Campus closes as lecturers meet Mugabe's indifference

April 11, 2003

The campus of the University of Zimbabwe is eerily quiet. It is mid-term, but there are no students and very few staff. Work has all but ground to a halt, the result of a lecturers' pay strike that began in October. Most academics did not get paid last month.

James Mahlaule, 36, a media lecturer and acting head of the Association of University Teachers, picks up a stream of calls from colleagues who have heard rumours of impending letters demanding they return to work. These turn out to be true, but they have refused to do it.

"We've taken the suspension of salaries to the High Court. We remain out until our concerns have been addressed," he said.

The university opened earlier than usual this year so that students could sit exams missed because of the strike last year. They were sent home again a few weeks later, in mid-March. Lecturers are reporting for work but only a few departments are teaching - their academics and full-time researchers were paid in March. Postgraduate supervision is continuing.

Teaching is also partially disrupted at Zimbabwe's only other big public institution, the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo.

Not being paid means that most academics (striking over the government's refusal to grant a 50 per cent retention allowance over and above salaries that they say no longer cover living costs) are in dire financial straits and have no medical cover.

The situation is likely to prompt a fresh wave of resignations from an institution already crippled by a lecturer shortage. Some 500 out of 1,200 academic posts are vacant. Last year, 104 lecturers left, and the AUT calculates that about 200 academics are on either unpaid leave or sabbatical, leaving fewer than 500 on campus.

The flight of academics was a "very serious problem", said Brian Raftopolous, an associate professor at UZ's Institute of Development Studies and chair of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Committee, a coalition of civil society groups.

"Those who leave are often highly qualified and well regarded in their fields, affecting the quality of delivery and standing of the university.

All education here is in a parlous state, and is rapidly deteriorating," he said.

"Lecturers' salaries have dropped drastically and are now among the worst in the region," he continued. "Most lecturers have to divide their time between teaching and consultancy to earn a living and to fund research.

Inevitably, students are suffering." Donor funding, cut off in protest against government abuses, has dried up research funding.

Many departments no longer have professors - Mr Mahlaule is unable to embark on his PhD because there is nobody to supervise him. Rumours that the university council had voted to suspend him and two other AUT activists, and ban them from campus, have not transpired.

"I don't mind if I'm suspended," Mr Mahlaule said. "At long last I'd be able to get out of this institution." It is a sad statement from a man who returned to Zimbabwe, after completing his master's in South Africa followed by a spell at Liverpool University, because he wanted to serve his country. "I feel I've been kicked in the teeth," he said.

Many lecturers have left for more profitable, less traumatic pastures in Botswana and South Africa, the UK, Australasia and North America. Others have joined non-governmental organisations or companies.

Zimbabwe is reeling under political instability, famine and an imploding economy, the fault of an oppressive Zanu-PF party led by President Robert Mugabe, who is determined to stay in power after 23 years - at any cost.

The 79-year-old president's government is accused of beating, torturing and arresting thousands of opposition supporters, and massively rigging a general election in 2000 as well as last year's presidential poll. The economy is in tatters, having shrunk by per cent in the past three years.

Inflation, now running at 220 per cent, has eroded academic salaries rendering lecturers unable to cover living costs - despite a 95 per cent upward adjustment for 2003, a doubling of transport allowances and a 150 per cent raise in housing allowances.

Lecturers wanted a salary review that would lead to realistic pay and reflect that they are the university's core business. Council agreed to a 50 per cent retention allowance as a stop-gap measure, but this was refused by the government for all but the medical school.

Lovemore Maduko, a lecturer in the law department and head of civil society's National Constitutional Assembly, believes the government has little interest in supporting an institution it sees as a hotbed of opposition.

The government does, unsurprisingly, call on supportive intellectuals to prop up its policies. Indeed, political rivalries at UZ are divisive and exacerbated by a growing system of political patronage, which lecturers say has whittled down professionalism and autonomy.

"I don't see a solution," Mr Maduko said. "Government won't give in, but it also cannot fire most of the lecturers at its flagship universities."

After tax and other deductions, Mr Mahlaule earns about Zim$140,000 a month - £1,500 on the official exchange rate but only a sixth of that on the thriving black market. Rent is Zim$40,000 to Zim$80,000 a month, and a slab of cheese some Zim$4,000.

"The few graduates who manage to get decent jobs earn more than this," he said. "I can't afford to buy a drink. I'm always asking for lifts. I can't afford to rent a flat or a house, so I have to lodge. This is also a fight for recognition and for respect."

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