Zimbabwe private school heads arrested

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The Independent Online

At least six private school headteachers were arrested in Zimbabwe early yesterday while others went into hiding after being accused of sharply raising fees without seeking government approval.

At least six private school headteachers were arrested in Zimbabwe early yesterday while others went into hiding after being accused of sharply raising fees without seeking government approval.

The news came as the High Court nullified a government order which closed the private schools, affecting 30 000 children. A High Court judge, Justice Susan Mavhangira, declared "null and void" a decision by President Robert Mugabe's government to shut the private schools, which had been branded "racist" for increasing tuition fees without government permission.

The judgment was made in a case brought by parents and teachers at one of the affected schools, Hartmann House Preparatory School.

Although the decision was made with respect to Hartman House's application, lawyers said the judgment had indirectly nullified the decision to shut down all the 46 private schools in Zimbabwe.

"The decision means that all schools shut down under similar circumstances can reopen. But Zimbabwe being Zimbabwe the authorities might interpret the decision otherwise," said one lawyer. Not taking any chances, 17 other schools filed their separate applications to reopen yesterday "as a mere formality". The lawyer said the courts could not order one school to reopen and the others to remain shut.

Gill Martin, the headmistress of Lundi Park Primary School in central Zimbabwe; Harris Erith, the headteacher at Ruzawi Primary School in Marondera and John Calderwood, the headteacher at Peterhouse School in Marondera, spent Wednesday night in prison after being arrested. The three white headteachers run some of the most prominent private schools in Zimbabwe. A police spokesman, Inspector Andrew Phirip, told reporters that the three would be released on bail and appear in court soon. Several other teachers and headteachers had, by yesterday afternoon, gone into hiding fearing more arrests despite the High Court judgment.

The Zimbabwe government has a history of ignoring court judgments and imprisoning people, for harassment purposes only, before releasing them without any charges.

Sources said that the police had raided another élite school, Watershed School, with the intention of arresting the headteacher there but they found no one as the head was said to be visiting South Africa. Inspector Phiri said that the police had also arrested the headteachers of Masiyapambili, Petra and Carmail schools in Bulawayo. The Mugabe regime accuses private schools of charging "exorbitant fees" to keep black children out.

"They throw Africans out simply by hiking fees," said the Education Minister, Aeneas Chigwedere, on television."We are there dealing with racist schools. They are ... all racist."

However, after the exodus of whites from Zimbabwe following the wholesale seizures of their properties, only 20 per cent of white pupils remain in those private schools. The rest of the pupils are blacks. Mr Mugabe deployed police to the schools on Tuesday to prevent them reopening for the new term. He had warned that he was considering stern action.

Mr Mugabe's actions have shut out his own children from the élite St George's College.

While regulations prohibit schools from increasing fees by more than 10 per cent without government permission, many schools that applied for the authority to increase fees above that level never received a response from the Ministry of Education. Many increased the fees after consulting parents. Some boarding schools said they would not be able to feed children unless the fees rose.

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