|Most teachers in Zimbabwe make around $220 per month, well below the poverty line of $500 per month [EPA]
As concerns deepen about the quality of education in Zimbabwe, parents can expect an indefinite extension of subsidising teacher salaries as the cash-strapped government struggles to meet the bloated civil service wage bill.
Teacher incentives - a stipulated amount of usually between $2 to $5, which is paid by parents directly to teachers on a monthly basis - were introduced two years ago by the government to supplement teacher salaries. But many parents say the situation has become untenable and that they can no longer afford to contribute to teachers' salaries.
Zimbabwe's education sector is bedevilled by a myriad of problems. In addition to the low teaching salaries there is a shortage of teachers as many have left government schools in search of better wages in the private education sector. In addition, thousands of unregistered and bogus colleges have sprouted across the country.
While Education Minister David Coltart has called the incentives "a necessary evil" if teachers are to continue working, parents like Davison Phiri believe this "cannot go on forever."
"[Teacher's salaries] ... is the government's obligation."
- Davison Phiri, parent in Zimbabwe
"We want our children to go to school but it is unfair that we are expected to (supplement teachers' salaries), which in fact is government's obligation," Phiri said.
"If the government has no money, surely education is one of those areas that must be prioritised with what little (money government) has?" he asked.
Coltart announced in September that the incentive scheme would continue despite complaints from teachers' unions and parents that this system makes education inaccessible to the poor.
With these incentives, teachers can earn up to $500 a month, but there are increasing concerns that they are not fully discharging their duties when learners fail to pay these controversial bonuses.
The pro-government Zimbabwe Teachers Association (ZIMTA) said the incentives must be discontinued.
"Teachers are now fighting with parents because of these incentives," said ZIMTA's chief executive officer, Sifiso Ndlovu. "This just cannot be sustained indefinitely."
Below the poverty line
Parents pay varying amounts under Parents and Teacher Association agreements. Primary school teachers get paid about $2 a month per child, while secondary school teachers get up to $5 a month per child.
Teachers' salaries increased this year from around $150 a month to $220 a month. But this is well beneath the country's poverty line of $500 a month, which indicates the basic living cost for a family of five.
The country's diamond sales have also been sucked into the issue of teachers' salaries.
Early this year, President Robert Mugabe responded to a strike threat by teachers' unions over poor salaries by saying that the government had made enough money from diamond sales to meet these demands.
(Zimbabwe restarted its diamond sales in August 2010 after exports were banned in 2009 amid allegations of human rights abuses at the country's Marange mines.)
"If ministers and legislators can buy themselves luxury cars, they must also have enough for teachers."
- Tennyson Dube, teacher in Zimbabwe
However, Finance Minister Tendai Biti, a member of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, disputed Mugabe's statement. This sets the stage for a long-drawn public spat among the coalition government partners about teachers' salaries.
However, the Progressive Teacher Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) insists that the government has made sufficient money from its diamond exports to pay teachers more.
"The government has made enough from the diamonds and they must give us some of that money," said Tennyson Dube, a teacher affiliated with PTUZ.
"If ministers and legislators can buy themselves luxury cars, they must also have enough for teachers," Dube said, referring to the recent announcement that the Ministry of Finance approved a $5m purchase of vehicles for legislators.
However, the International Monetary Fund has raised concerns that Zimbabwe cannot afford a huge public service wage bill as this will effectively scuttle any efforts towards economic reconstruction.
Meanwhile, those parents who can afford it have turned their back on government schools and have opted to send their children to private and even unregistered schools and colleges.
"We are aware some of these colleges are not registered but at least here the teachers are dedicated," said Mavis Sibanda, whose child attends class in a municipal recreational hall that has been turned into a school.
However, it is not certain for how long the unregistered schools and colleges will survive. This year, the government has shut down hundreds of such schools, which have been operating without licences.
Meanwhile, human rights watchdog Amnesty International released a report in early October stating that hundreds of thousands of school children were still reeling from the effects of the 2005 Operation Restore Order, a government campaign that forcibly destroyed informal settlements and indirectly affected almost 2.4 million people.
"The victims (of Operation Restore Order) have been driven deeper into poverty while denial of education means young people have no real prospect of extricating themselves from continuing destitution," Amnesty International's Deputy Africa Programme Director Michelle Kagari said.
"The government's removal of people from places where they had access to education, and its subsequent failure to provide education, has struck a devastating blow to the lives and dreams of thousands of children," Kagari said in the report.
A version of this article was first published on Inter Press Service.