Zimbabwe orders school fee cuts as economy struggles

HARARE – Zimbabwe's cash strapped government has ordered all state schools to slash their fees as it struggles with an economic crisis desperately crying out for massive foreign aid, a local official newspaper said on Sunday.

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai told a Friday May Day rally a new unity government he formed with his rival President Robert Mugabe in February to try end a political and economic crisis was broke and could not meet union demands for higher wages.

Zimbabwe’s Sunday Mail newspaper said Education Minister David Coltart had recommended state schools catering for a majority of Zimbabwean students should cut their fees when they open for a new term on Tuesday because many parents could not afford them.

"I cannot divulge the figures at the moment because the recommendations are going to the (government) principals Mugabe, Tsvangirai and Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara on Monday. However, what we want are substantial cuts," he was quoted as saying.

Coltart was not available for further comment. The Sunday Mail said the minister was reducing the fees because Zimbabwe had so far failed to get the huge financial aid it needs to repair a shattered economy with a 90 percent jobless rate.

The Zimbabwean government set school fees in state schools at between $20 and $280 a term two months ago, but many parents have failed to pay, citing low wages and high living costs.

"When the (school) fees were set in March, the assumption was that we would get balance of payments support (to) kick start the economy. But this has not materialised and parents are worse off than before," Coltart said.

On Friday, Tsvangirai said the power-sharing administration his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) had formed with Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party was bankrupt and unable to raise the current monthly salary of $100 it is paying its workers to the $454 being demanded as a minimum wage by unions. 

Besides a crumbling infrastructure, mirrored in potholed roads and broken sewers in towns across the country, Zimbabwe’s once sound education system is also wasting away under the economic crisis.

The country’s top Zimbabwe University in Harare has been closed for close to a year now with broken toilets and without piped water.

State media reported on Sunday only 68 students out of 12,000 had fully paid their fees of about $300 when the college tried to reopen in March, and it was also now appealing for foreign assistance.

Zimbabwe said last week it had secured $400 million in credit lines from African states to revive some of its ailing industries, many operating at below 20 percent of their capacity.

But analysts say Zimbabwe badly needs billions of dollars from Western donors, who are demanding broad economic and political reforms, including ending a new wave of farm invasions by Mugabe’s supporters, before they release any huge amounts.

Mugabe, 85, Zimbabwe’s ruler since independence from Britain in 1980, denies any blame for the southern African country’s crisis and says the economy has been sabotaged by "racist" enemies of his seizures of white farms for landless blacks. )