Up close & personal with the man of the moment: Takavafira Zhou

Dr Takavafira Zhou, President of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe

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By Sibanengi Dube

He spent his adolescent life fighting for liberties of fellow learners, just as his adult life is dedicated to fighting for the dignity of colleagues in the teaching profession.

President of the militant Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ), Takavafira Zhou is not a newcomer to Goliath-David kind of battles.

Dr. Zhou at a village meeting in his community in Mberengwa

The PTUZ is currently leading a crippling teachers’ strike in protest against poor salaries paid in RTGS, whose value has been eroded by galloping inflation. Learning is at a standstill in Zimbabwe as teachers continue to withdraw their service at the behest of PTUZ.

The union is accusing the government of incapacitating teachers. 

Never before has the Zimbabwe government been embarrassed to this extent by a union of teachers.

Who is this man of the moment, Takafira Zhou?

Zhou was battle hardened by the running battles he had with headmasters in Conservative Mission Schools he attended in Mberengwa.

The 53-year-old‘s current combat with the government over poor remuneration for teachers is a continuation of what he started from Masase Mission School where he caused a stir at an early age by inciting senior  students to resist a diet of matemba (small dried fish).

What he did was beyond anyone’s imagination. Zhou was a Form 1 student when he influenced a Form 2 student to provocatively pin a demba (one small dried fish) on the Dining Hall notice board. The ‘fishy’ notice was accompanied by a rabble-rousing message: “Kusvika riinhi tichidya matemba? Loosely translated, it means, “Until when are we going to be fed with dried small fish?”

The kind of headaches he is currently causing to education minister Cain Mathema and President Emmerson Mnangagwa is what his previous headmasters, Vice Chancellors and College principals went through.  The father of five, who fashions himself as a Karanga traditionalist is direct, confrontational, eloquent and fearless.

He was born in a huge family of vaRemba tribe in Mberengwa, where he grew up herding cattle and engaging in bush bare-knuckle fights. His grandfather, Harurovi Masarira, was a rich polygamous man married to 33 wives, owning shops, hundreds of cows and a successful farmer.

His resilience is anchored in his Lemba culture upbringing. His colleagues in the unions and MDC describe Taka as a man who neither believe in easy victories nor eager to claim credit for anything.

Zhou spent two months is Rusaza Mountain in 1974 being trained on how to be a real man as per vaLemba culture.

“Indeed we climbed up and down mountains in our hunting sprees and learnt our great Lemba laws, enriching environmental history, life serving skills and emerged a real Lemba men ready to face the rigours of life guided by the knowledge and experience of our historical past,” said Zhou.

From a young age, he never shied away from confronting authorities on issues of fairness, justice and respect.

Dr. Zhou at a PTUZ workshop

 At Chegato High School, he took head on, the late disciplinarian headmaster Isaaih Masvayamwando Shumba over his right to enjoy a traditionally home-brewed beer. The PTUZ boss had to convince his family elders to confront Shumba, for subjecting him to corporal punishment over quaffing a drink that was traditionally part of his family menu.

“What they asked the school head was, if beer was so bad why is it that I was the best history student and would collect gongs in almost all the three subjects during prize giving days?” said Zhou in a no-holds barred interview with the Zimbabwe Observer.

The historian is used to limping from one trouble to another, and always coming out unscathed. His conscience and convictions are his major weapons. His history teacher, a German expatriate, a Mr Steven, had to suspend him from classes after he confronted him demanding “payment for doing his work”.

“On one occasion I was suspended from history classes after asking Mr Stevens to give me his month’s salary as I had done most of the research and presentations to fellow students. The headmaster literally begged me to apologise but I refused,” said Zhou.

The unionist who comes from humble beginnings attended Gaururo Primary School in Mberengwa North. The school was burnt down during the liberation war in 1978 when he was in Grade 4, but he insisted on enrolling for Grade 7 upon reopening in 1980, even though he had not completed grades 5 and 6.

He then proceeded to Danga Secondary School before transferring to a missionary boarding school — Masase — in West Nicholson. In an effort to fulfil his father’s desire to be a medical doctor, he attempted to enrol for a combination of Science subjects at Gokomere and Dadaya High Schools, but was turned down despite the fact that he had an A in Combined Science. Zhou successfully applied for an apprenticeship in Hippo Valley but his late mother could not have any of that. Instead she wanted him to further his education as per her late husband’s will.

“If I had to become a doctor as my father had hoped, I had to pursue the sciences but Dadaya and Gokomere High Schools  where I had applied for places, turned me down on the basis that I had not done Physics, Chemistry and Biology as subjects,” explained Zhou.

He then enrolled at Chegato High School, another conservative Christian mission school, which was under a strict headmaster, Shumba who later became the Deputy Minister of Education. 

The kind of life he lived at Chegato sounds like a Hollywood movie script. Drinking beer was a cardinal sin at Chegato, whose punishment was instant dismissal. A few weeks into his Lower Sixth form, Zhou was at it again.

He and his two friends, the late Taurai Shumba and Afarashe Gambiza secretly downed the wise waters during a sports day at Danga Shopping Centre, a few kilometres from Chegato.  They got so drunk that the school truck ferrying other students left them behind.  Paralytically drunk and in full school uniform, they started flagging down passing vehicles for a lift to go back to school. The first car that stopped for them was for Mr Shumba, their dreaded headmaster, who passionately detested drunkards.

They only realised that the man driving them was their stern faced headmaster when they were at Mharepare, a single kilometre to school, when he asked them kuti “Manga muchimwa ripi” meaning which kind of beer were you drinking, opaque or clear liqour. They could neither run away nor hide their identity as the school master was addressing them by their names.

It was too late and the consequences were too ghastly to contemplate. Taka who was already on a warning saw no light at the end of the tunnel.

He packed his truck the following day, ready to abandon his studies and relocate to his nearby home in the village as it was clear in his mind that expulsion was waiting for them on Monday. His colleagues persuaded him to give Shumba a chance to make his decision.

“He gave us a lift back to school and come Monday we were paraded at the school assembly in-front of everyone as students who he found drinking from an unusual drum,” said Taka.

The following Monday, they got a punishment of taking 3 000 bricks to a building site using wheelbarrows. As to why they escaped expulsion became everyone’secret a few days later. The calculative Shumba could not risk expelling bright students who had the potential to raise the school’s pass rate.

Bhudhi Taka as he is affectionately called in his family is married to Grace Zhou, stays in Rhodene in Masvingo, even though he spent most of his time in Harare on trade union commitments. His favourite dish is sadza and beef stew and has since stopped drinking.

The fiery PTUZ boss last taught at Mabelreign Girls High and then got red flagged as a rebel teacher. No any other schools accepted his services after 2002 despite being one of the best history teacher to come out of Zimbabwe.

Before that, Taka had moved from one school to the other in Harare, where his bosses found him to be too liberal minded for their liking.

He had short stints at Tafara High 1, Tafara 2, Mabvuku High,  Highfield High, Roosevelt, Churchill, Queen Elizabeth, Ellis Robins, Vainona and many more.

“At some schools I was there from just a day to a term until I finally landed at Mabelreign Girls High in 1996 where I stayed until 2002,” said Zhou.

Taka is no longer lecturing either at Universities as Vice Chancellors regard him as hot property. The free spirited lecturer courted trouble at his last work station of Great Zimbabwe University in 2008 when he told his history class that Robert Mugabe could have been remembered well had he left office in 1987, just after the Unity Accord.

“Although I won my case of unlawful dismissal in High Court and received compensation, I did not go back to the lecture room because under Robert Mugabe’s regime no other University in Zimbabwe could accept a person who had “insulted” the chancellor of all state universities and worse still a trade unionist,” sad the tough talking unionist.

The constant jettisoning from one school to another forced Zhou and his former UZ colleagues to successfully petition the courts to outlaw the 1987 Education Act which recognised only a single teachers’ union. Their court action allowed them to register PTUZ in 1998.

Zhou’s activism is not limited to unions, but is an active member of Nelson Chamisa’s MDC-A.  He is the Midlands provincial spokesman of the party. Taka remains the preferred MDC-A parliamentary candidate for Mberengwa North where he made two attempts to represent his constituency in parliament. He is, however, not deterred by previous defeats which he attributed to Zanu PF’s manipulations of the electoral process.

Despite failing to win elections, Taka never stopped sourcing funds to help students from poor families in Mberengwa.

“This year alone I have raised $30 000 to assist 100 primary school pupils from ten schools in Mberengwa,” said Zhou.

The upfront unionist is angry about the poor state of his home district of Mberengwa which has been continuously eluded by the glitter of its mineral resources.

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