By Brenna Matendere
Thousands of pupils at Southlea Park, a community primary school in Harare South, face a bleak future after a controversial decision by a dodgy consortium to turn the learning centre in the low-income suburb into a private institution, it has been established.
Angry parents, who have already protested on several occasions — at one time reportedly forcing the deployment of an army stick to quell violence — suspect that the consortium bribed senior education officials to privatise the school, which they helped build.
The development has revived the controversy surrounding the ownership of the land on which the school is built, with the name of Phillip Chiyangwa, a real estate mogul and a top-ranking ruling Zanu PF politician, cropping up once again.
An investigation by The Standard, working in partnership with Information for Development Trust (IDT), has established that one of Chiyangwa’s companies, Sensene (Pvt) Ltd, is part of a hazy 56-member group named Odar Housing Development Consortium that the Primary and Secondary Education ministry is now saying owns the school.
The IDT is a non-profit organisation supporting the media to expose corruption and other forms of bad governance in the public and private sectors.
Parents said they contributed US$150 each towards the construction of the school — which has posted some of the best Grade Seven results in Harare in recent years — on the understanding that, upon completion, the community would run the centre through a board, with the help of the centre’s development committee.
But the consortium, it emerged, now wants to run the school, with sources saying it has indicated that it intends to peg fees at around US$500 per term in a community where most of the households live on less than a dollar a day and is largely un-serviced.
That would turn the school into a preserve for the rich, forcing the parents and guardians to look for learning centres in other areas.
However, almost midway through the year, the thousands of affected learners are unlikely to get alternative schools to go to and, even if they did, they would have to spend more on transport and related expenses.
Tumisang Thabela, the Primary and Secondary School ministry’s permanent secretary, recently announced that government was in the process of withdrawing its teachers from the school to make way for the full privatisation of the learning centre.
In a letter dated December 28, 2019, which the authorities have kept away from the parents and the school development committee, Thabela wrote to Odar Housing Development Consortium indicating that Southlea Park was turned into a private institution since December 1, 2018.
It was not immediately clear why the correspondence was not copied to the school, whose Grade Seven results have been repeatedly hard to obtain online in the past two years because of the disputed status of the school.
And the letter was posted on the school’s notice board last Tuesday when protests by the parents had already started.
But government has been deploying to and paying teachers at the school until recently when it announced a phased withdrawal of its teachers on the pretext that it was improper to pay the salaries of employees at a private institution.
Currently, parents are paying $2 500 per term in local currency, translating to about US$30 on the official bank rate, with a significant number of the guardians running into arrears because they cannot afford to pay on time, according to sources who spoke to The Standard.
Parents now say they were caught unawares.
“We were not told that the school was private property when we sent our children there,” said an angry parent.
“Why was this not disclosed to us? The school was built with the assistance of the parents, who were contributing their money to build it.
“So, how come it is now being said it is private property?”
A member of the school development committee, who requested anonymity, said they had been told in internal meetings that the land belonged to Chiyangwa and other property developers, who wanted to take over the school.
Odar Farm was acquired by the government on June 16, 2006 under a deed of transfer, number 816/65, during a government programme, Garikai /Hlalani Kuhle.
This followed the 2005 Operation Murambatsvina (Drive out the Dirt), which saw the police, municipality and other security departments razing down purported illegal settlements that, according to the United Nations, internally displaced an estimated 700 000 people.
International organisations like Amnesty International condemned the operation as a sting clampdown to punish voters aligned to the main opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change, and described Garikai as an attempt to manage the widespread condemnation that followed.
The acquisition was confirmed by an Administrative Court affirmation on December 16, 2010 under Case No LA 6065 24 2012 and June 17, 2013 under Judgement No SC25/2013.
In 2006, the government, through the Local Government ministry, entered into an agreement with Odar for the consortium to establish a housing project.
Under the agreement, government would compensate the previous farm owner, the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA), for improvements made on the farm.
Under mysterious circumstances, government went ahead and entered into a different agreement with Chiyangwa on April 9 2015 to cede the farm to Sensene, his outfit.
Chiyangwa refused to shed light on his involvement and lost his cool during an interview, referring questions to one Matenga, who could not be located by the time of publication.
The property mogul repeatedly dodged responding to whether the school was his property or not, but kept referring to the land in question as “my money”.
“I am not going to get into that conversation. Don’t call me about that,” Chiyangwa fumed.
“ I will not have any conversation at all with you on that.
“I can’t clear anything about my money. Are you the Reserve Bank? Whether the land or the school are mine has nothing to do with you.
“You are wasting my time. I have never made my money through a newspaper reporter in my life.
“Please stop talking to me as newspaper people because you are useless. Just write what you want.”
Teachers at the school, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they had been informed by the ministry that they must withdraw from the school.
“We were told that government cannot be paying us to work at a private school when we are civil servants,” said one of the teachers.
“ They said we need to give options of five schools we would prefer to be transferred to if vacancies arise.”
Guardians are keeping their children from the school out of protest, and it was not clear if the consortium would manage to attract pupils from elite communities given the bad state of the roads, poor reticulation and noisy surrounds.
Memory Chivima, the Southlea Park Primary School acting head, told The Standard: “I can only talk about what has been happening at the school.
“Parents have been withdrawing their children. “They are saying they are not happy that teachers are in the process of being withdrawn from the school.”
Investigations revealed that Southlea Park Primary School has an enrolment of 2 484 pupils, but on Thursday only 484 reported for lessons.
Asked why government had been deploying teachers from 2018 when the ministry knew that Southlea Park had been privatised, the ministry‘s director of communications, Taungana Ndoro, said there was nothing wrong with the decision.
“There is no law against paying government teachers at private schools,” Ndoro said.
“If a private school requests for a government teacher, we provide, as long as resources allow.”
Government has been struggling to deploy teachers to its own schools due to financial limitations in recent years, with thousands of college students still failing to get teaching posts.
“We have enough schools to accommodate all primary, secondary and non-formal learners in the country,” Ndoro added.
There are a few and small private colleges in Southlea Park that cater for primary school learners and no other government learning centres in the community.
Alternative schools in surrounding areas like Glen Norah, Glen View, Budiriro, Highfield and Waterfalls are already fully enrolled and cannot take in extra learners, it was established.
Tongai Mnangagwa, the area legislator, pledged to investigate the matter.
“I am yet to meet the relevant authorities to determine what is going on as I have not been formally informed of the events,” Mnangagwa said.
“I only saw the protesting parents on social media.
“I am going to get to the bottom of this issue this coming week as I was away in Manicaland on Parliament duties with the parliamentary portfolio committee on local government and national housing.”
The Zanu PF MP added: “It’s unfortunate if that’s what the ministry did, because in my opinion it’s unacceptable for an individual to take a community project and make it his or her own.
“The noble thing to do from being a community school was to hand it over to government and this then guarantees good standards of education at affordable rates as prescribed by our government.
“Our president declared war on corruption and unscrupulous land barons and we stand guided by this.
“Believe me, I will not leave any stone unturned until I resolve this matter as I was given a mandate to represent the people of Harare South for five years.”