As the regime of Robert Mugabe crumbled unexpectedly before our very eyes, I could not help but recall why I left my university in California to do my doctoral fieldwork in rural Zimbabwe about a decade after the end of white rule.
What took me to places from Chinoyi to Nyanga was a question that intrigued scholars of African education around the world – how did Zimbabwe come to build and retain such a strong school system?
For South African students there was also a sense of a “model” for post-apartheid education.
To this day top universities send their marketing personnel to Zimbabwe to recruit talented students.
Zimbabwean teachers in South Africa make a significant contribution to science and mathematics achievement in township and rural schools.
Their students not only graduate from our universities; they often excel with bags of distinction.
The puzzle, of course, is how their schools survived not only colonialism but the dictatorship of their leader since independence, Mugabe.
Understanding Zimbabwean education might give some clues as to how we can turn around the abysmal state of education this side of Beit Bridge.
The answer, as usual, lies in the past. Successive Rhodesian governments did not take the authority for education away from the two main churches that continue to run Zimbabwe’s schools – the Anglicans and the Catholics.
Those schools maintained a strong culture of teaching and learning rooted in Christian values.
The educators saw teaching as a vocation, a higher call to duty that went way beyond the immediacies of classroom management or formal assessment.
In 1954, starting with the Bantu Education Act, the apartheid government took away the authority for education from the churches – who were allegedly misleading black children with the ideals of a liberal education – and placed control and administration of schools under the state.
That decision was an unmitigated disaster and set South African schools on a completely different track from that followed by our northern neighbour.
But Zimbabwe did something else. They retained the best of colonial education despite the heavy breathing from the nominally Marxist government on its commitment to a radical form of schooling.
The Marxist-Leninist curriculum called “Political Economy of Zimbabwe” never even left the government safe.
Instead, Mugabe’s government retained the most visible artefact of the colonial past in Anglophone Africa – the Cambridge “O- and A-level” examinations run by the Cambridge Examination Syndicate.
Why? Because those examinations set an uncompromising standard for education. What happened, therefore, was that the church school education set demanding teaching environments in the classroom which the Cambridge examinations in turn reinforced through the assessment standards for the children.
Now it is true, the Cambridge examination content was “localised” at various points since 1980 but it retained its prominence as a mark of superior achievement for those competing to study at local and international universities.
So what can South Africa learn from Zimbabwe?
For one, the new government needs to rebuild the culture of our schools. This is much more difficult than simply providing more infrastructure or additional teacher training. Our problem lies much, much deeper and that is in the disposition of school teachers and principals to their duties as educators.
On the positive side, it will require an effective campaign (yes, again) that inspires and motivates all teachers to take up their tasks with passion and commitment.
But it will also require putting an end to the reign of the majority teachers union over poor schools – the constant disruptions and the interference with educator appointments.
This new strategy should implement penalties for the chronic absenteeism (five teachers every day in many of our schools) but it also requires making the conditions for teaching much more attractive – 160 learners in a class will burn out any saint.
And then government should set a new standard for achievement. Life orientation should be taught at home or church. Mathematical literacy should be dropped from the curriculum.
And a national literacy and numeracy strategy should rebuild the foundations of education against elevated standards for reading, writing, counting and basic calculations.
You cannot set a standard without making it possible for learners and their teachers to attain that standard. This will require a completely new model of teacher development – not workshop-based training but individual coaching and mentoring of teachers without the vulnerability that a modified version of the old inspection system would impose.
It can be done, this rebuilding of outstanding school cultures from the top down (policy and planning) and from the bottom up (persuasion and persistence).
Which brings me to the final ingredient to make this work: political will.