A helping hand beyond iron curtain of isolation

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I belong to a generation of students that witnessed the beginning of the commercialisation of Zimbabwe’s university education.

By Khanyile Mlotshwa

I was meant to embark on my final year at the National University of Science and Technology (Nust) in August 2008 when the government, in admission that it could not continue to fund university students, introduced tuition fees.

There was an uproar and serious disturbances on campus, students smashed windows at the administration building and engaged in serious running battles with the riot police. This was in the early days of the first semester that begins in August/September. I had just completed my internship at the Sunday News. I still went to the Sunday News where I continued to contribute as a sit-in correspondent.

One Friday after the disturbances on campus, the then Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, the late Dr Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, came to address the Press Club on the matter. The minister said Zimbabweans should not imagine that the government had completely abandoned university students as it still subsidised their education in many ways as it still paid lecturers and annually set aside money for other university operations.

He was right.

However, after some years of being “paid to read” we were also right in feeling abandoned and pointing out that some families could not afford to pay the levied tuition fees.

In the following years, we have seen an unprecedented level of the commercialisation of higher education in the country with some universities having double intakes in January and August, of double classes; the conventional and the parallel. We have observed the creation of block programmes and many master’s degrees where what matters most is paying the school fees over the merit of one’s academic agenda.

Sadly, we have seen how some Advanced Level graduates from poor families, even after getting good points, never considered going to university because their parents would still be struggling to take their siblings through primary and secondary education. These parents cannot afford to pay for university students as well. There are few scholarships and grants in Zimbabwe as university education is one of the least funded sectors in the country, both by the government and the private sector.

However, this has opened a situation where those who can afford in financial terms go to university even if they have poor grades and their academic performance does not fit at that level. These are the eager consumers of the many dubious block programmes, especially civil servants who have access to bank loans.

The introduction of university fees in 2008, the year that marked the climax of Zimbabwe’s economic challenges, lives on as a moment that taught us the cost of education in vulgar financial terms. It was especially a rude awakening for those of us who aspired to do postgraduate degrees.

Continuing at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) was out of choice for many reasons. The MSc degree was just starting at NUST and I had no confidence in something new (like that). Importantly, I had been inspired by one of my lecturers to desire to study at Rhodes University, the premier journalism school in Africa. I remember joking that, even if it is to attend to the lawn, I have to be at Rhodes University!

I had been attracted to Rhodes University when I was still an A Level student. I remember studying the university’s prospectus. Back then I was attracted to Creative Writing and Drama Studies. In my teenage years, I was a budding writer who wrote so many poems to my sister on her birthdays on 1 May every year. My sister would type the poems and treasured them a lot and that, for me, validated my talent more than publishing.

Our lecturer not only told us inspiring stories about Rhodes University, but he also escalated the quality of what he was teaching us. That convinced some of us that we had to be at Rhodes sometime in future. Rhodes University became a dream. However, if the cost of education at NUST was too much for us, what about the cost of education at Rhodes University?

I recall looking at numerous possibilities, in terms of scholarships, that could help me fund my postgraduate studies out of the country. However I was not eligible for most scholarships mostly because of my Zimbabwean citizenship. For example, Zimbabwe had pulled out of the Commonwealth, accusing the grouping of the UK and its former colonies of being a colonial club. I could not apply for the Commonwealth scholarships.

However, one scholarship got my attention. I remember that in 2011, I filled out a Canon Collins Trust scholarship form but did not submit it. I had failed to finish it on time for submission. I however worked on it and told myself that I will submit it the following year. In 2012, a Canon Collins staffer, whom I was so happy to meet again at this year’s Scholars Conference in Cape Town, interviewed me over the phone. I was so happy to get the scholarship. I remember that I received the news while in Windhoek, Namibia attending a journalism workshop.

Attending Rhodes University’s Master of Arts (MA) course on a Canon Collins scholarship has exposed me to a world that I never knew existed. Even in my wildest dreams of studying at Rhodes University, I never imagined that I will be enthralled by the library. I soon realised that, to a postgraduate (research) student, the library is the most important space, if not the space, at university. The Rhodes University library drew me to interesting worlds. I remember remarking to a friend that, “if the academic project we are pursuing at Rhodes University is a religion, then the library is the Mecca of that faith”.

The Canon Collins scholarship meant that I could be at a place where I would sit in a Master Class conducted by Achille Mbembe, Lewis Gordon, Michael Neocosmos, and other world class scholars whose experiments with social theory warmed the cold ivory tower.

These are scholars who made feel as if I had sat at the feet of Frantz Fanon or Karl Marx.

When Canon Collins, once again picked me for PhD funding at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), I could only look forward to the Scholars’ conferences that the Trust holds annually.

This year’s conference was epic and once again in a direct way Canon Collins sought to change my thinking and understanding of how the world works in a more direct way.

Listening to Professors Pumla Gqola and Thuli Madonsela, and the most exciting advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi shifted my thinking in a strong way.

The most important gift that Canon Collins Trust, who reached for me beyond that curtain of Zimbabwe’s decade of hardships, bestowed on me are Thuli Madonsela’s counsel that, “as long as there is injustice anywhere, there can’t be sustainable peace anywhere. As long as there poverty anywhere, there can’t be sustainable prosperity anywhere.”
It is a gift am too happy to bestow to the future of my community, my country and our world by joining other young people to build a just, inclusive and fair world.

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