Teachers: the heartbeat of education recovery in southern Africa

Photo Credit: Meri Hyoki, The Hub @ Morija

Teachers: the heartbeat of education recovery in southern Africa

Although international days predate the establishment of the United Nations (UN), the UN has embraced them as a powerful advocacy and lobbying tool. International days are proposed to the UN General Assembly by Member States (countries). World Teachers’ Day, held annually on the 5th October, is aimed at celebrating teachers globally.  The day commemorates the anniversary of the 1966 ILO/UNESCO Recommendation on the Status of Teachers, which establishes criteria for teachers’ rights and duties, initial and continuing education, recruiting, employment, and teaching and learning environments.

In 2020, the theme for the 2020 World Teachers’ Day was “Teachers: Leading in crisis, reimagining the future”. This was at a time when at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The year before the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) had reported that 1.59 billion learners accounting for 91% of learners from 192 countries had been affected by the abrupt closure of schools (UNESCO, 2019[1]). As part of the collective, many people joined a number of stakeholders in applauding teachers for rising to the occasion and ensuring that children continue to learn remotely during the pandemic. The remote learning was not without its challenges – it exposed longstanding inequality issues in the society. However, the day-to-day actions of teachers resulted in them emerging as unsung heroes and sheroes who averted a possibility of seeing a generation of learners losing future prospects due to the pandemic. The gravity of the situation was echoed by the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, who remarked: “The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest challenge the world has faced since the Second World War”[2]. George Soros – one of the world’s foremost philanthropists and founder of Open Society Foundations (OSF) has, over the years, repeatedly insisted “We are living in revolutionary times. In revolutionary times the impossible becomes possible.”[3] These words could not be truer and more incisive than in this current moment.

This year’s World Teachers’ Day theme is: “Teachers at the heart of education recovery”. A joint message released by Ms Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, Mr Guy Ryder, Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO), Ms Henrietta H. Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF, and Mr David Edwards, General Secretary of Education International (EI) states:On World Teachers’ Day, we are not only celebrating every teacher. We are calling on countries to invest in them and prioritize them in global education recovery efforts so that every learner has access to a qualified and supported teacher. Let’s stand with our teachers![4].


Who was the first teacher?

By default, the educated men and women of ancient times became teachers. Priests instilled in the children of the rich and noble the necessary abilities for them to assume leadership and business positions. Teacher appreciation was ubiquitous, and esteem for teachers was proportionate to their high societal worth. Ancient Greece, long-regarded as the cradle of philosophy and wisdom, understood the need of education for their children from early-on, with some families employing their own instructors. Appropriate teacher gratitude was a sine qua non (an indispensable obligation) for every self-respecting Greek in ancient times and I firmly believe that every self-respecting citizen today should follow the same path – valuing our teachers was, is and should continue to be sine qua non. Confucius (561B.C.), one of history’s most-educated individuals, established the world’s first private school and he became the first private teacher[5]. Sappho of Lesbos (l. c. 620-570 BCE) is often considered as the first woman teacher and she had a young women’s academy in the isle of Lesbos in Greece[6].


Partial safe reopening of schools

The Global Monitoring of School Closures Caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic,published by UNESCO website claims at least 127.9 million learners (accounting for 7.3% of learners enrolled at pre-primary, primary, lower-secondary, and upper-secondary levels of education [ISCED levels 0 to 3], as well as at tertiary education levels [ISCED levels 5 to 8]) are still affected by school closures related to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the start of this month, 17 countries around the world still had countrywide closures of schools related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and two of those countries are in Africa – Mozambique and Uganda[7]. This is unacceptable. Governments to do better.

Teacher Unions, civil society organizations and other stakeholders have repeatedly called for the safe reopening of schools, in line with national COVID-19 safety standards and precautions aligned to the guidance from the World Health Organisation (WHO). Recently,, the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) supported numerous teacher unions to lead this body of work in Eswatini, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi and Zimbabwe. Save to say, teachers have long been implementing the 2021 theme of the World Teachers’ Day by ensuring that their voices are heard and that their position at the heart of education recovery is widely-recognised. Based on the principle of “Nothing for us or about us, without us” I firmly believe that teachers, through their democratic teacher unions, have a right to demand a seat on the table.. Students too need to have their views given due weight, hence students unions through their umbrella union – the All Africa Students Union (ASSU) – have also received technical support from OSISA to amplify the voices of students in eleven (11) countries across southern Africa to highlight the urgent need for the safe reopening of schools and equitable access to learning opportunities during and post the pandemic.


Countries where teachers are prioritized to receive the COVID-19 vaccine

UNESCO, as the custodian of education-related data within the UN system, continues to urge all countries to prioritize teachers in national COVID-19 vaccine rollout plans so as to ensure education can continue safely and schools can either re-open or remain open. Recent data shows that despite the fact that protecting teachers is critical for schools to reopen safely, only 21 of 197 countries prioritized teachers in the initial phase of vaccination efforts, accounting for only 18 million primary and secondary teachers. Teachers were deemed as a priority category for the second round of vaccination in another 37 countries. Meanwhile, approximately 57 countries seem to place no emphasis on teachers, who are required to get vaccinated alongside “priority groups” in the broader population. This equates to about 19 million elementary and secondary school educators.[8] In southern Africa, teachers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Botswana and Madagascar remain outside the priority list to access the COVID-19 vaccines.  Why? What makes these countries different from those who have prioritised the inclusion of teachers in priority groups for COVID-19 vaccination? The answer: leadership. On this World Teachers’ Day, OSISA joins other stakeholders in amplifying the voice of teacher unions and other workers’ unions, healthcare workers for example. We pledge our solidarity and continue to advocate for the vaccination of teachers.

The WHO Working Committee, defines vaccine hesitancy as a “delay in accepting or refusing vaccination notwithstanding the availability of vaccine services.” Vaccine reluctance is a notion that precedes COVID-19 and has persisted for as long as vaccinations have existed. In 2019, the WHO classified vaccine hesitancy as one of the top ten global health risks because it “threatens to undermine progress achieved in addressing vaccine-preventable illnesses.”[9]Now that more countries in southern Africa have gone through the third wave, and COVID-19 vaccines are becoming more available, vaccine hesitancy seems to be on the increase. According to WHO, vaccine hesitancy is complex and context specific, varying across time, place and types of vaccines[10].


Fightback against Command Approach in COVID-19 Vaccination

Between July and August this year, the National Executive Council (NEC) of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ) implemented its resolution to sensitize teachers and citizens about the efficacy and safety of taking the COVID-19 vaccine. To that end, the union leaders led from the front by taking the jabs. The teachers nion hosted a webinar where Dr. Norman Matara of the Zimbabwe Doctors for Human Rights highlighted the Scientific arguments behind taking the COVID-19 vaccination., In early September Zimbabwe’s minister of Public Service shared an announcement that all civil servants had been mandated to  take the jab or they would not be allowed to report to work. The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) took the government to court and continues to resist the ‘Command Approach’ to COVID-19 vaccinations. ZCTU raised the illegality of mandatory vaccinations and insisted that the State should rather work collaboratively with civil society organizations to sensitize people about the efficacy and safety of taking the jab. The trade unions issued a joint statement challenging the ‘Command Approach’ to vaccinations and how it denies workers, including teachers, the fundamental freedom to choose to opt-in or out of the vaccination. While we completely support COVID-19 vaccination campaigns, we equally strongly condemn any form of intimidation and ‘Command Approach’ to vaccination. Individuals should be adequately informed about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine in order to make an informed decision.

At the height of COVID-19, Madagascar president, Andry Rajoelina, unveiled a locally developed herbal tonic called COVID-Organics, made from the Artemisia plant that contains antimalarial properties, hailing it as a traditional cure for the virus. This unproven concoction resulted in a number of unnecessary casualties. As a means to counter the rhetoric, when vaccines became available in Madagascar, the National Executive Council (NEC) of Sendikan’ny Mpampianatra Mpanabe eto Madagasikara (SEMPAMA Confederation– the teachers’ union) led from the front by taking COVID-19 vaccination. Furthermore, SEMPAMA through technical support from OSISA sensitized approximately 1,676 teachers (58% of which were women) who in turn sensitized approximately 44,300 learners (27,466 girls and 16,834 boys) from 90 schools in three regions in Madagascar (Alaotra Mangoro, Boeny and Analamanga). The message was about the prevention and control of the spread of COVID-19. In Eswatini, the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) provided psychosocial support to thousands of learners and teachers who have lost their relatives to COVID-19.


Tracing and facilitating re-enrolment of learners who fell pregnant

In Zimbabwe, ARTUZ trained over 500 union members to be at the heart of tracing and facilitating re-enrolment of learners who fell pregnant during the COVID-19 related school closures. The trained teachers identified and reported cases of child marriage and statutory rape of underage learners who fell pregnant. The trained advocated for an enabling school climate in order for the young women not to face secondary victimization from teachers and learners at school. In Malawi, Ukhondo Services Foundation (USEF) received technical support from OSISA to implement context-specific interventions aimed at tracing and helping married and pregnant school-going girls to re-enrol and finish their education post the COVID-19 pandemic in 6 districts in the country’s northern region.


Teacher Unions exposes corruption in the hiring of civil servants

In Madagascar, there is a problem of the casualization of many professions including teachers. Therefore, the state hires many people as temporal workers up until permanent positions are created and filled with the experienced temporal workers. SEMPAMA Confederation was hard at work, working to place teachers at the heart of education recovery when it exposed the alleged corruption in the hiring of civil servants who previously did not hold temporary positions as is the common practice. After the exposé by SEMPAMA the minister of Technical Education and Vocational Training was fired. The matter is now being handled by Anti-Corruption entities in the country. The reason SEMPAMA exposed the alleged rot was because funds misappropriated through irregular tendering or employment of none qualifying candidates affects the amounts of domestic resources which would have gone towards strengthening the quality of the education system in the country.

In Malawi, OSISA provided technical support to the Teachers Union of Malawi (TUM) to hold the government accountable for improving social accountability within the education sector in Malawi by the end of 2023. In a similar fashion to how teachers are accountable to the guardians of the learners in their care, the government of Malawi is also accountable to teachers, learners and its citizens, especially in its failure to ensure social accountability within the education sector. In 2020, the government received US$10millionfrom Global Partnership for Education (GPE) for COVID-19 education response plan towards promoting accessibility to distance learning initiatives. TUM, through technical support from OSISA geared towards improving accountability and leveraging of funds is actively participating in the joint monitoring of the GPE grant within the framework of the Malawi Education Sector Improvement Plan and government expenditure in the education sector.


Proposed action points

Moving forward, it is critical to re-establish teachers’ roles as important players in constructing more adaptable education systems that are robust to future shocks and guarantee equality, equity, and inclusion for all learners at all times. The transformations that we have witnessed in education and the challenges faced during the COVID-19 pandemic call for new forms of policy support for teachers for an effective recovery that leaves no one behind and lays the groundwork for developing resilience and rethinking education. Policy assistance is required in a number of areas, including teacher professional development, decision-making involvement, and working conditions. I will confine the article to the terms of working conditions: teachers must work in healthy, secure, and enabling settings that are devoid of bias, including gender-based discrimination, and provide security, reasonable working hours and pay, and chances for career growth. This would not only enhance the profession’s prestige, but it would also increase recruitment, retention, motivation, and, eventually, student learning.


Parting shot

As a parent, I am sure other parents and guardians can relate when I express my gratitude to all the teachers who have served as my child’s second parent and constant mentors. I honour and salute you. Once again, many thanks. I firmly believe that expressing appropriate teacher gratitude remains a sine qua non (an indispensable obligation) for every self-respecting parent or guardian. As stakeholders in the education sector, we will continue to closely monitor austerity measures which will come in the form of budget cuts in the education sector. We will stand in solidarity with the affected teachers as we support them to fight back and confront autocracy, corporate power and state capture, challenge inequality and promote just, inclusive and sustainable societies, promote and protect constitutionalism and human rights, democratise access to information and promote digital rights. You might be asking, dear reader: why does one take a firm stance on such a sensitive matter? To answer, simply, I will reference words found in words found in the ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ written by Martin Luther King Jr:“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”.

Happy 2021 World Teachers’ Day!

Written by Khetho Dlamini

Edited by Levison Kabwato