Determined to demonise Robert Mugabe to the fullest, a west that is still bitter with the recently deceased Zimbabwean leader for seizing white-owned farms is not acknowledging some of the good things that he did. One was investment in the education sector.
When Mugabe’s ZANU-PF came into power in 1980, it dismantled a racialised education system through which Europeans were disproportionately funded more for education than the majority African population. Under the colonial Rhodesian government, European education was both compulsory and universal, with the government spending as much as 20 times more per European child than the African child. Recognising that education was the key to socio-economic and political transformation, Mugabe’s government made primary schooling tuition-free. The result was that in no time gross admission rates exceeded 100 percent and by 1990, Zimbabwe had achieved universal primary education. As a direct result of this investment, Zimbabwe would attain the highest literacy rate in Africa.
Mugabe recognised the importance of science and technology and in 1989, appointed a commission (the Williams Commission) to inquire into the establishment of a second university. The result was the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo in 1991, which was followed by a number of institutions in Zimbabwe that also had a focus on science and technology. The latter include the Chinhoyi University of Technology, the Harare Institute of Technology and the Scientific Industrial Research and Development Centre in Harare as well as polytechnics which produce technicians for various fields. These institutions offered industry-aligned quality education and over decades have been churning out highly skilled manpower.
Much like Sir Seretse Khama and Ketumile Masire did for their own countries, Mugabe also sent hundreds of young Zimbabweans to universities in the west, mainly in the United Kingdom.
To be clear, Mugabe made countless missteps as leader and one that did him in was the seizure of white-owned farms to bolster his party’s chances of winning crucial national elections. Immediately thereafter, the country’s economic fortunes changed for the worst. The silver lining in this dark cloud though was that Mugabe had equipped his people to deal with a situation such as this. Zimbabweans themselves acknowledge that Mugabe’s expenditure on education meant that even after he messed up the country, they were able to use the quality education they had acquired to fend for themselves not just regionally but internationally. Most of the Zimbabweans who are doing well in Botswana have Mugabe to thank for that.
Zimbabweans formed a significant portion of artisans who built South African stadiums ahead of the 2010 World Cup. Interestingly, it could have been Batswana doing that if Botswana’s founding president, Sir Seretse Khama, had been more supportive of the brigades movement that was started by the late Patrick Van Rensburg and provided young Batswana with valuable vocational education. A visionary par excellence, Van Rensburg started Swaneng Hill School in Serowe, Madiba Secondary School in Mahalapye and Shashe River School in Tonota which offered both academic and vocational education. In its glory days, Swaneng was consistently staffed by volunteer teachers who had graduated from elite western universities like Harvard and Yale in the United States as well as Oxford and Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Former Serowe South MP, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, and the late businessman and long-serving permanent secretary, Moses Lekaukau, are some of the luminaries that went to Swaneng.
These school-brigades were established at the height of the Cold War and it just so happened that Van Rensburg, a South African refugee, had aligned himself with the opposition and left-leaning Botswana National Front. Brigades could have improved lives a million times more than they did if the government had worked more closely with Van Rensburg. Some retain the view that Seretse Khama actually “sabotaged” them out of political expedience.
Zimbabwe is a quite interesting contrast with Botswana. Botswana is one of the Top 5 spenders on education but the outcome doesn’t reflect that. The country’s tertiary education institutions produce graduates who get sub-standard education and are thus not job-ready when they complete their studies. Last year, an engineering student at the Phakalane campus of the Gaborone Institute of Professional Studies told Sunday Standard as much. The student was studying Advanced Diploma in Diesel Plant Engineering and would have graduated by now. He said that during his industrial attachment programme with a marquee Gaborone company, he couldn’t perform certain basic mechanical tasks (like timing an injector) that he should have learned at school before being sent out on attachment. Asked if he thought he would be job-ready when he graduated, the student gave a simple if distressing answer: “No.”
Former Gaborone North MP, Haskins Nkaigwa, has implicated many more tertiary education schools in the provision of sub-standard education. Contributing to the 2017/18 budget allocation to the Ministry of Tertiary Education, Research, Science and Technology, Nkaigwa lamented the plight of graduates of institutions like Limkokwing University of Creative Technology, the Gaborone Universal College of Law and GIPS “who roam the streets with nothing to do.” He posed: “Can you employ someone whose CV states that they studied at GUC? No, you cannot employ them, you would rather employ someone from the University of Botswana.”
If Botswana ever goes down the path that Zimbabwe is on now, survival instincts will certainly force Batswana to seek greener pastures abroad and it is likely that some might end up hustling in a revitalised Harare and Bulawayo. They will find themselves unable to hustle as well as Zimbabweans presently are because of the quality of education that Nkaigwa and many more people are complaining about. In that regard, it is interesting to observe that while former president, Ian Khama, who typically aligns his thinking with the west and has no policy successes, has criticised Mugabe for being an ineffective leader. Ironically, Khama’s own vocational education initiative, Target 20 000, was so disastrous that it has had to be discontinued.
There is no running away from the fact that Mugabe was a cold-blooded murderer who slaughtered thousands of Zimbabweans and blundered badly by picking a fight that he couldn’t win when he seized white-owned farms. There is also no denying the fact that his investment in education is the reason Zimbabweans can fend for themselves not just regionally but internationally. That is a point that former Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar and South African politician, Bantu Holomisa, have harped on when reflecting on Mugabe’s legacy.