10).

The focus of the educational reforms made by the Zimbabwean government was to provide education for all citizens, specifically regardless of race (Kanyongo 2005:66). The newly elected government, led by ZANU-PF head Robert Mugabe, inherited a system that heavily favored a racial minority; therefore providing all Zimbabweans with equal opportunities to receive an education is a logical goal.

In addition to restructuring the system as described above, the government implemented two other strategies to encourage more children to enroll. First, they made primary education compulsory, meaning they required all Zimbabweans to enroll through the age of 12. Second, they made primary education free; so all families could afford to send their children (National Report 2001:7).

According to Kanyongo (2005), Zimbabwe's educational reforms can be divided into two distinct periods, the first and second decades post - independence (66-67). Once the education system's new structure was set up, the first decade (1980's) was spent focusing on the quantity, namely the amount of schools provided for the people. This involved building more schoolhouses, training more teachers, and opening schools in previously unreached communities. Once education became available, the government shifted its focus to the quality of education, by reevaluating educational quality, specifically "content, technologies, teaching methodologies, skills provision…" (Kanyongo 2005:67).

Successes and Shortcomings of the Education Reforms

The results of the changes to the education system that the Zimbabwean government made are mixed. There are issues that still need to be addressed, and new issues that have emerged from the focus and financial commitment of the government on education. However before analyzing the weaknesses, there are several significant strengths for Zimbabweans to be proud of. Chief among them is the sheer amount of children who have been reached by the reforms, and now have access to primary and secondary education at little to no cost. According to Kanyongo (2005), enrollment rates for primary schools increased 177.5% from 1979-1989, and secondary school enrollment increased by 748.6% during the same time period (69). Amazingly, only a decade removed from a segregated system that failed to provide the vast majority of Zimbabweans with the most basic education, a brand new government was able to overhaul the system completely, and develop one of the most successful education systems in terms of students affected. This effort was made possible by a substantial increase in government spending on education; Kanyongo (2005) discusses an increase from 4.4% to 22.6% from 1979-1980 (69).

Kanyongo also lists gender and racial equity as two other successes of Zimbabwe's educational reforms, which are confirmed by the National Report (2001), which reports that female enrollment in primary education has remained steadily at 49% of the total enrollment, while the percentage in secondary education is around 47% of the total enrollment (28-30). The fact that primary and secondary education enrollments was split almost evenly between boys and girls only a decade into the new system is a remarkable achievement, especially considering the fact that in many Western democracies such as the United States it took women much longer to achieve equal educational opportunities. According to Edwards and Tisdell (1990), "The expansion of Zimbabwe's educational system has been rapid and impressive at all levels since independence. By 1984… all primary school age children had access to primary school places." (305). This is a remarkable feat, not all formerly colonized nations were able to organize such a rapid and widespread turnaround.

Despite the early successes of the educational reforms, the situation was not without several flaws. The government's policy focused on making education available, making it a policy focused on quality over quantity. This led to situations in which schools weren't prepared to educate the masses of children who had enrolled in the newly available system (Dorsey 1989:48). Another logical issue the new system faced was a lack of trained teachers, as the enrollments increased so did the class sizes and the amounts of classes.

As the 1980's progressed, economic conditions worsened in Zimbabwe. Unemployment rates increased, and it became difficult for students who had finished their primary and secondary education to find jobs relevant to their academic history. This called the curriculum of Zimbabwe's schools into question, as some people believed they should "focus on employment related skills and other essential skills." (Kanyongo 2005:73-74). The government heard those calls for increased practical education, as verified by the National Report, which stated that beginning in 2001, "every secondary school will offer at least two subjects among technical, vocational and commercial subjects." (2001:33).

Western Influence and Education Theory

Zimbabwe emerged as an independent nation at the height of the Cold War, when the United States and the USSR competed to influence their respective ideals in countries all over the world. So from the very beginning, they were subjected to outside influences. The government's policy mandating the provision of primary education for all was as socialist policy, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union Zimbabwe was forced to shift it's policies to align with the international trend of liberalization (Kanyongo 2005:71).

The most significant effect the Western world has had on Zimbabwe was the Economic Structural Adjustment Program (ESAP), designed by the International Monetary Fund and implemented in 1990. While it was understood from the outset that the ESAP would not solve Zimbabwe's economic crisis immediately, the results have been more negative than anticipated. "The introduction of the ESAP meant a departure from the previous state control and intervention in the economy, to liberal strategies recommended by the World Bank and the IMF… Social service expenditure [education included] has declined as a result… " (Nherera 2000). This attempt by the international community, represented by the IMF and World Bank, to revamp and strengthen the Zimbabwean economy for the long term has not only yet to do so, but has also caused issues in the social sector (such as a lessened priority on education).

What is the role of education in development? Two prominent theories that address this important question are the human capabilities approach, and the human capital approach. The former emphasizes one's acquisition of skills through his or her education that are beneficial to both the individual as well as the community, while the latter focuses on the community's acquisition of resources as a result of the presence of education (Wigley and Akkoyunlu-Wigley 2006:288-289). By acknowledging that access to basic education is a fundamental right, and should be provided to all citizens regardless of their economic background, the Zimbabwean government prescribed to the human capabilities approach. However, the implementation of ESAP forced Zimbabwe to focus on economic growth over the provision of social services (including education), and therefore shifted them towards a human capital approach. As a result of this shift in priorities, government spending on primary and secondary education declined by over 30% from 1990 to 1994 (Zimbabwe Human Development Report 1999).


Zimbabwe has experienced drastic changes since independence, 31 years ago. While under British rule, and later under the control of the Rhodesian Front, Zimbabwe's African population was provided with education that was sub-par by all standards. When they finally came to govern their own people, it comes as little surprise that a rapid reorganization and expansion of the education system was one of the government's priorities. During the first half of the 1980's, the height of the education system's expansion, poverty remained a humbling problem. However, the government's subscription to the human capabilities approach described above provided a basis for their provision of universal basic education.

The situation changed once ESAP was instituted. While Zimbabwe's economy was hurting and many believed it needed assistance from the international community, the ESAP reversed much of the progress the country made in the education sector. This gives rise to several questions. Does the international community have the right to impose such a program on a developing country? When the IMF and the World Bank encourage countries such as Zimbabwe to institute Structural Adjustment Programs, are they aware of the social ramifications that will take place? And finally the most fundamental, is basic education a universal right that should be provided by a government for all citizens? In Zimbabwe, the government clearly believed education is a universal right, to be provided to all, but Western influences have twice infringed on this right: pre-1980 as a colonial ruler, and post-1990 an implementer of ESAP. Looking ahead, international cooperation may help to produce programs that not only aid developing economies, but also promote the universal right to education.