The University of Zimbabwe has suspended three leaders of the local Association of University Teachers, banning the lecturers from campus in a clampdown on dissent over salaries by strike-threatening academics.
A fourth lecturer at the university, union president Barnabas Chitindu, is expected to be suspended over the strike threat.
Lecturers at the University of Zimbabwe and five other institutions have been taking industrial action short of strikes since the beginning of September. They have refused to complete marking or to process exam results, demanding action over their poor pay and working conditions.
As a result of the action, the University of Zimbabwe did not reopen in September and many students failed to graduate.
The suspended lecturers are secretary-general James Mahlaule of the language and mass communications department and committee members Absolom Murondoti of the clinical veterinary department and Noma Doweni of biochemistry.
Mr Mahlaule told The THES that he and his colleagues had been called to the office of vice-chancellor Levy Nyagura and handed letters saying they had been suspended from their posts without pay, with immediate effect and indefinitely.
He said: “While we were there, university security officers arrived. We were escorted to our offices and ordered to surrender the keys and leave campus.”
The suspension letters allege that the three incited lecturers to strike, and that they did not report to work. The three leaders are legally contesting the allegations.
The lecturers are to appear before a disciplinary committee in the coming weeks. But Mr Mahlaule does not hold out much hope of reinstatement. “I used to be chair of the disciplinary committee, but the vice-chancellor has the right to overrule it - and did while I was chair.”
He said steps that the AUT had been taking towards declaring a strike were legal. A strike that began in late 2002 brought the university to a halt until March, when the government agreed to a 30 per cent retention allowance to stem the exodus of academics.
Despite the increases, salaries became impossible to live on in a collapsing economy with 400 per cent inflation. Entry-level pay is about Z$755,360 (£575) a year, while senior lecturers earn Z$819,200 a year.
“We agreed that we would go back to classes, and the university agreed to conduct a salary review,” Mr Mahlaule said. “But nothing happened.”
In July, the AUT approached acting higher education minister Ignatius Chombo with a paper on salaries and working conditions. It was agreed he would respond in the first week of August, but he failed to do so.
The AUT told the ministry of labour it intended to call industrial action, but the strike was declared illegal on grounds that not all examination results were in or work schedules completed.
The lecturers were ordered to continue working and to apply for conciliation. They were suspended shortly afterwards.
The university was approached for comment but no response had been received by the time The THES went to press.