Numerous schools in Bulawayo have handed over defaulting parents to debt collectors in a bid to compel payments. The engagement of debt collectors leaves struggling parents of pupils who fail to pay school fees and levies accruing huge debts and living in perpetual fear of having their properties attached. Parents are at the brink of losing household property and other valuables.
Parents, served with letters from debt collectors after some failed to pay fees and levies, take responsibility for not being able to pay fees but do not approve of the measures taken by schools in an effort to squeeze money out of the offending parents. Some of the debt collectors’ charges were astronomical considering that parents had failed to settle the levies without an additional debt collector’s commission. Parents are struggling to survive and provide for their families on the meagre salaries they earn. Some of the government ministers are on record blasting workers, including civil servants, and unions for demanding higher salaries. How then are these ordinary citizens expected to fend for their families when they earn salaries that are way below the poverty datum line.
A letter from a debt collector to a parent reads: “Your account has been handed over to us for collection. An amount of US$96 in respect of levy/fees is now overdue and payable. In the circumstances, we have been instructed to demand as we hereby do, payment of the sum of US$96 at our offices within 48 hours, failing which we will instruct the messenger of court to attach and sell your property without further notice.”
The letters threatening attaching parents’ property or taking legal action against them give notices ranging from 24 hours to seven days. For most people the initial seven days they were required to visit the offices of the debt collectors expired before they got the notices that were sent through Zimpost. Disappointingly, the debt collectors would still insist on the penalty for coming after the seven days had elapsed. Debt collectors have also revealed that they want the payment in full and if partial payment was made, there would be interest added to the outstanding balance. It is a burden to parents to pay money that kept on accruing interest until the whole outstanding balance is cleared.
The engagement of debt collectors has a dismal effect on the rural populace. Some rural schools have descended on villagers seizing livestock, grain, farming implements and other valuables over outstanding school fees and levies. It is alleged that in some instances this is being done outside the law as the schools do not have court orders to that effect. The actions by the schools are illegal as they could be confiscating valuables from parents without following proper procedures. The majority of the parents and guardians are peasant farmers who depend on crop and livestock sales. It is also of paramount importance to consider that the recurrent droughts are most likely to affect payment of schools fees in rural schools.
The government seems to lend a deaf ear to the plight of parents some of whom have their children enrolled at government schools. Government run schools are expected to be more lenient and concerned about the right to education more than generating income. Not much effort has been done to completely thwart the involvement of debt collectors.
In response to parents’ grievances over having their property and valuables attached after schools ordered parents to top-up fees and demanded higher levies the Minister of Education, Sports Art and Culture, David Coltart, said admission fees government announced were enough while schools and parents needed to agree on levies. The fees were set at US$10 for secondary schools and US$5 for primary. Rural schools were exempted from charging fees. What school authorities were required to do was to determine levies that should be collectively agreed to by parents and guardians in a meeting. There is a need for school authorities to consult with parents in coming up with reasonable amounts that should be paid as levies. These amounts should be affordable even to the poorest members of the community. Child headed families, orphans in the care of grandparents or relatives that are not employed and do not have regular and reliable sources of income and other disadvantaged children face a bleak future as education, under the government’s watch, slowly turns into a preserve for the elite.