I will face the gun to fight for academic freedom

June 6, 2003

Zimbabwean students are dying fighting a tyrant but the Association of Commonwealth Universities prefers not to notice, says Tapera Kapuya

This has been a critical week for Zimbabwe as the opposition mobilises against the government of Robert Mugabe. For the past four years, academic and student activists have been targeted in a brutal campaign against the opposition. Higher education institutions in the country, the University of Zimbabwe in particular, have lost their status as academic institutions able to offer a haven for constructive criticism of government excesses.

Thugs from the ruling Zanu PF "Green Bomber" militia run university security. Students are harassed and beaten with apparent impunity. Members of the secret police watch dissident lecturers and students, and armed riot police are ready to pounce at any show of discontent by members of the academic community. As Brian Raftopoulos, a professor at the university's Institute of Development Studies and chair of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Committee, said in his Canon Collins Memorial Lecture in London last week, its academics are polarised between adjuncts to the Zanu PF propaganda machine and critics of the regime.

In the past two years, police or army personnel have killed two students.

No one has been brought to book despite an inquest verdict that police had murdered one of the students. There have been numerous abductions and disappearances, with students being taken to torture camps. While at the University of Zimbabwe, I was abducted in the night and made to stand in a bucket of water for a day. When I was finally taken out, live electric wires were placed on my toes. In a later incident, I was detained during a student protest, beaten with fists and sticks, and kicked as teargas canisters were detonated where I lay. Pleas for medical attention were laughed aside, despite a deep cut on my head. I later received nine stitches.

With 20 other activists, I was expelled from the university in 2001 for protesting against government policy on higher education and the continued mismanagement of the country. With the help of the Network for Education and Academic Rights, we challenged our expulsions in the High Court, but the university insisted that only its internal disciplinary committee could decide.

The European Union, the US and the Commonwealth have all invoked sanctions over alleged vote-rigging by Zanu PF in last year's presidential elections.

But, when the Association of Commonwealth Universities meets in Belfast in September for its five-yearly conference, it is likely that representatives of the senior management of Zimbabwe's universities will be there. Given Zimbabwean higher education institutions' record of siding with government repression, it is unacceptable to hide behind the notion that academic institutions are not representative of their regimes. With Mr Mugabe as the chancellor of all its universities, there is heavy government interference, and state machinery is ready to clamp down on the opposition. Given the wider Commonwealth's proper concern with good governance, the ACU should demand measures to guarantee academic freedoms - freedom of thought, conscience, speech, expression and association. All members of the university community should have the right to fulfil their functions without discrimination and without fear of interference or repression from the state or any other source. As it stands, the universities are an extension of the state's repressive apparatus.

As the government continues to destroy our once-vibrant education system, children of top officials receive better education in neighbouring countries and abroad, costing the country much-needed foreign currency that could go to our deprived hospitals or for fuel. Raising these issues in Zimbabwe's universities can earn expulsion and, at worst, put your life at risk.

With friends' help, I am continuing my studies in South Africa with the hope that one day I will go back and contribute to my country's development. Yet even in exile I am still not free from Zimbabwe's state machinery. Last month, I was visited in my campus room by suspected intelligence agents who warned me against my opposition activities.

Those who come from the townships and rural areas that Mr Mugabe's policies are designed to benefit have seen nothing but fascism disguised in socialist rhetoric. To us, Mr Mugabe has brought nothing but shame.

Millions are out of jobs, two-thirds of the nation is facing starvation and uncontrolled Aids threatens to wipe out a third of the population. This crisis, stemming largely from one man's obsession with power, compels you to speak out, even with the barrel of a gun trained on you.

Tapera Kapuya, former secretary-general of the University of Zimbabwe Students Union, is reading law at the University of Natal with the aim of specialising in human rights.

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