At the country’s leading university, the University of Zimbabwe (UZ), student activism has become an old shell of itself with no identified students’ representative council since 2007.
This is in great contrast to its heyday when it produced activists like Munyaradzi Gwisai, Arthur Mutambara, Brian Kagoro and the late Learnmore Jongwe.
There was also an earlier generation of student activists, among them Mike Holman, Judith Todd, Titus Mapuranga, Iden Wetherell and Ibbo Mandaza.
Student activism has in the past made an important contribution to the struggle for democracy in the country. These students were the ones that revolutionalised activism when corruption started creeping into government and human rights abuses were first registered.
Students became the “voice of the voiceless”. They demonstrated against corruption at Willowvale involving senior government officials, protested against Zanu PF’s proposal to establish a one party state and strongly opposed the introduction of Western-backed economic structural adjustment programmes.
At the turn of the century, student activists, in partnership with the National Constitutional Assembly and the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, successfully campaigned against the government-led Godfrey Chidyausiku draft constitution in 2000.
Now fast forward to 2010, the college does not have a students’ union yet higher education today faces more challenges than in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The halls of residence have been shut, students eat from informal roadside caterers and students’ vocational loans are not available.
It emerged early this year that 28% of students had dropped out of the UZ. Students have been struggling to raise fees of between US$300 and US$1 500 in a country where civil servants earn less than US$300 per month and unemployment is pegged at 90%.
Exacerbating an already dire situation, according to the Medium Term Plan, as of May last year, the University of Zimbabwe had an establishment of 1 171 but only 385 posts were occupied leaving 786 vacancies, while National University of Science and Technology had a staff complement of 232 against 493 required. Bindura, Lupane, Great Zimbabwe and Midlands State University and Harare Institute of Technology had a combined shortfall of 615 lecturers.
Student activist, Chamunorwa Madiridze, a third year student, laid the blame squarely on the current UZ administration headed by Levy Nyagura that has since 2007 deliberately blocked students from organising elections to select a students’ representative council citing lack of funds.
“We have been denied our right to have a democratically elected representative of the students sit in the UZ council. The last election was held in 2007 when (Lovemore) Chinoputsa was elected president and since then the administration has frustrated every move the students have made to elect their representatives,” Madiridze said.
He added that a number of students have been suspended by the Nyagura-led administration for trying to organise the long overdue elections as stipulated in the University of Zimbabwe Amendment Act.
“Tinashe Chisaire was suspended last month (November 2010) for organising an aborted election after the administration interfered. Personally, two weeks ago I was taken away from a lecture by police and other security agents for organising elections which we hoped to hold this December,” he added.
Madiridze and a few other student activists have approached ZCTU and Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Zesn) for financial and logistical support to organise elections but the UZ administration still blocks the initiatives.
Former student activist and Media Centre director Earnest Mudzengi said student activism was “killed” by the UZ Amendment Act of 1990 and successive repression by the state machinery on student activities.
“The root cause of all this is Zanu PF’s dictatorship and the curtailment of freedom,” Mudzengi said. “UZ Amendment of 1990 made sure that student activism was taken to the graveyard. Students were disempowered economically so that they would cease to care about national issues but concentrate on their well being only. Beggars do not become activists.”
The UZ Amendment Act declares the vice-chancellor as the administrative and disciplinary officer of the university with powers among other things to dissolve or suspend, indefinitely or for such a period as he may specify, any activity or function of the students’ union or any of its committees or organs.
Mudzengi added that: “Minister Tendai Biti’s proposal to reintroduce student loans is set to re-energise the students and once more make them the voice of the voiceless.”
Another former students’ leader and now MDC99 Information director Gibson Nyambayo said student activism was also weakened by the emergence of the MDC in 1999.
“Student activism used to be a signal agitation for democracy and justice,” Nyambayo said. “Most of the time, it was a fight against (President Robert) Mugabe. Birth and success of the MDC killed student activism as student leaders were seen as MDC apologists. Neutral students failed to join in student activism thus killing activism at colleges,”.
To compound the student woes, the Zimbabwe National Students Union (Zinasu) has been blighted by power struggles in the recent past over political affiliation. The students have been split along political lines especially between the two biggest parties MDC-T and Zanu PF.
Maybe, it is now time that students start fighting for their own issues and find a voice once more.