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Zimbabwe's Private Schools Protest Tuition Hikes - 2004-05-05

Zimbabwe's private schools have launched an action in the High Court, claiming that it was illegal for the government to close them down Tuesday because they had increased their fees. The case by the Association of Trust Schools of Zimbabwe is to be heard on Friday.

Lawyer Richard Moyo-Majwabu said he was disappointed that the court had postponed the schools' urgent application until Friday.

He has filed papers claiming there is no provision in the Education Act empowering the goverment to close schools for raising fees. Mr. Moyo-Majwabu says he appealed to the judge assigned to the case, asking for it to be heard as soon as possible. The lawyer also says legal papers related to the case have been served on the minister of education, his officials and the police.

More than 20,000 schoolchildren, mainly black, go to Zimbabwe's approximately 40 non-profit private schools. Most are children of Zimbabwe's dwindling number of professionals and business executives.

Almost all schools in Zimbabwe are run by parents through governing bodies that have the authority to set fees. Both private and state schools have massively increased fees since inflation began rising to its present level of about 600 percent per year.

But the government says these private schools should have gotten permission before increasing the fees. The principal of one private school says the parents' committees regularly apply to the Department of Education for approval of new school fees, but seldom receive replies.

Zimbabwe's state education system, until a few years ago the best in Africa, has deteriorated along with the economy in recent years. Many teachers from state and private schools have left the profession, and some have left the country, because of the rising cost of living and low salaries.

Teachers from several unions say they are the worst paid in Southern Africa.

Among the worst hit in the present closure are boarding schools. At one school about 50 kilometers outside of Bulawayo, police warned they will take action if the children, who arrived from their distant homes last Sunday, do not leave immediately.

Lawyers intervened, and police said they will give the school time to get fuel for buses to take the children to other locations.

The principal of a private school on the southern edges of Harare says it has reduced its fees to their previous level, but will no longer be able to fill teacher vacancies, and has had to cut down on food for the children.