Lecturers at four public universities strike over pay

Riled by non-payment of February salaries and bonuses from December, lecturers at some public universities in Zimbabwe have gone on strike over the last two weeks. At least four universities across the country saw anger spill into the streets – but the government quickly resolved the problem before it spiralled out of control by providing much-needed funds.

The University of Zimbabwe in Harare, Midlands State University in Gweru, National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo and Great Zimbabwe University in Masvingo province took turns to down tools.

Zimbabwe has 10 public universities, and President Robert Mugabe is chancellor of all of them.

The strikes

At Midlands State University or MSU, 430 lecturers went on strike on 13 March. The Midlands State University Lecturers Association or MSULA said in a statement they would only go back to work after getting paid.

“Our members will not be returning to work until they receive their salaries because, as it stands, they have no money for transport and neither do we have food in our homes,” MSULA said. On 17 March the university paid each lecturer a half-salary of US$800.

One lecturer said in a telephone interview that the strikers would return to work on 18 March while waiting for the remaining payments. The university has been struggling to pay lecturer salaries on time since last year and has been shifting pay dates without notice.

Staff at the National University of Science and Technology or NUST went on strike on 16 March, with lecturers and other staff demanding that government pays them outstanding February salaries and December bonuses.

At Masvingo’s Great Zimbabwe University, lecturers and non-teaching staff have also gone on strike, protesting against non-payment of salaries since January and outstanding December bonuses.

Another institution, Bindura University, was reported to have advanced US$200 each to lecturers last week so that they could continue working until they get their salaries.

More action at University of Zimbabwe

After lecturers and catering staff went on strike on 17 February at the University of Zimbabwe, demanding outstanding February salaries, students joined the demonstration saying they were hungry.

The University of Zimbabwe authorities temporarily closed the institution from 17 to 24 March, saying they intended to address issues that required immediate attention. The riot police stood on guard to prevent violence from erupting.

Students were told to vacate the halls of residence and the university campus with immediate effect. A threat of court action, however, forced the University of Zimbabwe to re-open hardly 24 hours after it had issued a statement advising students that it would be closing for a week.

Lawyers representing the students said the decision by authorities to arbitrarily evict those residing in the institution’s halls of residence was ill-advised as it interrupted the students’ fundamental rights that include the right to shelter and the right to food.

University of Zimbabwe Vice-chancellor Levi Nyagura reversed the closure last Wednesday, saying in a statement that “urgent issues that needed immediate attention have now been resolved”.

Government intervention

According to local reports, Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development, Oppah Muchinguri, said government released outstanding salaries for lecturers and staff last Tuesday to stop the strike.

Muchinguri said funds for salaries would be released but bonuses would be staggered. She requested universities to resume teaching, learning and research activities immediately.

She said the failure to pay salaries was a result of financial challenges facing the government.

A wave of lecturer strikes is not new to Zimbabwe. Last month academics protested against poor working conditions, late salary payments and the government’s failure to pay them 2014 bonuses.

The latest strike, which began earlier this month, has put pressure on a government battling with a rising wage bill amid limited resources. In a recent letter to Muchinguri, state university council chairs and lecturers demanded a fixed pay date, as is the case with all the other government-funded institutions.

The dons did not take kindly to the fact that the government paid soldiers and police bonuses late last year, and teachers, nurses and doctors received 13th cheques in January, yet there has been no firm commitment to pay academics' bonuses.