Outrage as dep minister fired over support for Indigenous languages


It is ironic that the Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Simelisizwe Sibanda, has been dismissed from his position for doing work that should have been done by his counterparts in the primary education ministry, analysts have said.

They say it is the primary education ministry’s job to ensure that the constitutional and human rights of children to be taught in their mother tongue are protected across the country.

On Monday, Sibanda was dismissed by the President of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa, from his deputy ministerial position. Although the reason for his dismissal was not stated, it is believed Sibanda, as an MP of Bubi, took it upon himself to rid his constituency of an Early Childhood Development (ECD) teacher who reportedly cannot speak the local language.

This was after Sibanda, who had gone to donate uniforms to primary school children at Clonnmore Primary School, 55 km out of Bulawayo, off Harare Road near Gloag High School on June 24, 2024, asked an ECD teacher who is not a local language speaker why she was in Matabeleland and tested her by asking her what “uqethu” is. Uqethu means grass, and it is part of a common tongue twister among IsiNdebele speakers that goes “Qum’ qethu, ‘gecu ‘qethu,” which simply means cut the grass.

Reports also say Bubi District education officials claimed the MP created another storm at Mbembeswana 1 Primary where Sibanda also castigated Shona teachers who cannot speak the local language.

The subject of teaching ECD classes in their native tongue has long been debated, with educationists, activists, and politicians in Matabeleland advocating for such adoption, particularly in teacher deployment.

In 2016, then Primary and Secondary Education Minister Lazarus Dokora said ECD classes in the country must be taught in indigenous languages. The infant phase covers ECD to Grade Two, with then Minister Dokora saying the development is part of the restructured curriculum already under implementation.

According to the new Heritage-based Education 5.0, ECD learners must be taught in their mother language, with the government saying that position is binding.

Zimbabwe’s Constitution also recognises 16 languages, while a 2018 policy mandates student teachers to learn three local languages beyond their own.

In an interview with CITE, Cultural studies expert Dr Khanyile Mlotshwa said if it is true that Sibanda has been dismissed for protecting young children from being compelled to learn in foreign languages in their home schools, “then this is ironic.”

“It is ironic in that the new Zimbabwean constitution that has a strong bill of rights also recognises many different languages in the country,” Dr Mlotshwa said.

“No matter what some other people might feel about isiNdebele, it is recognised in that constitution as well as ChiShona. Ndebele children have a human right to learn in their language. A teacher who cannot speak their mother tongue cannot be forced on these children, especially in their first 1,000 days at school. Sadly, this is something that has to be spoken about year in and year out, yet the government does not want to reform itself and stop treating other citizens as stepchildren of Zimbabwe. The marginalised people’s life is ironic in very strange and macabre ways.”

An educationist, Future Msebele, said it is “disheartening” to note that the parents of Clonnmore Primary School, who complained to the relevant minister about an issue which is part of Heritage Based Education 5.0 that President Mnangagwa envisioned, saw him sacked for addressing what is part of the policy. “This is seen as the continuation of the Gukurahundi programme. The programme of ethnocide should not be allowed to continue,” Msebele said.

The educationist noted that the villagers of Bubi District were not tribal at all, but had asked for the implementation of the new policy. “Is that too much to ask?” Msebele questioned, adding that to solve the issue of languages taught in schools, it is time for the people of Matabeleland to call for devolution. “The provincial government should be responsible for policy implementation. The training, recruitment, and staffing of educators should be decentralised.”

Renowned academic Dr. Samukele Hadebe, whose Ph.D. was entirely written in IsiNdebele, said teaching children, particularly at ECD, in the language they understand is critical and denying them that opportunity is “deliberately” giving them unequal education.

“Teaching in schools is socialising children into future adults and responsible citizens to play various roles in their respective families, communities, and society at large. Education is imparting culture, philosophy, and giving lifelong skills needed for survival,” he said.

“If you teach children in a language that they do not understand, or they are taught by someone they cannot understand, it means you are deliberately giving unequal education. You are designing that education to create some children to be future slaves for other children whom you want them to be masters over those that have poor education in the same country.”

Dr Hadebe said learners, especially beginners, must learn in a familiar language, which is their mother tongue. “If they do not understand the language of instruction, no learning can happen,” he said. “Similarly, if a teacher cannot converse with learners in a language they know, then no teaching is possible.”

Dr Hadebe wondered why the government still allowed children to be taught in languages they “barely” understand while the teachers are “happy with such criminal behaviour.”

He added: “A teacher who is deployed to do what he or she is not capable of doing is a criminal. It is deliberate and calculated to deny such learners equal access to knowledge and learning,” Dr. Hadebe said, explaining that the deployment of teachers is a government policy.

“When we come to the deployment of teachers, it is government policy, so if the government is telling us that it is following colonial education, where the White man made sure Blacks did not get the same education as them, we are then saying the government that deploys teachers can’t help learners in Matabeleland and wants to keep the people of Matabeleland poor, marginalised, or unemployable.”

Dr Hadebe noted that calling for the able teaching of local languages did not mean Zimbabweans wanted to decolonise education; rather, the point was the deployment of capable teachers. “Why do you deploy a teacher in the way you do without seeing their background? The policy is there, and we want to see you implement it. Do we see the 16 languages in use in Zimbabwe? The answer is no!” he said.

The lack of minority languages’ visibility, according to Dr Hadebe, reflects the government’s intention of wanting to create a master and a slaves group. “A group of three: the rich and the poor, the marginalised and the privileged, this is what this deployment means. It was the same under colonialism where Blacks were the servant race and Whites the master race. It was all shaped in schools through an education system,” said the academic who described it as unfortunate.

“After independence, we still have a colonial-type set up. Instead of racial inequalities, we now have ethnic ones with one ruling tribe subjugating the rest into inferior third-rate citizens.” Dr. Hadebe said the solution can only come from a government to implement the policy and ‘carefully’ deploy.

“The solution is clear. Education is not done by individuals, or teachers at school. Education is a department in government; it is socialising children for the future,” he said. “The government is responsible for building future citizens, so you can’t do anything to the headmaster, or the teacher; you have to address the government,” he said.

The Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ) leader, Obert Masaraure, concurred that the Zanu PF regime inherited and perfected the divisive governance system of Rhodesia, which was designed to keep the Shona and Ndebele people divided. “

Zimbabwe has a Harare problem. Our governance system is over-centralised in Harare; decisions made from Harare are not compatible with the lived realities of all regions. Such a system deliberately marginalises sections of Matabeleland,” he said.

Masaraure said the Gukurahundi genocide worsened the situation by further dividing the ethnic groups. “Harare has therefore systematically denied some learners opportunities to progress professionally. Deployment is also centralised and run by some Shona supremacists.”

Meanwhile, the unionist said the solution is building class consciousness among the oppressed majority, “to realise that regardless of the ethnic group, we are all oppressed as working people.” Masaraure also proposed devolving governance and allowing regions to manage their affairs, including teacher deployment, mandatory learning of an additional indigenous language for all citizens, and setting teacher professional standards on the expected language of instruction for all levels of learning as part of the solutions to the problem.

Mbuso Fuzwayo, Secretary General of Ibhetshu LikaZulu, a local pressure group, said it was unfortunate that Zimbabwe is led by tribalists, not builders, who have caused society to be deeply polarised.

“Tribalism is promoted at the top by the leadership. It’s not about promoting diversity; minority languages are a victim of majoritarian politics,” said Fuzwayo.

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