Campus shuts to students over polls

March 8, 2002

Students at the University of Zimbabwe will return a month late from their summer break after this weekend's presidential elections. The last thing the government of president Robert Mugabe wanted was yet more trouble at a hotbed of opposition to its increasingly draconian rule.

The university said the extension would allow students from outside the capital to vote in constituency-based elections and that it has been business as usual for the institution's 900 academics. Government opponents believe, however, that many out-of-town students register to vote in Harare and that they are in effect being disenfranchised.

The move to keep students off campus before Zimbabwe's closest fought elections, which pit president Mugabe against Morgan Tsvangirai, was most likely driven by the government.

The country's flagship university is by no means autonomous. "Important decisions regarding the university are made by the cabinet, and then its administrators are told what to do," said Lovemore Maduko, a Cambridge-educated law lecturer and chairman of the civil society National Constitutional Assembly. "Zimbabwe's governments have always had a political problem with the university."

This problem has been especially acute in the past two years. There have been regular anti-government protests, and student leaders have been targeted for suspension from the university and for arrest.

The government has long appointed the university's top executives. But in the past decade, the university's autonomy has been steadily - and severely - curtailed.

In the late 1980s, as disenchantment with the Zanu PF government grew, students and some academics began vigorously to oppose what they saw as an ever more corrupt, undemocratic and arrogant ruling party. In 1988, students took to the streets to protest against corruption and the abandonment of socialism - most dramatically evidenced in the adoption of economic structural adjustments.

The government's reaction was harsh. It used security forces to smash demonstrations and capture student leaders. Rising civic and political opposition bolstered student discontent, protests and class boycotts - along with the presence of riot police and security agents on campus - became commonplace. In late 1989, the university suspended classes and shut the university for weeks. This, the first closure since independence in 1980, was also the first of many as the government sought to silence the student voice.

In 1990, the government introduced the University of Zimbabwe Amendment Act, which, among other things, gave the vice-chancellor substantial powers, introduced a range of offences for which students or staff could be suspended or expelled, and stripped staff and civil society of control of the council: the government appoints two-thirds of its members.

These measures, which were used harshly against students, led to more protests and to the resignation of vice-chancellor Walter Kamba, who said they amounted to "academic and political intolerance, demise of legitimate debate and a threat to academic freedom and autonomy".

Today, government control of the university remains tight. Lecturers complain that in the past year, under a restructured system that allows the executive rather than academics to elect deans, the university has appointed new deans in almost all faculties who enable it to exert greater control over students and teachers.

Vice-chancellor Graham Hill said the university has been restructured in line with a five-year strategic plan developed by staff. The plan devolved authority from the centre to faculties, which are overseen by deans and which operate to an approved annual work plan. There is also now a performance appraisal scheme for staff.

"These changes have not been achieved without resentment and opposition in some quarters of the university," Professor Hill said.

The university has sought to retain vestiges of academic freedom. Academics are not to speak to the press about university issues, but they may still comment on issues in their fields of expertise.

Professor Hill argues that there is "total" academic freedom on campus. "The staff are not instructed as to what to teach, what to write or what to research."

Academics, who did not want to be named, confirmed there was freedom to conduct research of their choosing, and that they were allowed to be critical of the government. But they say that such freedom is tolerated only because they are outnumbered by pro-government lecturers.

Dr Maduko, who was arrested in November for leading an NCA demonstration, said: "There is a lot of anxiety at the university. Academics aren't doing very much. The administration is trying to divide us up into pro and anti-government (camps)."

The position of lecturers critical of the state, he added, was tenuous. "While we receive great support from most students, some lay petty complaints against us. Our work is closely monitored to ascertain what we are doing and to see if we are spending too much time on outside activities. We don't even bother to put in for promotion."

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