Minister of Higher Education Dr Brian Mushimba MP says members of the University of Zambia Lecturers and Researchers Union (UNZALARU) are free to insult their management or government, but only if they do not have their salaries paid by the 15th of every month. The Minister has further implored the University of Zambia (UNZA) to find alternative revenue sources to settle its accumulated staff salaries and allowances, which he argues are beyond what government has approved.

This he said when he featured on UNZA Radio, Friday, and went further to suggest that UNZA should move pay day from month-end to the 10th or 11th of the following month. Dr Mushimba said, “If this press conference where those insults were issued was on 12th or 15th of a month, then we all could worry to say, ‘wow, the grant should have been received on the 6th and you should have found a supplemental and should have paid by the 10th or 11th.’ We would justify those utterances. However, moving forward, maybe a conversation could be: ‘do we move the pay date of University of Zambia employees to maybe 10th or 11th to accommodate the funding cycle? But that’s a conversation we can have. Right now, I don’t know if government will maintain that funding cycle or if it’s justified to move the payment date so that expectations are managed. So, UNZALARU, don’t insult UNZA management, don’t insult government. Insult, maybe, when you reach the 15th, but those insults are not advisable because we are a civilized society! We can engage and find solutions to dialogue.”

This statement is worrying in many ways. It would strike us that the Minister of Higher Education perhaps thinks UNZA lecturers and researchers enjoy provocation and take great pleasure in utilising every availed opportunity to insult management and the government. It’s like the minister, and probably the whole government, feels the salary protests have very little to do with demand for wages and more to do with political mileage for the opposition. We beg to differ.

Of course we agree that at the last protest event, a few members of the union used terms which were unbefitting of intellectuals. In our view, the same message they delivered could have been made clear using very strong, but appropriate language. Figure of speech it was, and we believe, but intellectuals surely have so many ways to express their displeasure without the mention of squeezing anyone’s balls.

But unfortunate as this may be, the take home from such a protest should not be that lecturers want their freedom to insult. What these lecturers and their research colleagues want are salaries – and on time please! The labour laws in Zambia are very clear; work done must be remunerated in accordance with the contract entered into between employer and employee. Paying salaries is not a favour, it is not a philanthropic gesture. Paying salaries to employees is a legal obligation.

UNZA lecturers don’t enjoy insulting. Insults are as demeaning to them as they are to the “insultees”. It’s not like they sit down to research which new insults they are going use when their salaries are delayed. These employees would prefer to simply do their work and get their salaries without having to protest. We don’t think a whole Ph.D. holder would take pride in carrying a placard denouncing management and government every month-end. They would rather dedicate their time to cutting edge research and nurturing the young minds of tomorrow. But they cannot be asked to do so on an empty stomach!

So, Honourable Mushimba’s approach is wrong. It should not be the question of whether their insults came too early. Here, we should be discussing how government can improve its financial obligation to institutions of higher learning such as UNZA. The argument that UNZA must find alternative sources to fund its budget for wages does hold water. This is because from our quick research, it is evident that every time UNZA fails to pay salaries, it is because government has not disbursed its grant to the institution – not because UNZA management has failed to do its part.

It is easy for Dr Mushimba to say UNZA should find alternative sources of money to pay salaries, but what alternative sources has Dr Mushimba’s government found of sourcing money to pay university grants? Why is he making suggestions which his ministry can’t suggest to Cabinet? UNZA has made so many investments to source alternative funding, one of them being East Park Mall. Thus, the problem here lies with government, and not with UNZA management.

It must be noted that there are so many universities outside Zambia which pay twice, maybe even thrice, the amounts that our UNZA lecturers get paid, for the same job they do in this country. We salute UNZA lecturers for doing the patriotic thing by choosing to stay in this country and contributing to the growth of the education sector.

This ill-treatment of staff at institutions of higher learning is what causes brain drain. This is what is contributing to the loss of talent and experienced lecturers. Stop it!